The massive expansion of the Hospital of St John’s operations during the twelfth century reflected the dramatic increase in Jerusalem pilgrimage traffic during the period 1099–1187. The German pilgrim Theoderic, who travelled to the Holy Land in c.1170, praised the Hospital with the following words:
How splendidly it is adorned with buildings with many rooms and bunks and other things poor people and the weak and the sick can use. What a rich place this is and how excellently it spends the money for the relief of the poor, and how diligent in its care for beggars … We could in no way judge the number of people who lay there, but we saw a thousand beds. No king or tyrant would be powerful enough to feed daily the great number fed in this house.
The Hospital’s role in facilitating Jerusalem pilgrimage, and its close association with the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in particular, was visualised on the seals used to authenticate the Order’s official documents.
Originally 1121–50 (1) and 1278–89 (2)
Kingdom of Jerusalem
Given that they are separated in time by around 150 years, these two seals demonstrate the continued importance of the Holy Sepulchre to the Hospitallers’ institutional identity during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. Both seals depict a building with three domes, a design that evoked the architecture of the Holy Sepulchre. The shrouded body that figured centrally was a visual reminder of the source of the church’s sanctity: the body of Christ, which had once lain within the tomb.
1207–28 (left), originally 1165–70 (centre) and 1185 (right)
Jerusalem (left) and London (centre, right)
These three seals all depict senior members of the Order of the Hospital as devotees of the cross. Given that the shape of the cross is consistent across these and other similar seals, it is likely that it was intended to represent the True Cross relic that the crusaders had discovered in Jerusalem in 1099. Although this relic was lost at the Battle of Hattin in 1187, it was felt to be so valuable that twelfth- and thirteenth-century crusaders continued to prioritise its recovery.