Stacey Kaliabakos ‘23
Chief Opinions Editor
On Thursday, January 26, 2023, the “Bringing the Holy Land Home: The Crusades, Chertsey Abbey, and the Reconstruction of a Medieval Masterpiece” exhibit opened at the Cantor Art Gallery in the Prior Performing Arts Center. “Bringing the Holy Land Home” provides insight into the impact of eastern Mediterranean artifacts on the culture of medieval England and western Europe. The focal point of the exhibit is the Chertsey Abbey tiles, which include a famous depiction of English King Richard the Lionheart and the Ayyubid Sultan Saladin in combat with one another. The tiles were excavated in the 19th century from Chertsey Abbey, which is located outside of London. The Chertsey tiles and many of the other works displayed in the Cantor Art Gallery bring to light the history of the Crusades and the influence of Muslim and Orthodox Christian traditions on various artistic mediums.
For those who are unfamiliar with the Crusades, I’ll provide a short explanation with information I learned from what I read within the exhibit itself. The Crusades were a series of military expeditions spearheaded by western European political and religious authorities. The primary goal of the Crusades was to gain control of Jerusalem, or the “Holy Land,” from the Muslims who controlled the area. The Crusades took place from the eleventh century and continued until the late thirteenth century. Scholars say that there were a total of eight Crusades on the Holy Land.
It is worth mentioning that the Crusades were quite violent military pursuits. This violence was directed against non-Latin Christians, including Muslims, Jews, and even Orthodox Christians. Nearly a millennium later, the Crusades remain a hot topic among scholars and those just interested in history who long to uncover the true motivations for this series of conflicts during the medieval period.
In conjunction with the opening of the exhibit, Holy Cross was fortunate enough to welcome Dr. William Purkis all the way from the University of Birmingham to discuss this very issue: in other words, what was the principal motivation for this movement? Was it a primarily religious or political conflict? Unsurprisingly, this was a difficult question to tackle. Dr. Purkis first discussed scholars, like Johnathan Riley-Smith, who completely rejected the notion that the Crusades were motivated by materialist intentions, instead contending that the crusaders’ actions were a consequence of piety alone.
However, Dr. Purkis reminded us that one must take into account the significance of relics and materials when talking about the Crusades. In medieval times, what is called “sacred presence” was extremely important. This has to do with experiencing elements of their faith in the physical world. Of course, it’s impossible to experience God in the same way one may experience something purely physical, so the significance of martyrdom and relics grew during the medieval period. The possibility to view, hold, or even possess a sacred relic that belonged to a martyr or holy person put the cognitive dissonance that came as a result of not being able to directly “see” God at ease.
In the eyes of medieval Latin Christians, the spread and authority of Islam in the Middle East posed a dire threat to the material aspect of Christianity, in that their disregard for the sacred relics kept in Constantinople and Jerusalem would put the safety of those relics in jeopardy. Dr. Purkis suggested that by saying that the relics would be in better hands, the Latins gave themselves license to try to conquer Constantinople and Jerusalem to relocate the relics from the East to the West. Therefore, materialism is a central aspect to the matrix of ideas concerning the Crusades.
I think that the choice to have this exhibition display is a great decision on the part of Holy Cross. It is an unfortunate fact that we live in an age of “cancel culture,” where people are able to tear down statues of people they hate or deem offensive, censor people on social media who have different views than they do, and choose to not talk about sensitive events that have occurred throughout history. Did bad things happen during the Crusades? Undoubtedly. As a Greek Orthodox Christian, it is honestly sad to hear that there were plots to take relics from Constantinople and to learn of the violence that took place in the East at the hands of Latin Christians from the West. However, it is important to have productive and open discourse with others about complex topics like the Crusades in order to learn more about human history and to understand others’ perspectives. We should be grateful that we can come together in such a beautiful place like the new Cantor Art Gallery to celebrate the art and relics that have traveled from around the world to Worcester, MA.
You can learn more about the exhibit at https://chertseytiles.holycross.edu/ and visit the Cantor Art Gallery to see “Bringing the Holy Land Home: The Crusades, Chertsey Abbey, and the Reconstruction of a Medieval Masterpiece” in person until April 6, 2023.
Photo courtesy of https://chertseytiles.holycross.edu/the-chertsey-tiles/ .
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