Johns Hopkins Magazine -- November 1999
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Hopkins professor Dan Weiss looked to art in his serpentine quest to figure out one of the great implausibilities of history.
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Divine Motives
By Dale Keiger
Photo by Stephen Spartana

Sometime in the vernal months of 1250, two men met in Egypt for what seems to have been a man-to-man chat. One was the emir of the Mamluks, Husam al-Din. The other was Louis IX, king of the Franks and leader of the Seventh Crusade. The conversation was, in one important sense, involuntary. Louis had come to the Holy Land with 25,000 men to retake Jerusalem from the infidels and convert any surviving non-Christian he could catch. Now he was a captive of the emir, held for ransom after the Mamluks decimated his Crusader army near Mansurah. He had suffered the death of his brother in combat, and was recovering from what his biographer Jean of Joinville described as "double tertian fever and a sore flux and the malady of the army in mouth and legs."

A written account of this conversation survives. The tone sounds informal, what one might expect from a chat between colleagues. The emir posed an incisive question to his counterpart: "How did Your Majesty ever conceive the idea, a man of your character and wisdom and good sense, of going on board ship and riding the back of this sea and coming to a land so full of Moslems and soldiers, thinking that you could conquer it and become its ruler?" Or as Husam al-Din might say today, What were you thinking?

For much of the last decade, that same question has occupied Daniel Weiss (MA '82, PhD '92). A Hopkins professor of art history, Weiss is chairman of his department and a much-lauded teacher. He, too, wanted to fathom the mind of Louis, in his view arguably one of the most important kings of medieval France. The Frankish monarch was by all accounts wise and just and capable, and he knew the history of the previous crusades--a dismal 150-year record of futility, loss, and enormous waste. All of his counselors, including Blanche of Castile, his formidable mother, advised against another invasion of the Holy Land. "Yet," says Weiss, "he committed his nation to an enterprise that was strategically insane."

What was Louis thinking? He left little in the way of a direct answer to that question. But he did leave two works that to Weiss's trained eye reveal a great deal about the king's mind. One is the Arsenal Old Testament, an illuminated abridgment of the Bible commissioned by Louis (or perhaps commissioned for him) after his release from captivity and his arrival in the crusader city of Acre, in present-day Israel. The other is the exquisite royal chapel in Paris, Sainte-Chapelle. Louis built it before the crusade as a site to house the Passion relics--the crown of thorns, fragments of the True Cross, and other relics of the crucifixion that he had obtained from the Venetians after his cousin, Baldwin II of Courtenay, had hocked them to bail himself out of financial straits. Weiss, the author of Art and Crusade in the Age of Saint Louis (Cambridge University Press, 1998), believes that these two works vividly portray the cosmology of Louis and his line of Capetian kings to an extent unappreciated until now.

These images, executed in stained glass in Sainte-Chapelle, portray the history of the Passion relics. Louis IX secured the relics and brought them to Paris, furthering his belief that Paris was the new Jerusalem and the French were the new Chosen People.
Photo courtesy of Caisse Nationale De Monuments Historiques Et Des Sites, Paris
When Weiss began examining the Arsenal manuscript, the scholarship on it amounted to a few pages in a single book. Many people had studied Sainte-Chapelle, but no one had linked it to the Arsenal Old Testament. Weiss's study of the chapel was the serendipitous outcome of his decision to attend a cello concert one night in Paris. This was not the first instance of chance governing his career. That he is an art historian at all owes less to planning than to his desire to cozy up to a certain young woman.

Weiss is 42 years old but seems younger, trim and informal and plain spoken. His career has sped along. Twenty years ago at George Washington University, he won the David Lloyd Kreeger Award for the best undergraduate art history thesis. After obtaining his Hopkins master's in art history, he veered into a business career, earning an MBA from Yale and spending four years in New York with Booz-Allen & Hamilton. He returned to Hopkins in 1989 for a doctorate, became a Mellon Scholar in 1992, and was hired the next year as an assistant professor; he made full professor just six years later. His first significant scholarly article won the Van Courtlandt Elliott Prize from the Medieval Academy of America in 1994. That same year he won a Hopkins Distinguished Faculty Award, and two years later he garnered the Hopkins Alumni Association Excellence in Teaching Award.

As an undergraduate at George Washington he had enrolled in a survey of art course because he had his eye on a woman named Sandra Jarva and she had signed up for the class. But the course's instructor, Jeffrey Anderson (still a professor at GWU), inspired him. The further Weiss got into the study of art, the more his interest deepened. And what of Sandra? He married her. Says Weiss, "Whereas she took one class, then went on with her life and became a lawyer, I stuck with art history, married the girl, and married the field."

Louis IX entered Weiss's life during a Hopkins graduate seminar on medieval manuscripts. One of the manuscripts was the Arsenal Old Testament, so named because it now resides in the Bibliothèque de l'Arsenal in Paris. It was made for Louis in the mid-13th century, and previous art historians had mostly ignored it. Hugo Buchthal accorded it only 14 pages in his Miniature Painting in the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem, and that was 14 more than anyone else had bothered to do. But the more Weiss looked at the Arsenal manuscript, the more his interest grew. "It was simply the power of these images drawn from the Old Testament," he says. "There was something different from the others I'd seen. I knew there was a story here."

No one knows how the Arsenal book survived its first few centuries. It was completed around 1254 in Acre, but there's no subsequent record until it shows up in the collection of a 15th-century French cleric and bibliophile named Louis Grolée. The Bibliothèque de l'Arsenal acquired it in 1786. It's not a whole Bible but a set of excerpts with frontispiece illustrations, a four-inch-thick volume of vellum pages that begins with Genesis and concludes with Ruth. Genesis is nearly complete, as are Job, Judges, and 1-4 Kings; Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy have been abridged to a few short chapters. A tenth of the manuscript is devoted to one chapter, 3 Kings, the story of Solomon.

The text, says Weiss, is "rather poorly written Old French," a sloppy translation of the Vulgate with numerous cross-outs, repeated words, and other scrivener's mistakes. But the manuscript is sumptuously illustrated, with 115 images presented in 20 frontispieces. There's no record of who painted them, or even if they're the work of one man, though their consistency convinces Weiss that they're at least the product of a single workshop under the direction of a master illuminator. They portray biblical scenes with distinctive wide-eyed figures all drawn with peculiar lines extending from the outer corners of their eyes, creating what art historians have called a "spectacle effect," as if the figures are wearing eyeglasses.

Weiss argues that illustrations in the Arsenal Old Testament, such as this one of King Solomon, linked Old Testament kings with the Capetian rulers of 13th-century France.
Photo courtesy of Bibliothèque Nationale
"There were Bibles all over Paris," Weiss observes. "Louis did not need another one. But this one was different." One of the first things that struck Weiss as unique about the pictures was the heterogeneity of their sources. He has traced many of the images' models to other Bibles in existence at the time, especially what are known as the Moralized Bibles, biblical picture books that typically contained 5,000 illustrations. Of the 115 scenes in the Arsenal Old Testament, 94 also appear in Moralized manuscripts. Many bear such strong resemblances that Weiss suspects Louis carried a Moralized Bible with him to Acre and gave it to the artist as a model. But the illuminator was not content to reproduce stock images. When previous medieval artists drew the Chaldeans driving away Job's camels, for example, the camels resembled what might charitably be called misshapen llamas. The Arsenal illuminator drew realistic camels. He took care to garb some of his figures in Moslem dress.

"He's looking out the window and drawing what he sees," Weiss says, noting that such concern was unusual among crusaders, whose interest in local culture rarely extended beyond women and Moslem artifacts worth stealing. Also notable was the extent to which the illuminator incorporated Byzantine imagery and technique. When Weiss first saw the actual Arsenal Old Testament in 1990, he recalls, "I was overwhelmed by how much it looked like a Byzantine manuscript." The artist had experimented with layers of different colors to mimic the Byzantine technique for rendering flesh tones. There were images lifted straight from Byzantine iconography. "You might call it strategic eclecticism," Weiss says. "Byzantine art in the 13th century was understood to be both of extraordinary quality and beauty."

Was this eclecticism merely the product of an artistic temperament that didn't want this Bible to look like all the others? Possibly, but Weiss doubts it. An illuminated manuscript of such richness was a major undertaking. As Weiss says, if you had to ask what it cost, you couldn't afford it. Plus, this job was not for just another rich patron. It was for Louis, the revered king of the Franks. It's hard to imagine the illuminator going off on an artistic whim. So why did he take such pains to incorporate local color and Byzantine imagery in this work?

Because, Weiss believes, the Arsenal Old Testament was executed with unique intent. He sees, in the images of the Arsenal manuscript, a monarch defining himself and his countrymen and the ill-fated Seventh Crusade.

Louis became king at age 12 and conducted his first military campaign when he was 15, but before the crusade he had not risen above a circle of dominant advisors that included his mother. Blanche had ably administered the kingdom as regent until her son attained his majority, and never intended to usurp him. But she relinquished authority with a measure of reluctance. As William Chester Jordan put it in Louis IX and the Challenge of the Crusade, "The habit of power was apparently a comfortable life-style." Weiss believes the crusade was a way for Louis to assert himself as a monarch at age 33.

But the expedition proved to be a disaster. The king's brother, Robert of Artois, was killed at Mansurah. Blanche died before Louis could return home. Only a few thousand troops made it to Acre; the rest were killed or quit and returned to Europe. Louis never recaptured Jerusalem, and William of Saint Pathus credited him with converting a mere 40 Saracens. In the aftermath of so much loss, who was Louis now?

For answers, Weiss says, look at the book. There is in the Arsenal manuscript a frontispiece for 1 Kings that portrays the passage of divine authority from Eli to Samuel to Saul. Samuel sits on a stool. Weiss closely examined the stool and realized it was a sella curulis, the coronation throne used by the Capetian kings of France, the monarchical line begun by Hugh Capet of which Louis was the ninth sovereign. In this picture, the king of Israel is not just anointed--he's anointed in the manner of a Capetian king. Similarly, in the 2 Kings frontispiece, Samuel crowns David, and the image incorporates specific elements of a Capetian coronation as spelled out by Louis in a written order from 1250. The implication, says Weiss, is profound: There is in these images no meaningful distinction between the Old Testament kings and the Capetian monarchs. And where once the Byzantines had been the most Christian people, now the Franks assumed that responsibility. To make that point, the crusaders appropriated Byzantine iconography and illumination techniques for their Bible. In the Capetian cosmology as portrayed by the Arsenal illustrations, the Holy Land of the Old Testament, Byzantium, and France were conflated, an unbroken line of God's chosen people. Louis was the modern-day David, the new Solomon, "the most Christian king."

In our age, we live in skepticism about images because we know better, says Weiss. "In the Middle Ages, they still believed in the power of images to reflect reality."
Photo courtesy of Bibliotèque Nationale
This new Chosen People, for all their self-proclaimed status, had failed miserably in their latest crusade. That, too, is reflected in the Arsenal pictures. Time and again, the illuminator depicts holy war, the duty to follow God's commands, and the burdensome consequences. Joshua, Gideon, Jephthah, and Samson wage their bloody campaigns. They triumph, but pay a heavy price. Weiss examined these images and saw a pictorial contemplation of the crusaders' desperate circumstances.

"I see this work as a work of consolation to Louis and his followers after one of the great military blunders of the 13th century," says Weiss. "[The pictures say,] 'As the chosen people, you have the responsibility to wage holy war, but the outcome is not in your hands.'" Victory or defeat, ultimately, does not matter to the true Christian. What matters is duty to God. The Arsenal Old Testament portrayed the rightness and pain of holy war. Its borrowed Byzantine imagery gave it status, and its eyewitness details, such as the Moslem costumes and realistic camels, gave it authenticity. In many ways, says Weiss, it was a newly created holy relic, the crusaders' testament.

If the Arsenal Old Testament is a contemplation of failure, Sainte-Chapelle is a testament to hope. The Arsenal manuscript reflects a sober Louis tempered by experience. It is an explanation, perhaps to himself, of why he risked and endured so much. Sainte-Chapelle evinces a younger monarch lit by the fires of divine mission. He holds the most important relics in Christendom, and now he's going to retake Jerusalem. Louis built the chapel before his crusade, dedicating it in 1248 as part of six weeks of ceremonies surrounding his departure for the Holy Land. As with the Arsenal Old Testament, the chapel's magnificent stained glass and other decorative motifs reflect the Capetians' belief in their status as heirs to the Old Testament and Byzantium, and Louis's place as the descendant of David and Solomon. But scholars had never seen a connection between the manuscript and the chapel.

Weiss hadn't either, until an evening in 1990. He was in Paris to study the Arsenal manuscript when he decided to amuse himself by attending a cello concert at SainteChapelle. He spent two hours listening to the music and staring at the chapel's tribune and baldachin, the raised dais and its canopy in the apse. Something about the design was maddeningly familiar. Scholars had always considered the structure no more than scaffolding erected to hold the reliquary for the Passion relics. But as Weiss stared at it, he thought, This looks an awful lot like the baldachin in the Arsenal Old Testament. He stared some more and said to himself, This is not just scaffolding. This is a representation of the throne of Solomon. Weiss saw what no one else had understood: Louis had modeled important aspects of Sainte-Chapelle on the great temple of Solomon in Jerusalem, what is now the Aqsa Mosque. The baldachin conformed not only to the architecture of the temple in Jerusalem, but to biblical descriptions of Solomon's throne, and to other medieval pictorial representations. It had to be deliberate. He says, "I remember going back to the hotel very excited and sitting on the balcony making notes about what I thought I'd just discovered."

Weiss now began to study Sainte-Chapelle in the light of the Arsenal manuscript, and he saw in the statuary and the stained glass similar underlying meaning. Much of the pictorial program, he decided, was about crusading. At eye level when one stands in the chapel are 44 enamel representations of martyrdom. They were not the usual static portraits of martyrs, but narrative scenes of people dying for their faith. As Weiss figured out the identities of 25 of the martyrs, a task complicated by the fact that many were depicted as beheaded, he realized that they were the same persons whose relics were held in and around Paris. These were the martyrs of Paris, and their veneration was inspiring to anyone about to embark on a crusade. Many a departing knight expected to join them. "Martyrdom was important to a crusader," says Weiss.

Do the statues of the Apostles in Sainte-Chapelle suggest that the chapel was consecrated by them, not by mortal men? Weiss believes so.
Photo courtesy of Caisse Nationale De Monuments Historiques Et Des Sites, Paris
Within the chapel are 12 monumental statues of the Apostles. Weiss noticed that each Apostle holds in his hand a disk that contains the ceremonial cross of consecration. In an ordinary Christian church, this cross was inscribed directly onto the church walls when the building was dedicated. By putting the crosses in the hands of the Apostles, Weiss believes, the builders of Sainte-Chapelle were saying that this chapel had been consecrated not by men but by the Apostles themselves.

When Weiss turned his attention to the 1,100 biblical episodes pictured on the magnificent 40-foot stained glass windows that form the clerestory, he found the same pattern as in the Arsenal illustrations. For example, the window that pertains to Numbers shows 20 leaders of Israel. All are dressed as Capetian kings, and many grasp scepters topped with fleurs-de-lis, the emblem of French sovereigns. There is a cycle of images recounting Louis's acquisition of the Passion relics. Louis and his brother carry the reliquary on a litter of poles, matching the biblical description in Exodus of how the Jews carried the Ark of the Covenant containing the Ten Commandments.

Weiss reads this pictorial program and sees SainteChapelle as the new temple of Solomon and he sees the reliquary containing the Passion relics as the new Ark of the Covenant. To his eye, everything portrays the virtue and Christian duty of holy war, and presents the narratives of the Bible, Byzantium, and Capetian France as one continuous history.

But did the people of the time get this message? Did they see what Weiss sees? He believes they did. Images held great power in the Middle Ages, he says: "Thirteenth-century France was largely an imageless, colorless world." There were no signs or billboards, no mass media, no artwork in one's home. "In our age, we live in such skepticism about images, because we know better. In the Middle Ages, they still believed in the power of images to reflect reality. Seeing an image of Moses crossing the desert, they knew that that event had taken place." Now imagine, he says, that Louis has brought you into the chapel. As you look up, there's no apparent support structure; the building has been designed to look as if the glass, the very light, is all that holds it up. All around are images of martyrdom, and pictures that say loyalty to the king and loyalty to the Church are the same. "And then," Weiss adds, "the king, the very builder of this magnificent house of God, comes over and says, 'Go with me to the Holy Land.'" What are you going to say, no?

"Sainte-Chapelle was built before the crusade took place," Weiss notes. "It is as much about the ideology of crusading--the Christian injunction to wage holy war--as it is about anything else. It was meant to justify and inspire the holy conquest. The Arsenal Old Testament was created after the failure of the crusade, and Louis's imprisonment and ransom. It validated the crusade regardless of the outcome, which was in God's hands."

Weiss has since seen one of his central ideas validated, or at least strongly bolstered. Stephen Murray of Columbia University has measured Sainte-Chapelle and found that the proportions match the Bible's account of the dimensions of Solomon's temple.

The most Christian king continues to fascinate Weiss. "Louis is one of the rare instances in history of someone who acted so recklessly because he had placed his entire faith in what he was doing. He believed that like David slaying Goliath, he had the support of the Lord. The art, I think, in significant ways affirmed [to him] the rightness of his decision. One of the things that interested me early on was the possibility of studying the art as a way of getting at one of the great implausibilities of history."

There is a further implausibility pertaining to Louis. On his return to France after four years in Acre, he ruled for 16 years, consolidating his kingdom and doing much to shape what eventually became a nation. He made peace with Henry III of England in 1258, ending years of bloodshed. He fostered the composition of the first great encyclopedia, Speculum majus. He reformed and greatly improved the administration of his kingdom. But then, despite his experiences of 20 years before, in 1270 he launched another crusade. This one cost him his life. He died in Tunis that same year, probably of dysentery. In 1297, Pope Boniface VIII canonized him.

Louis's impulse is hard to understand now. It was hard to understand in 1250. Weiss concludes Art and Crusade in the Age of Saint Louis with the account of Louis's conversation with Husam al-Din. The emir said to the king, perhaps with a sardonic smile, "When a man exposes himself and his property to such a risk, his testimony is not accepted in [our] court of law because such behavior suggests to us that he is mentally defective."

Louis is reported to have laughed.