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Friday, July 22, 2016

A Pilgrim's Journey: Jerusalem

            Rejoice, and give praise together, O ye deserts of Jerusalem: for the Lord hath comforted his people: he hath redeemed Jerusalem.  The Lord hath prepared his holy arm in the sight of all the Gentiles: and all the ends of the earth shall see the salvation of our God.”

Isaiah 52, 9-10

Occasionally, the written word simply cannot convey what transpires inside us in moments of intense gravitas or emotion.  Not because they are inadequate or unworthy – but, rather because too often we are not entirely sure of what we are experiencing ourselves and, therefore, do not know what words to even use.  Such was the initial impression I had as I approached, at long last, the threshold of the Holy Sepulchre and tread – as so many had before me – upon the ground where a Godman had bled.  It’s a humbling experience – not knowing *what* to say in a particular moment.  So many had come to this place as I had, endured hardships and privations I could not even imagine, shifted entire populations, commanded armies, fought ferocious wars, changed history, permanently altered the entire fabric of humanity, all for this place … and, suddenly, there it was – wedged tightly between the incredibly old mud brick buildings, it’s original façade from the 12th Century showing the obvious signs of its incredibly turbulent past, as if to say to me, “Here I am, as I have always been – what else did you expect?”  I imagine if I am ever fortunate enough to meet the Godman who died and was buried here in Person, it will probably be a very similar sort of meeting.

The "pillow arches" above the entrance are a classic feature of the Norman style of Romanesque architecture brought by the crusaders to the Levant.
 It is impossible to escape the history that is locked within the Old City of Jerusalem – primarily because it is all around you everywhere you go within it.  A bizarre jumble of buildings and structures from over 2,000 years of human habitation almost mold into each other to create one massive super-structure in which the streets are more like a network of tunnels.  Compared to the sprawling and modern Israeli-dominated New City, the Old City is like a time capsule, encased within its walls built in the 16th Century by the Turkish sultan Suleiman, who some called “the Magnificent.”  The walls that would have been stormed by the Frankish crusaders have long since vanished – torn down completely in 1219 by the Ayyubid sultan, Al-Malik al-Mu’azzam ‘Isa, who feared that they would only benefit the Latins if they somehow managed to retake the city.

The Lion Gate of the Turkish walls - located just south and east of where the fighters of the First Crusade first stormed the city in 1099.
As it happened, the lack of walls ended up benefiting a far worse foe, the Kharezmian Tartars, who completely sacked the defenseless city in 1244 – evidence of which is still visible today in many of the holy sites from the Crusader era.  Scorched stonework, walls and vaults stripped bare of the artistic adornment they had once had, and sculpture hacked away at – the legacy of so many faithful who heeded a call to arms and faith and traveled to the edge of the world has suffered much in the centuries since they stopped coming.

However, it is not all lost.  The Church of the Holy Sepulchre is still one of the finest examples of Latin Crusader architecture left in the Old City.

Others possess it as well – in the Church of Mary’s Tomb at the base of the Mount of Olives (formerly the Church of Mary at Josephat), the Norman style barrel vault goes straight down into the earth in what allegedly was the tomb of the Virgin Mary.

Many noble crusaders were buried here, to include Queen Melisende of Jerusalem.  Sadly, nothing of their resting places remains, or, as with so many sites in Jerusalem, they have yet to be uncovered.  More personal reminders of the Crusades can be found too.  In the keeping of the Franciscan fathers who serve as official custodians of the Latin holy sites is the sword of Godfrey of Boullion, the heroic Defender of the Holy Sepulchre who would not wear a crown where God had worn a crown of thorns.  Tragically, I was not permitted to see this relic due to its recent move from the Latin Sacristy of the Holy Sepulchre to a museum that is currently under construction.

Within nearly every church from the Crusading era, one can find thousands of medieval Latin crosses etched into the walls and pillars left behind by pious pilgrims from Europe who had survived the trek to the Center of the World.  It is not too hard to imagine that a great deal of these were left by crusaders themselves, perhaps in memory of those they had lost in the hard and cruel fighting they endured over two centuries of ceaseless conflict for the city.

Seeking out other sites from the Crusading era brings one face-to-face with the stark realities of history, both long past and recent.  The al-Asqa Mosque that sits across from the much more famous Dome of the Rock, once served first as a palace for the newly established Frankish Kings of Jerusalem and later as the headquarters of the Knights Templar.  This site, along with the entire Temple Mount, was strictly off-limits to any non-Muslims, with IDF troopers stationed at all entrances warding others away.  The fears of an outbreak of violence, both ancient and modern, was so palpable in the Old City one could almost taste it.  While on the surface, the sight of Franciscan friars, Greek and Armenian Orthodox priests, Muslims praying maghrib along with the wailing speakers of the city’s many minarets, Jewish students sporting yarmulkes and payot, and very modern Israeli soldiers all casually strolling the same streets on a daily basis might cause one to think that the words of Isaiah had finally come true.  But the peace is an incredibly uneasy and tense peace – even in the short time I was there, a stand-off between Palestinian protesters and the IDF resulted in the death of 12 year old Palestinian boy just outside the Old City from where I was staying.  In keeping with the theme of the vast majority of its long and strife-filled history, conflict has yet to leave the Promised Land.

Such scars and ghosts are visible elsewhere as well.  I was fortunate enough to briefly visit Bethlehem and the Nativity Church there, located well within Palestinian territory in the West Bank.  In the church, originally built in the 4th Century AD by the saintly Empress Helena, one could see the progressive shrinkage of the doors over the following centuries in a desperate attempt to deter marauding non-believers from damaging the site where a God was born as a helpless infant one chilly night two millennia ago to bring peace to men of good will.

In this picture of the entrance to the Church of the Nativity, one can see three different doors from three different eras - the first at the top is the original entrance from St Helena's time, the second arched entrance is from the Crusader era, and the third and final from the 15th Century and only four feet tall - to discourage any ravaging horsemen from entering.
Many of the great castles and fortresses built by the men of the West during their attempt to bring peace to the land are virtually all gone – the ruins of a few can still be seen up north, Belvior, Montfort, and Chateau Pellerin.  As I flew out over the coast of Tel Aviv, I caught a fleeting glimpse of the ruins of the old coastal city of Jaffa, where Richard I bravely and brilliantly waded ashore to rescue the besieged citadel and once again embarrass the reputation of his nemesis, Salah ad-Din, during the Third Crusade.  In many ways, the deeds and works of the Crusaders in Outremer today are much like the buildings within the Old City – absorbed into a vast historical fabric that tells a tale unlike any other in the world.  It is a tale of angels and demons, prophets and martyrs, believers and infidels, of inspiring heroism and craven villainy, of awe-inspiring miracles and shocking brutality – it is a tale of all peoples and the God Who once walked among them.  That is what one can still find today in the Center of the World.  Montjoie - Deus vult.

Author’s Note:  My many thanks to all the fans and followers of RCH who have followed along with my pilgrimage.  It was a privilege to be able to share my meager findings and even less substantial musings with you all – you and your intentions were all remembered at the Tomb of Christ as promised.  I highly encourage all those who may be considering such a venture themselves to do so.  The Christian communities in the Holy Land, a few representatives of which I was privileged to meet with personally, are suffering much like they once did in the years before 1099.  Pilgrims are often the only source of income these communities have and the maintenance of many of the Holy Sites rely solely on donations left by the faithful.  If you have any questions or wish to seek any advice on how best to pursue such a trek, do not hesitate to contact me.  I will cease with my writings as make my way home through Normandy and England on my return travels, but will still post pictures or items of interest to our various social media outlets.  Thank you again and God bless.

Rand is the co-founder of Real Crusades History and Editor-in-Chief for the RCH Official Blog.  See the official website for contact information or reach out to him via the social media outlets for RCH.

Friday, July 15, 2016

A Pilgrim's Journey: Rome

“All roads lead to Rome …”

While no one really knows who first coined the statement, there has always been a collective awareness within all European civilizations since the days of the Roman Empire of the universality and omnipresence of the Eternal City.  It was no different in the days of the medieval pilgrim and their fighting equivalents, the crusaders.  Rome, as the seat of the Catholic pope – the Successor of St. Peter and the Vicar of Christ on Earth – was a place of gravest importance to the medieval pilgrim, topped only by Jerusalem herself.  As the former capitol of perhaps one of the greatest empires ever seen in the West, Rome also played a pivotal role in the spread of Christianity throughout the known world and – after its elevation to state religion under Constantine – became the seat of the first truly global institution in world history.  What the Empire had failed to accomplish, the Church in Rome would.  As the first principle city of Christianity (all others came after), relics and treasures of the faith would find their way there to be enshrined for the inspiration of generations of faithful.  In the medieval era, when the faith and its practice took on an intensely physical nature, these relics were of prime importance to the waves of pilgrims who would arrive there – as was the chance to receive a blessing from the Successor of St. Peter himself.
The thousands of crusaders who passed through Rome on their way to complete their vows in the Holy Land would have been no different – in fact, many deliberately sought out the blessings to be had in Rome to steel themselves for the long journey and hard fighting to come.  We know from the accounts of the First Crusade that thousands of fighters came in through Rome on their way to Bari on the south coast of Italy, to include Robert of Normandy and Stephen of Blois to rendezvous with their kinsman, Bohemond of Taranto.  Other greats of subsequent crusades would make a point of stopping in Rome – Philip Augustus during the Third Crusade would be among them as would St. Louis IX on multiple occasions.  Not much commemorates the visits of these pilgrims, great or small, but Rome was simply a way-stop (albeit, an important one) on the way towards a far more important destination for them.

The Via dei Normanni near San Clemente in Rome - allegedly near the route that Robert Guiscard and his Normans "peacefully" passed through the Eternal City in 1084.
One key exception are the vast amounts of important Christian relics that, without the Crusades, would never have made their way to Europe.  In the Church of Santa Croce in Gerusalemme, as the name implies, are housed many of the most important relics of Christ’s Passion and Death that originally came from the Levant.  Many of these actually came to Rome centuries prior to the Crusades and the medieval period – when the queen-mother of Emperor Constantine, St. Helena, led a royal expedition to the Levant to retrieve the physical remains of the most important event in Christian history.  Her efforts yielded fragments of the Cross, the nails, the “titulus Crucis” (the fragment of the sign Pontius Pilate had fixed to the Cross), the beam of St. Dysmas’ (the “good thief”) cross, and many others.  Most of these relics she brought back to Rome, installing them in a church built on loads of soil from Jerusalem that would later become the Santa Croce found in Rome today.

Sadly, this is as far as I was permitted to continue taking pictures - no photography is permitted in the relic chapel.
However, some found here did come to Rome by way of the Crusades along with a few others.  In a small gold reliquary now behind glass in the relatively modern relic chapel in Santa Croce are two thorns from the Crown of Thorns.  The entire crown was once enshrined in Constantinople, but after the problematic seizure of the city by crusaders in 1204 and the establishment of the “Latin” Empire in the East, this relic came to France, where it ended up in Notre Dame in Paris.  That great crusader king, St. Louis IX, had an intense personal devotion to the relic and sent these two thorns to Rome as a gesture of his piety.

Other relics of Christ’s life that came to Rome by way of crusaders returning from the East are the Manger of Bethlehem (housed today in Santa Maria Maggiore) and the famous Shroud (usually kept in the city of Turin, but is often brought to Rome for special occasions).

The Manger in Santa Maria Maggiore
The numbers of other relics brought out of the East into Christendom by the Crusades would probably be too many to list here and, while the authenticity of many Christian relics from the medieval period are still subjects of intense historical and archeological controversy, most of the principal relics have endured considerable scientific research and investigative scrutiny in recent decades and been found to be surprisingly genuine.

            Of course, Rome would not have achieved the status it did within Christianity had it not also served as the earthly residence of the popes themselves (except for a brief and troublesome hiatus in Avignon, France).  The tombs of popes, both the great and the relatively unknown, litter the Eternal City in nearly every corner.  Many are sadly unmarked, especially those of the popes from the earliest days of the Church (with the notable exception of St. Peter himself).  Even more were tragically lost in the various renovation and construction projects during the Renaissance – several tombs of early and medieval popes that once were beneath the old Constantinian basilica of St. Peter’s were destroyed and their remains consolidated under other tombs during the construction of the current basilica in the 16th Century.  Perhaps the most painful for Crusades enthusiasts is the knowledge that among them were those of Blessed Pope Urban II, architect of the Crusading phenomenon, whose remains were allegedly reinterred within the vicinity of the extant tomb of Adrian I.  As disappointing as that seems, one can rest assured that he is still remembered in the eternal manner that truly counts and that is more valuable than any earthly memorial.

Pope Innocent III's tomb in the Lateran Basilica - right across from that of Leo XIII (1878-1903) who had this tomb commissioned.
One papal tomb that is still very much with us and certainly pays homage to the Crusades is that of Innocent III in the Lateran Basilica.  Reigning at a time when many regard the temporal power of the Papacy to have been at its height, Pope Innocent was perhaps one of the most active crusading popes in Church history – spending his entire tenure (1198-1216) calling for multiple crusades to the Holy Land, Spain, and (for the first time) against heretics within Europe.  Many of his crusades were sadly remembered for their problematic outcomes – especially the Fourth Crusade that ended in the unfortunate sacking of Constantinople and the Albigensian Crusade against the Cathars in Southern France.  However, it is hard to accuse Innocent of having ignoble intentions – perhaps just a lack of foresight and possibly pure bad luck.  In either case, his tomb (commissioned by Pope Leo XIII at the turn of the 20th Century after the original fell into disrepair) pays a touching tribute to his devotion to the ideal of crusading – beneath his tomb, in silent vigilance, stands a knight bearing the Cross.  Sometimes, it’s the small things that make for the most touching reminders of the humanity – great and small, evil and virtuous – that lies at the heart of this grand and often overwhelming thing called history.

Stay tuned for my next stop – the Center of the World itself.  Deus vult!

Sunday, July 10, 2016

A Pilgrim's Journey: Tuscany

Even before 1095, pilgrimages to Jerusalem and holy sites in Europe were central phenomena to medieval Christianity.  Springing from the intense physicality of medieval religious practice (from whence the cult of relics also arose), a pilgrimage to Jerusalem was the considered one the ultimate expressions of one’s faith – especially since such an undertaking in that time was incredibly costly and dangerous.  The possibility of martyrdom along the route was ever-present, especially in lands controlled by Muslim powers, and the rigors of the journey were often viewed as a means of extreme penance for past sins.  However, until 1095, only a select few even possessed the means and ability to undergo such a trek and the few who had (and who had returned) were well known all across Christendom – like Duke Robert “the Frisian,” father of First Crusade leader Robert of Flanders and even Robert of Normandy, father of William the Conqueror.  With the birth of the Crusades in 1095, the idea of a mass “fighting pilgrimage” came into being that enabled the participation of every class and social rank in Europe.

However, the various crusades often followed those same routes used by individual pilgrims long before.  One of the most principal can be found running down from Northern Italy and through the hills of Tuscany on its way to Rome, called the Via Francigena (literally, the “road from France”). 

Although no exact date of origin is known, various surviving pilgrim itineraries suggest that the road had been in use from a very early date – like the incredibly detailed account of Sigeric the Serious, who traveled along the route to receive his pallium as the newly appointed Archbishop of Canterbury from Rome in the late 10th Century.  The Via Francigena witnessed an explosion of traffic during the crusading period and relics of the crusades can be found scattered all over the Tuscan countryside if one looks hard enough.
            Within the great city of Florence herself, there is not much to be found of the Crusades on the surface.  Florence during the crusades was initially not much of a major settlement and it wouldn’t be until the mid-13th Century when that city would experience the cultural and artistic flowering that would culminate into the Italian Renaissance of the 14th and 15th Centuries.  However, many scholars have rightly linked many of the great advances in art and architecture seen in Italy to the cultural exchanges with the East afforded by the Crusades.  The relics of Classical culture preserved by the Byzantine Empire witnessed by the crusaders and the merchantmen that followed them were perhaps the primary influence on the Italian masters of the early Renaissance.  Much of this Eastern influence can readily be seen in the great churches and art galleries of Florence.

Ceiling mosaic inside the Baptistery of Santa Maria della Fiore ("Il Duomo") exhibiting heavy Byzantine influences.
Detail from the Baptistery ceiling portraying two angels wearing distinct Eastern Roman military garb.

In between Florence and Siena lies the small walled town of San Gimignano.  Dating from sometime in the early 11th Century, the settlement constituted one of the major stops along the pilgrims’ road through Tuscany.  During the Crusades, it also played host to a considerable presence of the Knights Templar.  Founded by returning veterans of the First Crusade, several commanderies and chapels sprang up all over the area, to include the church of San Jacopo and a small commandery within the town itself.  Today, all that remains of the Templar commandery within San Gimignano is the façade featuring a Templar cross and other carvings that suggest 12th Century origins at the latest.

Other than the façade, the rest of the structure was either demolished or repurposed during the early modern era.  It is now the site of a wine and cheese shop.  The owners knew almost nothing about the history of the structure surprisingly.
The Templars also maintained a much larger headquarters at the Castello della Maggione in the nearby town of Poggibonsi, now the headquarters of an international lay Catholic apostolate, the Militia Templi, who seek to pay homage to the spirit of the original Templar Order.  In 1312 after the papal dissolution of the Templars, most of these facilities were transferred over to the Knights Hospitaller and that Order maintained a considerable presence in the region even into the modern era.  Tombs of brother-knights and prominent benefactors of the Hospitallers can be found all over Tuscany, to include in Florence herself.

Tomb of a "Nicholai Bindi" (d. 1333) in the crypt of the Duomo - the shield may indicate membership in the Hospitallers.  However, I couldn't find any sources to confirm this.

Hospitaller (Knights of Malta) church in Florence built in the 1600s.  Quite fitting, this church is now the chapel for the nearby Italian Army hospital.
Further south towards Siena is the imposing fortress of Monteriggioni.  Although records suggest the presence of fortifications on the site well beforehand, the current structure dates from the late 13th Century and served as a border fortress for Siena against their aggressively expanding Florentine neighbors.  Sitting atop its hill, the fortress was unique in its circular design and unusually tall towers.

Apparently, it made such an impression when it was built that Dante even mentioned it in his Inferno, comparing its towers to the giants guarding the edge of the Abyss in Hell:

“As with circling round
Of turrets, Monteriggioni crowns his walls;
E’en thus the shore, encompassing the abyss,
Was turreted with giants, half their length …”

(Dante Alighieri, Inferno, Canto XXXI, 40-45, trans. Henry Francis Cary)

 Although the fortress had very little to do with the Crusades, it is a great example of the sort of fortifications that existed along the famous pilgrimage routes of Italy and the Mediterranean that crusading pilgrims would most definitely have encountered.  Sadly, the inside is wholly devoted to the modern tourist industry, filled with shops peddling kitschy souvenirs to people whose only knowledge of medieval Italy comes from Dan Brown and the Assassin’s Creed series.

As with all pilgrims passing through, I am on to the Eternal City next.  Stay tuned and Deus vult.

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

A Pilgrim's Journey: Clermont-Ferrand, France

On what was probably a crisp November morning in 1095AD, the sizeable Medieval town of Clermont played the stage for an event that would give birth to a phenomenon in European medieval history that would continue for at least the next two centuries and leave an indelible mark on the development of Western civilization forever after.  The incident in question came at the close of what otherwise had been a relatively unimportant Church council that had convened in Clermont by order of the Pope, Urban II.  The last decades of the 11th Century had seen several such councils, mostly dealing with the doctrinal and administrative affairs arising from the Church’s recent victory over the Holy Roman emperors in the Investiture Crisis and the Cluniac Reforms.  Pope Urban himself was very much a product of these movements – his mentor had been Hildebrand himself, known to history as St Pope Gregory VII who strove with Emperor Henry IV of Germany his entire papacy to elevate Church affairs above the authority of secular powers.  Before he was elevated to the Papacy (when he was still known by his birthname, Odo of Chatillon), he had been intimately connected to the Cluniac revival streaming out of Southern and Central France, even serving as the prior for the abbey at Cluny for a time.  Although he briefly had to deal with an anti-pope, Clement, installed by the ever-troublesome Henry IV early on in his papacy, Urban was soon able to turn his attentions to affairs taking place in Christendom beyond Europe.  The Byzantine Empire, still reeling from its disastrous defeat at Manzikert in 1071, had begun to send out diplomatic feelers towards Rome at the direction of Emperor Alexios Komnenos.  While there were still considerable doctrinal and cultural issues between the Western and Eastern Churches of the time, it seemed the immediate threat of the Seljuk Turks might produce some sort of reconciliation between the two.  Urban enthusiastically embraced the possibility and, at the Council of Piacenza earlier in 1095, had given promises of aid to the Byzantine ambassadors in attendance.

            However, Urban’s vision went far beyond merely helping the Byzantines recover their recent losses – he ultimately envisioned the liberation of the birthplace of Christianity lost nearly four centuries prior to Islam at the hands of knights from the West.  While the idea was certainly a radical one for the time, it was not wholly new – Urban’s saintly predecessor Gregory had issued spiritual indulgences for knights fighting the Moors in Spain and had also wished to send warriors eastward to win back Jerusalem.  It was also novel in that it provided the knightly class of the West – a class often excluded from spiritual salvation in the rather anti-martial Cluniac vision – with a fitting and even noble role in the Kingdom of God.  With the Investiture Crisis in the past and the German Emperor relatively tamed, Urban probably felt that this was the time to make this dream a reality.  At the closing of the Council in Clermont, great throngs had gathered to seek the papal blessing – laymen of all walks of life and station were there among the clerics and other religious in a large field according to some sources.  There, Pope Urban preached to them all what would become the First Crusade.  Although Urban’s words were recorded by many different chroniclers from the time, the version of his address in Fulcher of Chartres (who is widely believed to have been personally present unlike the others):

"They have occupied more and more of the lands of those Christians, and have overcome them in seven battles. They have killed and captured many, and have destroyed the churches and devastated the empire. If you permit them to continue thus for awhile with impurity, the faithful of God will be much more widely attacked by them. On this account I, or rather the Lord, beseech you as Christ's heralds to publish this everywhere and to persuade all people of whatever rank, foot-soldiers and knights, poor and rich, to carry aid promptly to those Christians and to destroy that vile race from the lands of our friends. I say this to those who are present, it meant also for those who are absent. Moreover, Christ commands it."

With these fiery words to all of the West – noblemen and commoners, knights and monks, clerics and laymen – the Crusading phenomenon came into being amid shouts of “God wills it!” from the crowd.  The rest is, as they say, history.

            The actual city that hosted this pivotal event in history is certainly fitting in many ways.  Clermont-Ferrand is located in the Auvergne Region of South-Central France – a region dominated by what the French call the Massif Central, a large chain of low-lying mountains similar to the American Appalachians.  Clermont itself is nestled among dormant volcanic peaks that surround its skyline.
One of the many impressive dormant volcanos around Clermont - these would have most certainly served as a fitting back drop for Pope Urban's speech in 1095.
The volcanic nature of its environs is omnipresent – dark, igneous stone can be seen in all its architecture and hot springs have been used for thermal baths since Antiquity.  Clermont sits atop a rich and far-reaching historical legacy as well.  Roman sources place the Gallic settlement of Nemossos on the site, considered by many to be the ancient capital of the Arverni tribe that gave Julius Caesar so much grief during his famed conquest of Gaul in the last century before Christ.  The last Arverni chieftain, Vercingetorix, is something of a local hero and his visage can be found in multiple locations throughout the city today.
Alleged homegrown hero Vercingetorix as remembered by 19th Century Romanticism on the Place de Jaude.  Interestingly, this statue was made by Frédéric Bartholdi who is far more famous for crafting the Statue of Liberty.
After the Roman conquest, a new city was founded and named Augustonamentum after the reigning emperor at the time, Octavian Augustus.  The name Clermont didn’t appear until the 9th Century, named for a Carolingian fort called Clarus Mons.  The Church was very active within Clermont and served as a focal point for many saints and bishops of the early Church in France – the council of 1095 was actually the second Church council to be held there, the first being in the 6th Century.
Remnants of walls and foundations originally laid down sometime around the fall of the Western Roman Empire.
The oldest church in the city still present is the Notre Dame du Port, located on the edge of the old city center near what many believe to have been a gate (hence the “du Port”).  Built in the heavy Romanesque style popular in regions heavily affected by the constant warfare and Viking incursions of the 7th-9th Centuries, the church has a distinct fortress look to it.
Inside, the Spartan look is enhanced even more by the unadorned and whitewashed walls.  Sadly, this highlights another rather tragic feature of not only this church, but many within France today – the vandalism and damage suffered during more modern upheavals.  Many of the artwork both inside and out was heavily defaced primarily in the aftermath of the ferociously anti-Catholic French Revolution.
This damage is especially obvious in the defaced 10th-11th Century sculptures that sit above this church’s main doors.
However, some art did survive and the capitals of the pillars are all original to the structure, sporting intricate carvings depicting various scenes from Scripture and local mythology.
One of the surviving pillar capitals depicting warriors kitted out very much in the style of the 11th-12th Centuries.  Note the pointed conical helms, kite shields, and the mail coif covering the face of the figure to left. (Apologies for the image quality!)
Below, the crypt gives one a glimpse of the earliest architecture that can be seen, with a crude vault possibly dating as far back as the 6th Century.  Enshrined within is a small statue of the Virgin and Child that has been associated with the local Christian community since the 12th Century.  Although there are no survivng references to the Crusades, this was most likely the principle religious building at the time of Urban’s council in 1095.
Virgin's crypt and possibly the oldest portion of Notre Dame du Port.
Notre Dame du Port was soon eclipsed, however, by the impressive Notre Dame de l’Assomption Cathedral.  Straddling the main hill and covering the site of the old Roman forum, the Cathedral was begun around 1248 and, like many grand medieval cathedrals, was slowly added to over the next several centuries.  Built in the characteristic High Gothic style, its massive stained glass windows, delicate stonework, and soaring buttresses stand in marked contrast to its elder sister church’s thick walls and heavy pillars.  Another unique feature is the solid black color of the entire structure, as it was built almost entirely with the dark volcanic stone characteristic of the local area.

Again, the evidence of vandalism is strong here too – entire stained glass windows are missing and replaced with plain glass and much of the original medieval artwork inside is scrubbed away.  Thankfully, there are still a few specimens that can be seen, to include one that appears to show a crusader in mounted combat and a 14th Century depiction of the martyrdom of St. Sebastian that possibly portrays a bow modeled after the English longbows that were causing so much grief in France at the time.  Again, sadly, there are no references to Pope Urban or the Crusades within or without. 


Longbow?  Perhaps ...

In fact, there seems to be very little today of the Crusades in the city that witnessed the birth of the crusading phenomenon as a whole.  The only ones I could find were small medallions in the street depicting Pope Urban alongside others depicting other local greats, Vercigetorix and Blaise Pascal, and a school named for Godfrey of Boullion.
A lonely and little noticed memorial to a great man and an even greater event.
Perhaps the Crusades were never a major focus of remembrance here or, like so many other places in the modern West, the memory of its involvement in the Crusading era was deemed too problematic for preservation.  Either way, visiting Clermont – while certainly a worthwhile experience in itself – can be slightly disappointing for one seeking Crusading artifacts and references.  Perhaps it’s best to simply imagine what it was like to have been among the throng that November day, surrounded by the ancient forested volcanic cones of the Massif Central, and hearing those words that set all of Christendom aflame.

To be continued … on to Tuscany!
Rand L. Brown II is a Founding member of Real Crusades History.  He is currently on his way to Jerusalem on pilgrimage and will be sharing the experience with RCH members and fans as he goes along.