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The Monastery of Santa Saba

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CAT 19. S. Bradshaw after Thomas Allom. The Monastery of Santa Saba. In Syria, the Holy Land, Asia Minor, &c. illustrated, vol. 3. London & Paris: Fisher, Son & Co., 1838. Melville Memorial Room, Berkshire Athenaeum.

Melville spent a night at the Monastery of Santa Saba during his visit to Jerusalem and its environs in 1857 (NN J 84). This monastery was a major destination and meditative site for the pilgrims in Clarel in 1876. (“Mar Saba” is the third of four books in the epic poem, preceded by “Jerusalem” and “The Wilderness” and succeeded by “Bethlehem.”) It is from Mar Saba that the Cypriote descends singing the “Hymn of Aristippus” near the beginning of book 3. It is to Mar Saba that Rolfe, Vine, and their companions then ascend for the spiritual and psychological action whose varied disillusionments and raptures characterize this section of the poem. 

Bradshaw’s engraving of Allom’s Monastery, even more poignantly than Tilliard’s engraving of Cassas’s Sepulchre, depicts “a waste where beauty clings” (NN C 1.28.22). The incredible declivity of the precipitous gorge, the tenacity of the domed habitation perched above it, the fragility of the human figures bending in the foreground and glimpsed across the gorge—all of this, in the slanting sunlight, creates an epic sense of space comparable to that in the “Mar Saba” section of the poem written by the American author who wrote “Gorge of Cedron” directly under the image. Bradshaw’s mastery of steel-plate engraving, a new technology in the 1830s, allowed him to achieve this expansiveness in a relatively small space without sacrificing detail. His clear, meticulous rendering of various terraces, precipices, and steps clinging to the steep cliff creates an operatic stage-set similar to that which Melville skillfully employs in his poem—especially during the sequence of cantos in which Vine, Mortmain, and Rolfe separately meditate, from different elevations of the cliff, on the palm of Mar Saba, the “solitary Date Palm mid-way in precipice” that Melville had himself seen in 1857 (NN C 3.26, 27, 28; NN J 84).

Melville’s “Date-Palm” is not visible in the Bradshaw / Allom engraving. It is featured in John Carne’s accompanying 1838 letterpress description: “On one of the terraces is a solitary palm, the only tree in the precincts, and it looks as strangely here as it would look within a cavern on the shore, or in the gloomy court of some vast prison; yet its slender form and leaves of vivid green are beautiful within the battlements, and up many a flight of steps” (as Melville shows in Clarel). According to legend, the palm had been planted by Saint Saba, who had “founded” the monastery “in the middle of the fourth century” (Syria, the Holy Land, 3:75-6). Melville’s depiction of the palm tree in Clarel inspired the Danish painter Peter Toft to create a large watercolor of The Holy Palm, Mar Saba, Palestine, one of three works that Toft created in response to Melville’s writing (CAT numbers not yet assigned). Toft took a much “nearer” view of the monastery than Allom had, exactly suited for elevating his Holy Palm (fig. 1; NN J 813-15).

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Figure 1. Peter Toth. The Holy Palm, Mara Saba, Palestine, brush and ink on paper, 1882. Gift from the artist to Herman Melville, 1886. Melville Memorial Room, Berkshire Athenaeum.