19th-century frescos uncovered in Jerusalem Catholic hospital

A broken pipe in this room at St. Louis French Hospital in Jerusalem revealed 19th-century frescoes depicting Crusader-inspired art. (CNS/Courtesy St. Louis French Hospital)

A broken pipe in this room at St. Louis French Hospital in Jerusalem led hospital administrators to discover 19th-century frescoes depicting Crusader era- inspired images. (CNS/Courtesy St. Louis French Hospital)

By Judith Sudilovsky

JERUSALEM — Riding on the wave of interest of all things Catholic prior to Pope Francis’ visit to the Holy Land, the Israel Antiquities Authority invited journalists to take a peek at a series of fascinating 19th-century frescos depicting the city’s Crusader history discovered at the St. Louis French Hospital.

The hospital is located next to the Notre Dame of Jerusalem Center where the pope will meet with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Normally the hospital does not allow journalists to walk around its halls in order to protect the privacy of patients.

The frescos were discovered in the course of reorganizing  a storeroom. In addition, a water pipe had burst in the building earlier, loosening the modern plaster and paint on a wall revealing 19th-century paintings.

“When we got everything out we saw this beauty-filled room. We are blessed to be in a place like this, so full of history. We have to maintain it for the people who come after us even if we don’t have money to fully restore it,” said hospital director Sister Monika Dullman as she showed a journalist around.

She noted that even though the narrow doorways of the hospital are sometimes unsuited for wheelchairs and hospital beds, it is unthinkable to widen them because it would mean destroying some of the paintings.

In the wake of the discovery, conservators with the Israeli Antiquities Authority assisted the sisters in cleaning and stabilizing some of the paintings. The conservators told the sisters the paintings are in the style characteristic of monumental church decorations of the 19th century, with close attention to small details and motifs from the world of medieval art.

The building itself is a two-story structure built in the Renaissance and Baroque style, and is named for St. Louis IX, king of France and leader of the seventh crusade (1248-1254). The hospital it houses was founded by French Count Comte Marie Paul Amedee de Piellat, a Catholic who visited Jerusalem many times in the second half of the 19th century.

De Piellat built the hospital between 1879 and 1896. He considered himself to be a descendant of the Crusaders. He chose to build the hospital at the historic area where the army of the Norman King Tancred camped before brutally breaching Jerusalem’s walls with his allies.

Also an artist, de Piellat decorated the walls and ceiling of the hospital with large paintings portraying Crusader knights in their armor and brandishing swords alongside the heraldry symbols of the French knights’ families. He added the symbols of the Crusader cities, symbols, military orders and monastic orders.

The count later went on to build the Notre Dame Center as a hostel for Christian pilgrims.

When the Turks took over the building during World War I, they covered the frescos with black paint. At the end of the war the count returned to the hospital and devoted the rest of his life to removing the black paint. He died in the hospital in 1925.

Hospital administrators said they have no intention of turning the facility into a tourist attraction, preferring that the “humble and quiet sacred work” of caring for the sick continue undisturbed.

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