Melisende of Jerusalem, Queen and Patron of Art in Crusader Jerusalem

Jaroslav Folda*, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill ,

Melisende (d. 1161) inherited the Latin Kingdom from her father and became queen, together with her husband, the new king, in a coronation ceremony held in the church of the Holy Sepulchre in 1131. William II, archbishop of Tyre and author of the History of Outremer, celebrates her rule as strong, wise, and judicious. He documents in detail her foundation and embellishment of a convent at Bethany with two churches for her sister, Yvetta. He also refers to the tomb of Melisende at the Tomb of the Virgin Mary in Jehosaphat. No king of Jerusalem was given such a handsome burial chamber. William provides these selected references to the substantial art patronage of Melisende during her long and productive career as queen. But he does not mention the most famous work, the c. 1135 Psalter of Queen Melisende. This luxury prayerbook has been the object of intensive research as scholars have sought to understand exactly what Melisende's role was in its execution. Nor does William comment on Melisende’s involvement in other important commissions with which she was connected, namely, the church of the Holy Sepulchre, the abbey of St. Samuel, the Templum Domini, the church of the Ascension, the church of St. Anne, and the church of St. James. Why does William choose to mention just two works linked to Melisende’s patronage? What exactly was her role as patron in these and other projects between 1131 and 1161: initiator, sponsor, maker, facilitator, recipient?

In light of new research that has appeared since the publication of my 1995 book, I propose to reconsider and fully investigate the evidence for what I take to be Melisende’s role as the most important patron of the arts in the nearly two hundred year history of the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem. Melisende was a great queen, equaling and perhaps even surpassing others better known in the twelfth century, such as Eleanor of Aquitaine. Melisende is less well known, but she deserves more: her role as patron in the Holy City, the center of the Christian world, at major holy sites central to the commemoration of the life of Christ, the Virgin and selected saints, is extraordinary and unique.