Thursday, April 17, 2014

Rihla (Journey 43): The Cloisters, Manhattan, NY, USA – Crusaders and Free Frenchmen




Rihla (The Journey) – was the short title of a 14th Century (1355 CE) book written in Fez by the Islamic legal scholar Ibn Jazayy al-Kalbi of Granada who recorded and then transcribed the dictated travelogue of the Tangerian, Ibn Battuta. The book’s full title was A Gift to Those who Contemplate the Wonders of Cities and the Marvels of Travelling and somehow the title of Ibn Jazayy's book captures the ethos of many of the city and country journeys I have been lucky to take in past years.

This rihla is about The Cloisters, Upper Manhattan, New York, USA.


A 16th Century German glass panel depiction of Hell in
vitreous paint and silver stain in The Cloisters, Manhattan. 

God allowed himself to be tortured on the cross,
He will tell us on the day of reckoning:
“You who helped me carry my cross,
Go and find my angels!
You will see me there, and Mary my mother.
But you who denied me help,
You will all descend to the depths of Hell.”
Chanson de croisade 1239
Thibaud IV of Champagne (Le Chansonnier), King of Navarre,
Leader of Baron’s Crusade 1239-41


It is that time of year when Easter ceremonies around the world in the Christian faith remember the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, events that were to shape and continue to shape the history of the Levant and Near East, the Holy Land. I thought it apt therefore for this rihla, this journey, to recall an encounter with a 13th century crusading knight (or at least his effigy).

There have been times when travelling when I have had the pleasure of encountering a man-made edifice that is so out of context with my own expectation, so surprising in its actual existence, that all you can feel is a sense of wonderment. I think of the effervescent Palatine Chapel in the drab surrounding of the Norman Castle in Palermo, Sicily, the vicious medieval torture frescos of the churches of the Armenian New Julfa quarter in Isfahan, Iran or going way back in time the extraordinary 10,000 BCE temple complex on a brown-parched hill in Gobekli Tepe, in Turkey. Into this august company I add The Cloisters, a branch of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, situated at the very upper end of Manhattan in New York city. It took me entirely by surprise, and I love that sensation!

Location of The Cloisters at very south-west end of Manhattan


In 1935 following the acquisition and amalgamation of a number of estates in the Hudson and Washington Heights areas of Manhattan, John D. Rockefeller Jr. commissioned the architect Charles Collens to design, to source extra artefacts in Europe, to incorporate the extraordinary medieval architectural ‘surplus’ horde of George Grey Bernard (a horde brought from Europe that included effigies, altarpieces, near complete parts of abbey cloisters) and to amalgamate a Gothic and Romanesque medieval fragmentary past into a harmonious 20th century whole. 

Floor Plan of the Cloisters

The building work began in 1935 and the ‘new’ museum opened to the public on May 10, 1938, three years and nine centuries in the making. It contained in addition to Bernard’s collection, and Rockefeller’s own, choice pieces from the Metropolitan’s medieval collection.

Reconstructed Chapter House with differing column styles in The Cloisters

After the 40-minute ride from downtown Manhattan on the express subway to 190th street and the ride up an attended elevator to street level you enter Fort Tyron Park and skirt around the perimeter. Ahead of you on the highest point in Manhattan rises an ochre-coloured, sienna tiled, Occitan-towered, ramparted medieval abbey for all-the-world like a small abbey found high in the Pyrenees straddling the pilgrim’s route to Santiago de Compostela. The sense of a mountain retreat or remoteness is enhanced visually by the Palisade Cliffs to the west and in my imagination it reminded me so much of travels undertaken in the Cathar region of southern France.

The Cloisters garden. Gothic church to left.

Within The Cloisters museum building, in a small Gothic church on the lower level, next to the abbey garden with its Black Mustard planting, is a sarcophagus bearing the effigy of a crusader knight of France, Jean de Alluye. In typical fashion he is depicted praying, with exquisite detailing of his costume, armour and sword, legs resting on an lion footstool. I was immediately drawn to the effigy and as the information supplied was sparse have tried tracking down his story since.

Gothic Church and sarcophagus of Jean II d'Alluye
The Cloisters, Manhattan

Jean II d’Alluyes b.1180CE was the great-great-great-great-great grandson of Hughes I d’Alluyes, first Seigneur d’Alluyes in 978CE in the Barony of Touraine on land granted to the Bishop of Chartres by Charles the Great in 880CE. By 1239, when he joined the Baron’s Crusade to the Holy Land, Jean II d’Alluyes was Seigneur of Château-La-Vallière, Saint Christophe, Chenu et Noyant townlands to the east side of the road between Tours and Angers.

Jean d'Alluye's territory in Angers-Tours area of France

He was a Knight Banneret of Touraine (higher in rank than a Knight Bachelor) who could fight under his own square-shaped banner (rather than that of a liege lord) and had a complicated coat-of-arms drawn up in 1231 described as: 


“Papelonné d’azur, a trois fasces ondées argent, les 3 faces d’argent charges chacune de trois besants d’azur, surcharges chacun d’une fleur de lys d’or, les deux faces du bas charges enoutre de quatre losanges couchés accostant les besants.”


In July 1239 Jean II d’Alluyes joined 1000 other knights and nobles at Lyon to embark, in defiance of the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II (called by his contemporaries Stupor Munde, or wonder of the world; the multi-lingual grandson of the great Norman King of Sicily Roger II) and Pope Gregory IX, on the Baron’s Crusade to the Holy Land. This crusade had originally been called for by Gregory to be in situ in the Holy Land when the Sixth Crusade agreement of 1229 between Frederick and the Ayyubid Sultan al-Kamil was due to expire. The crusade was made possible by a massive taxation on France’s Jewish population.



On arrival in Syria in the Autumn of 1239 the Barons elected Thibaud IV of Champagne and King of Navarre as their leader at Acre. Thibaud was far better known as a song-writer (quoted above) than as a military strategist and the Barons’ crusade from a military perspective was wrecked by disunity and a disaster from the start. However with an element of luck and timing brought about by difficulties in the Ayyubid Empire Thibaud, and in particular his immediate replacement in September 1240, Richard of Cornwall were able to negotiate most of the southern lands lost to Saladin back into the control of the Crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem.


Richard returned back to Europe in 1241 and although it is stated that Jean II d’Alluyes was a crusader until 1244, there is a notation of Jean selling of a reliquary of the “True Cross”, to the Cistercian Abbey of La Bossière in 1241 for 533 livres tournois. In order to have been present to sell on the relic in 1241 Jean must have returned with either Thibaud or Richard.

There is something not quite right about the accepted story of Jean being given the relic of the “True Cross” as a 'present' by a Greek Bishop in Crete. Ever since the Empress Helena, mother of Constantine ‘discovered’ the “True Cross” in Jerusalem in 326CE (and founded the Church of the Holy Sepulchre at the site of the find) a veritable forest of fragments of the “True Cross” found their way in the Eastern Orthodox tradition into relics made in the form of a double Byzantine-type cross-pieced Patriarchal cross. These were highly valuable and treasured and why should Jean, a passing crusading tourist be given such a present by a Greek bishop in Crete, unless there was money involved or something more devious.

In any event as soon as Jean got home, he decided to cash-in on his 'luck' and sold the relic to the Cistercians. The presence of the relic of the ‘True Cross” in La Bossière soon became such a draw for pilgrims that the monks commissioned an income generating stand-alone Chapel to house it to the west of the Abbey. This became known as the Chapel of the Foreigners and almost certainly repaid their transaction with Jean a thousand-fold.

Jean was to die in 1248 (succeeded by his son Hughes VI) and was interred in the Abbey of Le Clarté-Dieu near Tours, which was partly destroyed in the 100 Years War. The sarcophagus lid with Jean’s effigy was used, turned upside-down, for many years as a footbridge before being rescued by a Paris dealer and sold to George Grey Barnard to begin its journey to The Cloisters.


Jean d'Alluye's sword


The very striking “Chinese” design of Jean’s effigy sword has prompted much speculation and interest ( most likely bought in a Seljuk inspired and Damascus or Konya-supplied shop) but for me it was the continued story of Jean II d’Alluye’s bartered relic of the “True Cross” that intriqued me more.

In 1356 the Count of Anjou removed Jean's relic, from the care of the Cistercians in La Bossière to the Castle of Angers for ‘safe-keeping’ where a knightly order was created with the cross as its loadstone. In 1420 Duke Rene of the House of Anjou inherited, through his wife Isabella, the Duchy of Lorraine and in commemoration of the fact he incorporated Jean II d’Alluye’s double cross relic into the Arms of Lorraine and subsequently the Cross of Lorraine became the symbol of that Duchy.



It is interesting to note a Lorraine coin of the 1500s showing on the reverse the patriarchal cross.



In 1940 Admiral Muselier (from Lorraine) of the Free French Navy suggested that the Cross of Lorraine on a Tricolour become the flag of all Free French Forces in World War II. By a proclamation of the 5 June 1941, signed by Charles deGaulle it was adopted.



By a best estimation Jean d’Alluye was more of a crusading tourist than belligerent, collecting and selling on Holy Land relics. In an ironic twist his actions were very similar to those of Bernard, the medieval architectural scavenger whose collection and earlier museum construction near the 190th st subway exit was to be the impetus for the development of The Cloisters. Bernard sold his relics, including that of Jean's tomb, and his great idea to Rockefeller and like the Cistercians of La Boissière building a chapel to house Jean's relic in 1246 John D. Rockefeller Jr. was to build his own 'Chapel of the Foreigners' in Manhattan for pilgrim tourists.



Although his bones are long lost the spirit of Jean d'Alluye, Crusader and Free Frenchman, lives on in the still silence of a Gothic Chapel in Manhattan.


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