On Evaluation and Appreciation
I don't know if there is any truth in the story, but I recall having once heard that following restoration work carried out in the Dome of the Rock in the early 1960s the ironwork screen or grille that had been placed around the rock in the twelfth century to prevent pilgrims from breaking pieces off as keepsakes was removed, and that a large part of it was subsequently sold as scrap iron. Whether or not there is any truth to this, the fact remains that the whereabouts of only a small portion of the screen is known, housed today in the Islamic Museum on the Temple Mount. If indeed that was the fate of this remarkable object, I suppose we should be grateful that at least a part of it has been preserved. It is quite possibly the work of a craftsman of Frankish Jerusalem and it is an example of medieval ironwork that has its roots in the West where similar screens existed in the cathedrals of France, Spain, England and elsewhere.
For the modern observer, the grille demonstrates what can be seen in much medieval craftsmanship - the ability of an artisan to create functional objects that possess a high degree of aesthetic appeal. One might fairly argue that such an ability exists in many ages, our own included. We live in an age of abundant ugliness, but one capable of producing exquisite beauty in entirely prosaic and utilitarian things. What is particularly impressive in this object is that the artisan has devised a work of great complexity and intricacy out of the repetition of a single form - the spiral. In creating the grille, the ironmonger (it seems a belittling title considering the quality of this work) has managed, through subtle repetition of this single motif and by variations in its size and placement, to achieve a contradiction - a multifarious uniformity. When it catches the light it has a marvellous vitality and seems, though entirely static, to be a mass of lively movement. It reminds me of some of the works of the twentieth century German sculptor, Günter Haese, not their delightfully whimsical quality, but something of their ethereality. It might be seen as a sort of oversized filigree and it has achieved a similar diaphanous quality, the more remarkable considering that it is constructed of heavy strips of wrought-iron rather than cobweb-fine bands of silver, copper or brass.
The visual impact of the screen would have been more remarkable still when it was intact and in its original location, and all the more so when ceremony and prayer were taking place in the twelfth century Templum Domini. We should keep this in mind when we reproduce in our minds the appearance of this place when it functioned as a major church with a prominent role, not only in regular Christian worship but in Holy Day processions and perhaps also in ceremonies such as coronations and royal burials. For, in its original use the screen was magnificently enhanced by illumination. Along the top there were spiked fleur-de-lys, intended to hold candles. We can assume that on ceremonial events these would have been made use of and the light of hundreds of flickering candles reflected off the metal would have produced an almost fireworks-like effect.
If the story of it being sold as scrap metal holds water, as well it may for the fact is that since the 1960s the whereabouts of only a small part of it is known, it is a sad case of a lack of appreciation for a unique item of cultural heritage. In England, a similar object that somehow survived the fate of much ecclesiastical property during the dissolution of the monasteries in the reign of Henry VIII, is the thirteenth century Chichester Grille (pictured below). It possibly once protected the tomb of St. Richard in the cathedral. Today it is housed in the Victoria and Albert Museum and on the museum web page it is justifiably recorded as being "unique and priceless".