The narrow path along the side of my grandmother’s house was planted with tall acanthus plants which I remember disliking and avoiding as a child because of their sharp leaves and spiky flower stalks. The very name of this plant denotes this characteristic, the Greek ἄκανθος (akanthos) being formed from the words ἀκή “thorn” and ἄνθος “flower”. My grandmother no doubt planted them because they are hardy and do well in shady spots, but the Greeks loved these plants because of their handsome shape. They used their form in architecture, to decorate the Corinthian capitals, last of the three classical orders.
The art historian, Zahava Jacoby coined a term for the twelfth century sculptural works that are found mainly in Jerusalem and in particular on and around the Temple Mount. On these works the acanthus leaf stars as the principal motif, appearing on plaques as scrolls, on capitals, tombs, arch stones and abaci. The fleshy curled form that characterises the acanthus leaves and the frequent use of imported marble that gave them a shiny, fresh appearance, suggested to Jacoby the label that she applied to this style in her publications. She called it the Wet-Leaf Acanthus Style. The carving is particularly beautiful, often full of movement, an effect enhanced by the high relief that sometimes appearing almost detached from the background. The style was influenced by contemporary works from Provence, which may point to the origins of the artists, but there is an originality of form that is unique to Jerusalem.
Jacoby went further in singling out these works from among the many sculptural pieces from the crusader period found in the Holy Land. Noticing that most of the works in this style are located on the Temple Mount where they are reused in later buildings and mosque furnishings and in some of the fountains in the immediate vicinity, she suggested that they originated in the complex of Templar buildings that had occupied the entire southern end of the mount in the twelfth century. She assigned their creation to a workshop located on the Temple Mount which she referred to as the Temple Mount atelier.
The former Al-Aqsa Mosque, known in the twelfth century the Templum Salomonis, served under the Franks first as the royal palace, and later as the lodgings of the Templar order. The Templars built extensively around it, but most of what they constructed was subsequently dismantled when the city was occupied by Saladin in 1187. The sultan regarded the removal of these recent Templar buildings as an act of restoration and purification of the Haram al-Sharif (the Noble Sanctuary) and the Al-Aqsa Mosque, and he condemned what he regarded as Templar desecration, although he did not apparently hesitate in making use of their fine sculptural works. Fortunately, in contemporary pilgrimage accounts we have fairly detailed twelfth century descriptions of what the Templars had built. These included a large new palace, a church, cloisters, bathhouses, storage rooms and stables. But other than a part on the palace that has survived in the south east corner of the Temple Mount, and the subterranean stables (which in any case were occupying a pre-Frankish construction that they simply made use of), the removal of these buildings would have left us with little understanding of the quality of this Templar construction were it not for these surviving sculptures. They enable us, at least, to appreciate how remarkably elaborate the buildings would have been. The order clearly spared no expense in creating what must have been the most magnificent part of Jerusalem under Frankish rule.