Remembering the Crusades: Myth, Image and Identity

28th Annual Conference of the Center for Medieval Studies

Fordham University, Lincoln Center, New York City: March 29-30, 2008

Laura J. Whatley, Visual Self-Fashioning and the Seals of the Knights Hospitaller in England

As highly mobile and intrinsically visual artifacts, medieval seals embody individual and communal identity, sometimes providing the most complete record of a group’s structure and self-identification. This is certainly true of the seals of the Order of the Hospital of Saint John of Jerusalem in England, whose visual legacy was largely eradicated during the Reformation. Through an analysis of the interplay between the textual inscriptions and visual messages of the order’s extant seals, my paper shows that they provide invaluable information about the how the Order of St. John visually presented itself in England, as both a military order and international monastic foundation.  This self-presentation changed over the longue durée from the establishment of the order in England in the mid-twelfth century to its independence from the Grand Priory of St. Gilles, France in the 1180s, up until the suppression of the English Hospitallers in the sixteenth century. Thus, not only do the seals of the Knights Hospitaller in England provide information about the order’s attitude to the crusades and the order’s international connections to the continent and Latin East, but they also say something about the order’s place in its local English context.

The Hospitallers in England, far removed from the Holy Land, had to import their legitimacy as both military and religious order and reaffirm their utility and authority. Do the Hospitallers’ seals struck in England reflect a desire to become part of a local visual tradition, playing to the expectations of an English audience, or do they clearly reflect their place in the international hierarchy? While the early twelfth-century seals of the Hospitallers in England directly mirror the seals of their eastern counterparts, at the close of the twelfth century the order shifted its visual focus to employ hagiographic iconography, namely an image of the head of the Baptist (i.e. a devotional “close-up”) evocative of the vera icon. This representation of John the Baptist employed on the English common seal is unique, and hence needs to be carefully contextualized.  This paper explores how these English seals reference or break from the seals produced in the Latin East and France and sketches their religious, political and geographical milieu. It also considers the devotional potential of the seals, because they reveal something of the nature of the Hospitallers’ devotional practices and sacred self-fashioning in England. Considering their immense circulation, these wax impressions could have been meant as sacred emblems, sanctifying both the order and its written records. Once the seals have been fully analyzed, they can be compared to and integrated with other remnants of the Hospitallers’ allusive visual culture in both the East and West, in order to flesh out our understanding of variations in local customs and the complex delineation of the mixed identity of the Order of St. John of Jerusalem as knights, crusaders, monks and healers.


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