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  • Writer's pictureAdrian J. Boas

On the Importance of Asking Questions

Icon fragment from Montfort Castle, Metropolitan Museum of Art expedition, 1926

I once knew a fellow; all of us know someone like him; who, whenever he was asked anything inevitably knew the answer, or believed he did, and always had something to correct about anything he was told. He was nicknamed by his acquaintances, no surprises here, "know-it-all". People like him rarely question anything, and as a consequence often, in reality, know very little, and rarely achieve anything in their lives other than antagonise those around them. Questions are the bricks with which the house of knowledge is built. They are the source of all human progress. Every human achievement, everything we know is based on something someone has asked in the past. If we are observant, even the most fragmentary evidence can be a vast source of information. We only need to ask the questions.

Just two and a half centimetres high and 24.7 long, this tiny piece of wood, cloth and tempera paint found in the rubble at Montfort Castle provides an endless source of questions: Who made it? Where and when was it made? Who was it made for? What was it doing here? Where did the wood, the linen, the pigments come from? How was it used? How was it damaged? How did it survive? Who are the figures that were portrayed on it? And these questions lead to a whole range of issues relating to technology, trade connections, acclimatisation of a population, liturgical practices, the function of a space, preservation of materials exposed to climatic and destructive conditions.

In short, this tiny object can be remarkably informative on a host of issues. There are questions we can answer or attempt to answer and there are those we can only contemplate on. For example, in spite of its extremely fragmentary condition we can, as the art historian Jaroslav Folda did, guess at its subject matter. Folda notes that "...the feet and footwear suggest this very likely was a small devotional icon of St John the Baptist at the left, with the archangel at the right, wearing the imperial red-purple buskins decorated with pearls."* Scientific analysis can identify the type of wood and cloth and hint at the sources of origin of those materials, but that tells us nothing about the artist. Was he a local artisan or was the icon painted outside of the crusader states? Many "crusader" icon painters employed, on the one hand, Byzantine iconography, and on the other, elements of French and English Romanesque. But this is a mere fragment, so in this case it is hard to tell. And even had it been whole the question would remain as to whether the artist might have been a Latin who had adopted eastern styles or an Eastern Christian who had adopted western styles, although, it seems to me the latter would be more likely. It would perhaps be easier for someone experienced in icon painting to adopt certain western stylistic features than for a western artist to take on a new art form. We can perhaps surmise, given where it was found, that the icon had been made in one of the ateliers of Acre where, it has been estimated, some 39 icons now located in the monastery of St Catherine in Sinai originated.** Stylistic analysis can provide an approximate date for its manufacture, and the context of the find location - in a castle built in the 1220's and destroyed in 1271 - gives a date range for its use.

But perhaps the most enticing question of all is, what it was doing here in the first place? Why was an item used in Orthodox liturgy to be found in a Catholic institution? Was it merely kept among the castle possessions as a valuable object, somehow obtained or purchased, or had it perhaps been, as Folda has proposed, actually used by the German brothers in their prayer, and therefore, much more illuminatingly, an example of the integration into Western Christian rites of an Eastern Christian liturgical practice?

* Jaroslav Folda, Crusader Art. The Art of the Crusades in the Holy Land, 1099-1291, Aldershot and Burlington, 2008, p. 88.

** Kurt Weitzmann, "Thirteenth Century Crusader Icons on Mount Sinai", Art Bulletin 45, 1963, pp. 179-203.

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