Exhibition at the Met shows the art, the religious fervour and the inspiration, which medieval Jerusalem offered to Jews, Christians and Muslims 1000 – 1400.
Where to start? When the Babylonians conquered Judah and Jerusalem and laid waste Solomon’s temple in 586 BC? When God through an earthquake destroyed the Temple in AD 33? When Tiberius razed the city to the ground in AD 70? When the city was taken by the Sasanids in AD 614? When crusaders took the city in AD 1099? Or when Saladin retook it in 1187? When the city and its environs fell to the Ottoman Turks in 1517? When the British took over in 1917? Or when it was divided with barbed wire in 1948? Or was retaken by the Israeli in 1967? Or today (16.09.2016) when a Jordanian man attempted to stab police officers at Jerusalem’s Damascus Gate?
This question obviously belongs to the category of the seemingly unanswerable. Is it not fair to claim that nobody in his or her right mind will ever be able to truly understand what all this fuss and violence has been and is about? Come on: this rocky platform on the border of a desert? This smelly caravanserai on the road to Damascus?
The answer is, of course, that Jerusalem has no other meaning than its history and the stories told about it. Which is thus all that matters. This is the profound lesson, which the Met tries to teach all us nitwits, who like Pinocchio believe, that nothing particular interesting happens except in the here and now.
In between, the Met tells a fabulous story about all sorts of people, who in between countless sufferings and humiliations kept on trading, negotiating, talking and creating, all the while telling us beautiful stories about what Jerusalem was and might be in the world to come. This created a huge amount of awesome pieces of art, which still reverberates through time.
The First Millenium
It is a hugely important exhibition, which opens this week in New York at the Metropolitan. in it, we are invited to explore part of these fascinating stories as they unfolded in a particularly vibrant period of the history of Jerusalem, between AD 1000 – 1400.
There is no doubt, this period is chosen with care. It is simply a very fine lens to view the way in which the city became ignited with phantasies of its contemporaries, whether Christians, Muslims and Jews.
A short story of background will suffice to explain this. After the destruction in AD 70, Jerusalem was fated to live the life in an economic backwater. Of course, it housed the Christian pilgrim industry, which developed in the 4th century after the “rediscovery” of the city and its relics by the mother of Constantine in AD 326 – 28. As is well known this led to an important building spree creating important architectural monuments where the faithful could gather and commemorate the life of Jesus. But it never really rose
to be more than the pilgrim spot par excellence. Later, after the Sassanids took over in Ad 614, Islam reinvented the city as the location where Muhammad met up with Moses and Jesus, and led them in prayer before he ascended to Heaven up the stairs of Jacob to meet up with God and negotiate a deal: God had demanded that humans should pray fifty times a day, but Muhammad secured a reduction to a tenth of that. At this point, the Jews were once more allowed to enter and live in the city (they had been banned since the days of Constantine). Later, in the 7th century, The Dome Of The Rock was built to commemorate this story. Famously built on top of the Temple-Mount and fitted with an inscription telling the faithful that there is only one God (and not Three), it was a splendid architectural statement designed to supersede both the lesser brothers – the Jews and the Christians; (as it says: “So believe in God and His messengers, and say not ‘Three’ …God is only One God. Far be it removed from His transcendent majesty that He should have a son”.)
It is obvious the building of this shrine was intended as a triumphant – once and for all – statement about the order of the world. What we know is that the relations between the members of the three competing groups of faithfuls hardened significantly after this. We are not that well informed about the circumstances under which the Jews lived, but we are very well informed about the conditions under which the Christians lived, as Charlemagne famously sent a fact-finding mission to the Holy land in AD 803 to discover the circumstances, which governed the life in the Palestinian church at that time. Later reports became more insistent: Christians became steadily more persecuted while the wealth of the churches was confiscated and Christian celebrations forbidden. Thus, in 1008, the traditional Easter Procession was abolished by the Muslim rulers. As usual, the Jews were caught in the middle and were moved around – from one part of the city to the next. These were not nice times marked by friendly co-existence.
Every People Under Heaven
It is at this point the exhibition takes up the thread. The point is, of course, that Christians in the years leading up to AD 1000 experienced a dramatic and emotionally straining period. In general, people believed that the end was simply neigh. For this, they even had a manual: the Apocalypse of St. John in which – lo and behold – the Heavenly Jerusalem was said to float down from Heaven, once more turning it into the centre of the known world.
In the Occident this led to a feverish artistic endeavour to create small and large pieces of art and architecture, envisioning what this new world might look like. But, famously, it also led to the fervour of the crusading spirit, which culminated in the conquest of Jerusalem in AD 1099 as well as the following bloodbath and desecration of the holy places of both Jews and Muslims.
We all know the story: back and forth it went, until the Holy City was finally re-taken by the Mamluks in AD 1260. This led to a period until 1333, in which Christians were banned from the city, while Jews were allowed to continue to live there. However, typically for the history of the Eternal City is that when the Christians in the habit of the Franciscans were once more allowed into the city, they were permitted to settle at the mountain of Sion, where the Jews believed the grave of David was located; which led to Jewish claims that the new settlers had desecrated this place!
Artistic Melting Pot.
It is obviously that Jerusalem inside these four-hundred years turned into so much more than a down-trodden middle-sized town in the backwater of the Judean desert. In fact it became the fountain of numerous painful and heartfelt experiences – a living hyper-reality in the minds of Jews, Christians and Muslims, a reality, which many still experience today. Scholars and psychiatrists both talk about the phenomena of the “Jerusalem Fever”, which was first described in the later Middle Ages and still grips a not insignificant number of tourists and pilgrims each year. No wonder, it was in this cauldron that myriads of artistic presentations of Jerusalem were created. This took place in both the workshops of Jerusalem and far away in Middle Age Europe.
It is this treasure, which The Met has taken upon itself to exhibit. The landmark exhibition shows more than 200 exquisite and heart-rendering pieces, with more than 50 pieces lent from Jerusalem itself. Some are just the usual tourist souvenirs, which a poor pilgrim might scour for and bring back. Others represent the most exquisite art as for instance the reliquaries constructed in the form of the holy sepulchre. On the way we are told the story of how it all came about. How armies of people made their way to the Holy city, how generals fought over it and how merchants profited from it while patrons, artists, pilgrims, poets, and scholars drew their inspiration from this religious melting pot.
As such, the main undercurrent is “longing for Jerusalem”. Even if people could not go there, they yearned for it. “Next year, Jerusalem” Jews would exclaim in the Middle Ages, while seated at their Seder. At the same time, Christians would construct elaborate copies of the Sepulchre in as far away places as Aachen while Muslims would work to reinvent the city as a centre for Islamic Theology.
The exhibition does not offer a chronological layout. This is not a story of the shifting powers and the imprints they made on the city during these 400 years. Rather it is a thematically organised presentation. It thus orients itself around six themes:
The Pulse of Trade and Tourism:
Often understood as the crossroads of the known world, Jerusalem was a thriving urban center, teeming with locals and tourists, new arrivals and long-timers, merchants and artists, soldiers and scholars. The exhibition will evoke the many wares of the marketplace, including ceramics produced locally and imported from as far away as China. Textiles on view will reconstruct the fashion sensibilities of Jerusalem’s residents, including, surprisingly perhaps, their predilection for printed cottons from the Indian subcontinent. The shared taste of the region’s wealthy inhabitants confounds efforts to distinguish the owners’ identities, let alone their ethnic or religious heritage. Jewels that are recognizably Islamic in technique correspond to contemporary descriptions of the trousseaux of Jewish brides. A remarkable gathering of Cross reliquaries speak to the links between Jerusalem and Europe.
The Diversity of Peoples:
Dozens of denominations and communities contributed to the artistic and spiritual richness of the city. The historical record surrounding medieval Jerusalem—a “city of foreigners”— includes both harmonious and dissonant voices from many lands: Persians, Turks, Greeks, Syrians, Armenians, Georgians, Ethiopians, Indians, and Europeans from each of the Abrahamic faith traditions passed in the narrow streets of the city—not much larger than midtown Manhattan. Visitors will be astonished, for example, by the numerous distinct alphabets and different languages of prayer. Exemplifying this will be Christian Gospel books in Arabic, Greek, Armenian, and Syriac, a Samaritan Bible in a distinctive Hebrew script, and the biblical book of Kings in Ge’ez, the language of Ethiopia, given by that land’s king to his community in Jerusalem.
The Air of Holiness:
The exhibition will attempt to evoke the city’s sacred iconic monuments, with their layered history and shared spaces. Though Jerusalem can appear eternal, it has undergone enormous change. Seemingly immutable elements of Jerusalem’s sacred topography were understood differently in this period. Medieval maps show us that Christians understood the Muslim Dome of the Rock and the Aqsa Mosque to be the Ancient Temple and the Palace of Solomon, respectively. Manuscripts and rare documents demonstrate that medieval Jewish pilgrims focused most of their attention on the city’s gates and the Mount of Olives, rather than the Western Wall. Among the highlights of this section are five sculpted capitals from the Church of the Annunciation in Nazareth belonging to the Franciscan Community of Jerusalem. These pristinely preserved works, unearthed at the beginning of the 20th century, powerfully demonstrate the skill and imagination of the sculptors and the dramatic relationship between faith and art during the brief but exceptionally fertile Crusader period. Met conservator Jack Soultanian has prepared them for exhibition; this is the first time the ensemble has left Nazareth.
The Drumbeat of Holy War:
Intimately bound with the belief in Jerusalem’s sanctity and the sense of exclusive ownership it instilled is the ideology of Holy War. This period witnessed the intensification of both crusade in Christianity and jihad in Islam. The exhibition offers an important opportunity to present these concepts, so charged in our own day. Art was recruited to justify war, presenting it as beautiful and divinely sanctioned. A manuscript depicting weapons created for the great Islamic warrior Saladin presents them as exquisite goldsmith’s work while a sculpted effigy (newly-cleaned for the exhibition) depicts a French nobleman as a crusader in full battle armor for eternity.
The Generosity of Patrons:
The exhibition will introduce visitors to some of the real men and women who altered the aesthetic landscape of the city. The name of Melisende, the Frankish-Armenian Queen of Jerusalem, is linked to a celebrated Psalter, which will be presented as a larger witness to her activity as a patron of churches and scriptoria. An unprecedented gathering of luxury metalwork will evoke the patronage of Al-Nasir Muhammad ibn Qala’un; this dazzling display appropriately conjures up the munificence of this most important Mamluk patron of Jerusalem.
The Promise of Eternity:
Finally, this is the first exploration of art that springs from the belief, common to Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, that Jerusalem stands at the gates of heaven. The exhibition will include masterpieces of Persian illumination that bear witness to the key role of the Holy City in the life of Muhammad and in the Muslim faith tradition. Alongside these will be Hebrew manuscripts in which the glittering implements of the Temple symbolize the longing for redemption. An imposing jeweled shrine represents the Heavenly Jerusalem as Christian imagined it.
The exhibition thus ends with presenting us of the shimmering hopes of the peaceful second coming – whether of the Messias, Christ or the Mahdi – said to grant us respite from all the violence, which continues to be visited upon us and our neighbours in this Heavenly City
Jerusalem 1000 – 1400: Every People Under Heaven
The Metropolitan, Fifth Avenue, new York
26.10.2016 – 08.01.2017
A lavishly illustrated catalogue appropriate for specialists and general readers alike accompanies the exhibition. More than fifty scholars from the United States, Europe, and the Middle East have contributed to the catalogue. Published by The Metropolitan Museum of Art and distributed by Yale University Press, the book will be available in The Met Shop.