On Eclecticism and First Impressions
The building that made the greatest impression on me as a child was the war memorial known as the Shrine of Remembrance, colloquially referred to simply as the Shrine. It dominates Saint Kilda Road, a broad, leafy thoroughfare that leads from the south-eastern suburbs of Melbourne into the city. As a public structure it was intended to represent an emotionally charged event, commemorating the war that forged a nation out of a colony, and paying tribute to the fallen in that tragic war. It is vast, dominant, austere, but perhaps what makes it most memorable is its strange eclecticism. Its architectural inspiration lay in two major monuments: the Parthenon in Athens and the Tomb of Mausolus at Halicarnassus. The outcome of this combination was regarded by many at the time as bizarre and was the object of much derision. Opponents said that it was "too severe, stiff and heavy that there is no grace or beauty about it and that it was a tomb of gloom".* It certainly is neither graceful nor beautiful, though the fact that it is gloomy might be regarded as an advantage for a war memorial. But architectural controversy generally fades with time. People become used to buildings and their absurdities. Even the most despised buildings gain a sort of endearing quality when they survive long enough to become regarded as representing the place where they are located (think of the twin towers of the World Trade Centre in Manhattan, once derisively referred to as the boxes in which the skyscrapers were packed, but with their tragic demise appreciated anew as beloved lost symbols of a city, or the Eiffel Tower, regarded with horror by many Parisians as "useless and monstrous" and something even those uncouth Americans wouldn’t embrace" when it rose over the city in 1887-9).
It is not surprising that the most memorable church in the Latin East, perhaps indeed the most remarkable of all churches, should be that which the crusaders built to occupy the site that had motivated the First Crusade and that lay at the heart of Christian belief. The design of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre was based on European pilgrimage churches and its decoration was in the European Romanesque style, but it incorporated remnants of earlier Byzantine work and its structure and decoration included elements borrowed from or influenced by Muslim art. One of its chief features was what is perhaps the least conventional facade of any church anywhere. It is exceptional both for its overall design, of which there are few parallels, and for the extraordinary mixture of its decorative elements. The facade gives access to the church's southern transept, which because of topographical and other restraints was required to serve as the principal entry point of the church. As such it had to be both particularly splendid, and unique in its form and design. In its overall layout the facade consists of two horizontal registers; the ground floor level which houses two huge portals and the upper level with two large windows that together with their external decoration are of equal size to the doors, the two levels separated by a massive cornice. It bears some similarity in overall design to the facade of the pilgrim church of Santiago de Compostela in north-west Spain and it has been suggested that perhaps the Umayyad Golden Gate on the eastern wall of Jerusalem's Temple Mount served as a source of inspiration.
Much has been written about this facade. What I wish to remark briefly on here is the fantastic eclecticism of its separate decorative elements. It consists primarily of sculpture but included mosaics in the tympanum, now lost. Of the sculpture, also no longer in situ (removed in 1927 and today located in the Rockefeller Museum outside the city walls) are the two beautiful lintels carved in the Romanesque style; the western lintel in the French mode displaying scenes from the life of Jesus prior to the Crucifixion, including the Raising of Lazarus, the Entry into Jerusalem and the Last Supper; and the eastern lintel in the Italian style, displaying a vine-scroll containing human and mythological figures. This alone; this use of two starkly different lintels over a single church entrance; is exceptional in church facades. The odd thing is that it seems to work and does not appear at all incongruous. And this is true of the entire facade and all its sculpture. There are the eleven capitals around the doors, Byzantine in design, including the more standard acanthus leaf Corinthian type but also the less typical "windswept leaf" type. There is the Romanesque horizontal moulding that forms abaci over the capitals. One of the most noticed and noticeable features is the use of goudron hood moulding over the doors and windows. Popularly known for its form as "pillow" or "cushion arches" the goudron has often been regarded as of Islamic origin, but more recently as having an Armenian or north Syrian origin.** Around these arches and extending horizontally as an additional moulding is a rosette frieze of sixth-century Syrian design, now believed to be a twelfth century work and not, as was suggested in the past, reused spolia. Very prominent in the facade is the Roman style cornice between the two levels and the beautiful European hood moulding of the upper windows with its floral motifs.
The Holy Sepulchre facade is almost like an architect's model showcase or sampler, combining elements of pagan, classical style sculpture along with Early Christian, Byzantine, Armenian, Islamic and European Romanesque works. Its complexity and the seeming incongruity of its separate parts would be expected to form a visual cacophony, yet somehow it does not. Perhaps, like the Shrine it has become so familiar an image in our minds that the dissonance has vanished, like the deformity of a close acquaintance that at some point one ceases to notice.
** Nurith Kenaan-Kedar, "Decorative Architectural Sculpture in Jerusalem: The Eastern, Western and Armenian Sources of a Local Visual Culture", in Adrian J. Boas, ed. The Crusader World, London and New York, 2016, p. 611.