On a Beautiful Surviver
Updated: Mar 26
Stripped of almost all forms of embellishment, the convent church of St Anne has been recompensed for its losses, particularly in the interior, by a quiet beauty that it could not originally have possessed. It is exquisitely unpretentious, clean, artless.
There is an irony here, for the pilgrim, John of Würzburg described the interior around 1160 as being decorated with a cycle of paintings illustrating the life of the Virgin, but the white stone walls are far more virginal today. It is like the actress, whose real beauty is revealed when, at the end of the play, she has removed the paint that was necessary to create an illusion.
The theatrical allusion is appropriate. A house of worship; temple, synagogue, particularly a Christian church; has much in common with the theatre. Liturgy in any religion is theatrical, and, to a degree, is an entertainment, a spectacle acted out on what is effectively a stage, with the audience participating in a secondary role under the guidance of the main cast of actors. At first feared and condemned by Christianity as a pagan vice, theatre became a vehicle for spreading the message, and the medieval Passion Plays are an example of how theatrics merged into the church liturgy.
At St Anne, this sense of theatre is enhanced by the sharp contrast between the external and internal. Inside is ascetic refinement, while outside is a jumble of form and meaning, ancient and medieval ruins, a clutter of myth, history, miracle, full of colour and complexity. Here is Bethesda, the Upper Pool, or Pool of the Sheep Market, where animals were perhaps watered and washed prior to slaughter in the Jewish temple. Here, according to the Gospel of John, Jesus healed the paralytic man. In the Byzantine period a basilica known as St Mary of the Probatic was built here. It designated the location not only of the healing miracle, but also the house of Joachim and Anne and the birthplace of their daughter, the Virgin Mary. The crypt of the church, originally a cave, is traditionally identified with the latter. The basilica was destroyed, probably during the persecutions of Christians by the Caliph al-Ḥākim early in the eleventh century. Under Seljuk rule in the second half of the eleventh century a Shâfi‘i school was established in its place, though there still appears to have been a church or chapel, as there are references to the existence of one before the Franks built the present church (c.1140). The latter is a simple but beautiful Romanesque triapsidal basilica with a plain but finely balanced facade, an inscribed transept and a dome. It formerly had a splendidly elaborate belfry that has not survived. Remnants of a second small medieval church known as the Moustier, stand on the wall above the pool and adjacent to the new basilica the Franks had constructed a Benedictine convent. Nothing of the latter survives, but seventeenth and eighteenth-century descriptions and drawings show that it had a cloister, a garden, cisterns, a dormitory of fourteen cells, workshops, storerooms, and night stairs. It was a small but affluent institution, its status enhanced by royal patronage, for it housed Arda, the renounced Armenian queen of Baldwin I and received into its fold Yvette, the younger daughter of Baldwin II, sister of Queen Melisende (who, incidently, may have been influential in the church's design).
After the fall of Frankish Jerusalem in 1187, Saladin converted St Anne into a law college for ‘Ulama (learned men), once again of the orthodox Muslim Shâfi‘i school. An inscription still located above the door records this conversion. It was the reason for the church’s survival and preservation. Although St Anne later fell into disrepair, it was restored in 1865 and given to France as a gesture of gratitude by the Turkish sultan to Napoleon III for his alliance with the Ottoman Empire during the Crimean War.
I entered the church recently and stood in the aisle as a small group of Christian tourists from an Asian country broke into melodious song, the remarkable acoustics filling the air with a richness of sound delightful to the ear. For all its moderations, entering this small haven today is a remarkable way to wind back the centuries, and perhaps along with the cloister of St Mary Latin and the dark, cavernlike descent into St Mary in Jehoshaphat, the closest one can come to experiencing medieval Jerusalem.