In the last dozen articles in this series, I have worked through the plot and sub-stories of Torquato Tasso’s epic poem Jerusalem Delivered, showing the best of the paintings which have been made to accompany it, and to tell his tales. This article provides a short summary, links to the individual articles, and the very best of those paintings.
Jerusalem Delivered is a fictional elaboration of the events at the end of the first Crusade, starting with the departure from Antioch, after its capture, and ending with the full possession of the city of Jerusalem.
The crusaders’ leader, Godfrey of Bouillon, is visited early one morning by the Archangel Gabriel, who spurs the French noble to lead his army south to the Holy City. During their journey, they are provisioned by sea, and meet little opposition.
The ruler of Jerusalem, Aladine, hears of their progress, and starts preparing to receive them. Ismen, formerly a Christian soothsayer now turned to ‘pagan’ sorceror, arranges a trap to oppress the remaining Christians in the city, by having a sacred icon of the Virgin Mary stolen. Aladine attributes this to a Christian, and uses it as an excuse to persecute the Christians.
Sophronia, a young Christian woman, tells Aladine that she stole the icon, and is condemned to burn at the stake. Her lover Olindo insists that he is the thief, and is tied on the other side of the stake for execution with her. Just as the kindling is about to be lit, the beautiful ‘pagan’ knight Clorinda arrives and intervenes.
Sophronia and Olindo are spared, but Aladine banishes them and all other able-bodied Christians to beyond the city limits. Most flee to Emmaus, where the crusaders have just arrived.
Godfrey of Bouillon politely rejects overtures from two ambassadors of Egypt, inviting him to abandon his mission to capture Jerusalem. One, the Circassian Argante, warns Godfrey of dire consequences before he heads off to join Aladine in Jerusalem.
Soon after the crusaders arrive at the city, Clorinda leads an initial skirmishing party to size up the French forces. Godfrey sends Tancred to support the French, and when he knocks Clorinda’s helmet off, he falls hopelessly in love with her. Inside Jerusalem, Erminia, former princess of Antioch, reveals her love for Rinaldo, another of the crusader knights. Argante shows himself to be a fearsome warrior, and claims the life of Dudon.
Godfrey decides a plan of action, and realises his need for a good supply of wood to build siege towers and engines.
The ‘pagan’ wizard Hydrotes sees his beautiful niece Armida, a sorceress herself, as an essential weapon in the campaign. He directs her to sow chaos inside Godfrey’s camp.
Armida tells the crusaders a story of woe, and beguiles many of the finest of Godfrey’s knights to follow her on a fool’s errand.
In the midst of the strife brought by Armida, Rinaldo accuses Gernando of being a liar; they settle this when Rinaldo kills Gernando in a duel. Godfrey condemns Rinaldo to death, and he storms off from the camp. Armida then leads many other knights away on her diversionary mission.
In an attempt to expedite matters, Argante challenges the crusaders in one-to-one combat. Godfrey approves Tancred as the knight to face the Circassian. They fight viciously, wounding one another, but are brought to a halt by nightfall.
Erminia decides to go and tend Tancred’s wounds, so dresses up in Clorinda’s armour and slips out of the city in the dead of night. However, that makes her appear to be Clorinda to the crusaders, and she flees in panic. Tancred them rides off in pursuit of her, thinking her to be Clorinda. Overnight, both Erminia and Tancred become lost, and fail to find one another.
Erminia happens on a small family of shepherds, who console her, and dress her in their country clothes.
Tancred is trapped in Armida’s magic castle, behind the bars of its dungeon. The following morning, with his combat against Argante due to restart soon after dawn, he is nowhere to be found. Raymond of Toulouse is drawn by lot to fight as his substitute, and proves a match. The devil, though, gets a ‘pagan’ archer to loose an arrow which strikes Raymond without wounding him. At this breach of chivalry, the affronted crusaders and defenders of Jerusalem join battle – which turns bloody until the hand of God intervenes with a massive thunderstorm.
Rinaldo and Tancred are still missing, but the crusaders riot in fear that the former has been killed. Godfrey realises that he must attack the city soon.
Arab forces then attack the crusaders by night, which develops into more general battle. Knights return from their mission for Armida, reporting that they had been rescued by Rinaldo, who had not been killed after all. They report that Armida has taken Tancred prisoner.
Godfrey prepares for assault on the city, first celebrating mass on Mount Olivet. The following day the crusaders bring their siege towers and engines up to tackle the walls of Jerusalem, but make slow progress against a strong defence. At nightfall the towers are pulled back, but Clorinda sneaks out of the city and sets alight to the towers, burning them to the ground.
She is caught outside the walls by Tancred, who cannot tell it is her and engages her in combat. Eventually he wounds her mortally, recognises her, and she asks to be baptised before she dies. Tancred does so, and she goes in peace.
The wounded Tancred is carried back to his tent.
Ismen enchants the forest which is the crusaders’ only supply of wood, preventing them from cutting replacement timbers for new siege towers. The weather turns oppressively hot and dry, causing crusaders to collapse and even die of heat and dehydration. After prayers of the crusaders, the weather breaks and there is heavy rain.
Godfrey has a vision which reveals the importance of finding Rinaldo to break the spell so that he can obtain timber again. Charles and Ubaldo leave on a mission to discover Rinaldo. They learn that Armida had originally intended to kill him, but just as she was about to sink her dagger into his sleeping body, she fell in love with him and abducted him instead.
With the help of a wizard, Charles and Ubaldo sail in a magic ship to the Fortunate Isles. Overcoming various obstacles, they see the couple together in Armida’s garden, where Rinaldo has clearly become Armida’s dandy, and no warrior knight.
Showing Rinaldo his image in a polished shield, Charles and Ubaldo get him to see how he has changed, and to return to the siege of Jerusalem with them.
Armida first tries to lure him back, then weeps, and finally departs in rage in her own chariot, to wreak vengeance.
Rinaldo and Godfrey are reunited, and the leader asks him to solve the problem of the enchanted wood. Rinaldo enters the wood and breaks Ismen’s spell, enabling timbers to be felled to build fresh siege towers.
Meanwhile, the King of Egypt is leading a massed army towards the crusaders at Jerusalem. Joining him is Armida, with forces provided by her evil uncle. There are several volunteers who promise to kill Rinaldo for her, in return for her hand in marriage. The King of Egypt also plots how he will kill Godfrey using deception. Those plans are discovered by a crusader spy, Vafrine.
With new towers built, Godfrey resumes the assault on Jerusalem before the Egyptian forces are due to arrive. Rinaldo, Tanred, Godfrey and others lead the ascent of the walls, and crusaders enter the city, where they quickly start massacring its ‘pagan’ defenders.
Argante and Tancred agree to conclude their previous combat beyond the city walls. After a bitter fight, in which both men are wounded badly, Tancred finishes the Circassian off, then collapses at dusk.
Vafrine has completed his mission spying on the Egyptian forces when he is recognised by Erminia, who wants to defect to the crusader camp. On their way back, they stumble across Argante’s body, then the wounded Tancred.
Erminia cuts tresses from her hair to make improvised bandages for Tancred’s wounds, and he is taken into Jerusalem for further care. Vafrine goes on to brief Godfrey of the Egyptians’ plans, to help him plan his defence.
The Egyptian army arrives late the following day, but Godfrey won’t be rushed, and battle commences at dawn the next day. Egyptians wearing false colours, as crusaders, get close to Godfrey but are quickly recognised and killed.
As the battle rages on, Rinaldo sees Armida as an archer in her chariot, but passes her by and continues fighting. She struggles to loose her arrows at him, and those that she does shoot bounce off ineffectively. With the Egyptian forces in full retreat and their leaders all dead, Armida flees on one of her horses.
Rinaldo catches her, just as she is about to stab herself with one of her own arrows in a bid to end her life. She swoons into his arms, he cries with pity for her, and Rinaldo promises to be her servant and her champion.
With the ‘pagan’ armies defeated and departed, Godfrey now leads his crusaders into the city, as the sun sets. He goes to the Temple, having fulfilled his vow to deliver Jerusalem.
In the final article in this series, I will consider the fates of the heroes and heroines of Tasso’s epic.
Project Gutenberg (free) English translation (Fairfax 1600).
Librivox audiobook of the Fairfax (1600) English translation (free).
Thomas Asbridge (2004) The First Crusade, A New History, Free Press, ISBN 978 0 7432 2084 2.
Anthony M Esolen, translator (2000) Torquato Tasso, Jerusalem Delivered, Gerusalemme Liberata, Johns Hopkins UP. ISBN 978 0 801 863233. A superb modern translation into English verse.
John France (1994) Victory in the East, a Military History of the First Crusade, Cambridge UP. ISBN 978 0 521 589871.
Joanthan Riley-Smith, ed (1995) The Oxford Illustrated History of the Crusades, Oxford UP. ISBN 978 0 192 854285.
Jonathan Riley-Smith (2014) The Crusades, A History, 3rd edn., Bloomsbury. ISBN 978 1 4725 1351 9.
Johathan Unglaub (2006) Poussin and the Poetics of Painting, Pictorial Narrative and the Legacy of Tasso, Cambridge UP. ISBN 978 0 521 833677.