Glimpses of the Past

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Fascinating wall paintings that provide glimpses into different periods in Jerusalem’s history were revealed after a pipe burst by the storerooms in the Saint Louis hospital near the Old City of Jerusalem. The paintings are the work of the hospital’s founder, baron Marie Paul Amédée de Piellat.

In the late nineteenth century, as the Ottoman Empire was declining, the European powers angled for control and religious hegemony of Jerusalem.

A variety of individuals became involved in this struggle for a variety of reasons, buying land, erecting churches, and founding charitable institutions such as hospitals, hostels, schools, and orphanages. They included baron Marie Paul Amédée de Piellat, a young French nobleman, intellectual, entrepreneur, and artist who was motivated by religious and patriotic zeal.

The first endeavor that he spearheaded was creating a new home for what is today the French Catholic Hospital of Saint Louis, opposite the walls of the Old City of Jerusalem. Recent work at the hospital, following a burst water pipe and efforts to reorganize its storerooms, led to the rediscovery of some of the wall paintings that de Piellat had adorned the hospital with but had been concealed beneath plaster and paint. The paintings shed light on the baron, nineteenth-century Jerusalem, and the Crusades.

In the wake of the discovery, conservators from the Israel Antiquities Authority came to the hospital to assist the nuns who run it perform first aid on some of the wall paintings by cleaning and stabilizing them. The paintings are in the style characteristic of monumental church decorations of the nineteenth century, with close attention to small details and motifs drawn from the world of medieval art.

The hospital is an impressive two-story structure built in the Renaissance and Baroque style. It is situated next to the Jerusalem city hall and IDF Square, outside the walls of the Old City and opposite the New Gate. It is named after Saint Louis IX, the king of France who led the Seventh Crusade in 1248-1254 CE, and opened to the public in 1896. Today, parts of the building are closed to visitors because it serves as a hospital and hospice for the chronically and terminally ill.

The Sisters of Saint Joseph of the Apparition operate the hospital. The members of this order treat the sick regardless of religion, age, or sex. Besides the sacred work performed there, the inside of the building contains a fascinating historical narrative and an artistic treasure.

The hospital was founded at the initiative of de Piellat, a devout Christian who had been born in Grenoble in 1852 and first visited the Land of Israel in 1874, when various French Catholic orders were beginning to become active there. The ancient landscape of the holy land and Jerusalem in particular had a profound impact on de Piellat and strengthened his Christian faith. He was shocked by the meager Catholic presence in Jerusalem and was concerned by the increasing power of the Greek Orthodox Church and its representative in Jerusalem: Russia. He decided to take steps to change this and began by spearheading the construction of a new hospital building, which replaced a small facility in the Christian Quarter of the Old City.

He subsequently initiated the establishment of another enormous and spectacular compound next to it, Notre Dame de France, a hostel designed to serve Christian pilgrims and provide for their needs, as well as a massive pilgrimage of French Catholics in 1882 that was a turning point in Catholic pilgrimage and opened the door to further mass pilgrimages from Europe by Catholics, something he was involved in promoting for the rest of his life. After the 1882 pilgrimage, de Piellat settled in Jerusalem and remained there except for World War I, when the Turks expelled French citizens.

“He was a very pious man, but also very aware and curious about everything related to technical innovations in his time, archaeological discoveries, and politics. His romantic streak attracted him to embark upon his first journey to the east when he was only 23,” Dr. Zvi Shilony writes in the Hebrew-language Cathedra journal (“The Activities of Comte de Piellat,” issue 72), adding that the young man’s first trip filled him with inspiration and provided him with his life mission.

De Piellat was not merely a descendant of the Crusaders, but also considered himself the last Crusader. He wished to continue the work of the Latin kings, knights, and nobles who were in Jerusalem some 900 years earlier. Therefore, he chose to locate the hospital in the historic area where the Crusader army led by Tancred had camped before it, together with Tancred’s allies, breached Jerusalem’s city walls in 1099 CE and vanquished the city.

De Piellat adorned the walls of the hospital and its ceiling with huge paintings portraying Crusader knights in their armor and wearing swords. Alongside these giant figures he painted the heraldry (symbols and signs) of the French knights’ families, wrote their names, and noted their genealogy. He also added the symbols of the Crusader cities, military orders, and monastic orders. The sight was spectacular; the enormous halls and endless rooms of the hospital were illuminated with the Crusader history of Jerusalem.

Despite his wealth, de Piellat lived modestly, dedicating his energy and resources to advancing French Catholic interests in the holy land, Shilony writes. The baron’s piety, honesty, and scrupulousness in all his dealings earned him the respect of Moslems and Christians alike; he became the person that almost every French Catholic organization that wanted to be active in the holy land turned to. He helped numerous orders acquire property and build hospitals for pilgrims as well as orphanages and schools for locals. De Piellat also bought and excavated the land on Mount Zion where the Church of Peter in Gallicantu sits.

De Piellat travelled extensively throughout Israel and took an interest in archaeology, demography, and restoration. Among other projects, he was involved in excavating and restoring the Church of the Resurrection in the village of Abu Ghosh, which Crusaders from the Hospitallers Order had built in the twelfth century and decorated with magnificent murals.

After the Crusaders were expelled from the country, the building deteriorated, especially since it had been built over a spring. The French government purchased it in the 1870s and a group of Benedictine monks began to restore it. Struck by the faded murals, the baron scaled the scaffolding in order to obtain the best view of them and painted watercolors of all that he saw. These paintings have helped scholars and conservators better understand the unique murals in the Abu Ghosh church.

When the Turks took possession of the Saint Louis hospital during World War I, they covered the baron’s breathtaking frescoes with black paint. After the war, the baron returned to the hospital and devoted the rest of his life to removing the black paint and re-exposing the frescoes. He passed away at the hospital in 1925.

Interest was renewed in de Piellat’s wall paintings when they were revealed once again in all their glory. Funds are being raised for the conservation, exposure, and documentation of these rare, historic works, however, there is no intention of turning the hospital into a tourist attraction so that the humble and quiet sacred work done there may continue.

Photograph: More paintings by de Piellat were discovered while reorganizing this room, which was being used as a storeroom. (Israel Antiquities Authority)

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