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Crusaders Join Herod’s Sauna in Israel Museum Redo

A mihrab at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. The mihrab, which is a niche in the center of the wall that faces Mecca, is installed in the gallery for Islamic art, and incorporates mosaic tiles and Quranic verses. Photographer: Abraham Hay/Bloomberg

July 28 (Bloomberg) -- Christian Crusaders intent on liberating “the Holy Land,” Muslim invaders, Jewish icons and the hot bath used by King Herod all come together in the Israel Museum, which has reopened after a $100 million redo.

The first-time exhibits include a rare wall painting from the Abbey of the Virgin Mary, with Jesus, Mary and John the Baptist watched by an angel.

“We have a timeline running from the ancient land of Israel to contemporary visual culture,” director James Snyder said. The new campus doubles the gallery space of the original and wraps together world cultures, he said.

The renovation, within the museum’s original site, adds an extra piece to the modular modernist complex that, under the guiding vision of founding architect Alfred Mansfeld, transformed the dusty Jerusalem hill into a Cubist work of art.

The museum kept open its Shrine of the Book gallery and Youth Wing during the 30-month reconstruction. The art garden and outdoor model of Jerusalem also remained accessible.

The newly displayed wall fresco, discovered during an excavation of Mary’s Tomb next to Gethsemane, is one of three of its kind found in Israel and the West Bank and dates back to the crusaders, curator Naama Brosh said.

“It portrays one of the most important scenes of Jesus, John the Baptist and Mary,” she said. “Very few paintings survived from this period. They were destroyed by Saladin.” Saladin was the sultan of Egypt and Syria who captured Jerusalem and defended it during the Third Crusade.

Crusader Period

The fresco, “a truly rare and unique example of Christian subject art,” is the centerpiece of the museum’s first-ever gallery dedicated to the turbulent Crusader period, said Snyder.

In a separate hall, the museum has resurrected a luxury hot room from the palace in the Judean Desert, originally built by Herod, who was king of Judea from 37 to 4 B.C. Male courtiers sat next to the furnace and poured cold water on their heads. According to Jewish law, the bathhouse frescos and mosaics don’t include figurative art, noted curator Dudi Mevorah.

The museum was the brainchild of Teddy Kollek, who later went on to become mayor of the city for 28 years. Kollek died in 2007.

“Teddy Kollek had a vision in a crazy time, when Israel was barely bar mitzvah age,” said Snyder. “It is daunting and humbling for us to realize that 45 years after the founding we may well be achieving what his vision was all about.”

Snyder also announced that the museum has raised almost $60 million toward a $75 million endowment fund it created in Kollek’s name “to insure our ability to support this new campus in the future.”

Israel Museum is on Ruppin Blvd., Jerusalem. Information:

To contact the writer on the story: Gwen Ackerman in Jerusalem at

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Peter Hirschberg at; Mark Beech at

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