MENU
/
About Images & Intersections

The Holy between the Imaginary and the Real

Jerusalem 1000-1400 at The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Sacred figures enter into the mythic landscape of (earthly or celestial) Jerusalem. Top: detail, Christ’s entry into Jerusalem, from an illustrated Syriac lectionary, Iraq, first quarter of the 13th c. (BL Add. MS 7170; courtesy the British Library). Bottom: detail, Muḥammad meets the biblical patriarchs during his night journey from Mecca to Jerusalem and subsequent ascent into heaven, folio from an Eastern Turkish Miʿrāj Nāma, Herat, 15th c. (Supplément turc 190, f. 22v; courtesy Bibliothèque nationale de France). Both texts are featured in The Met’s exhibition Jerusalem 1000-1400.

Michael Zank


How do you represent a city that is and is not there? This has been the question for Jews since the days of the first destruction of the city in 586 BCE. It was the question for Emperor Constantine and his mother Helena, who ventured to retrieve a city that Emperor Hadrian had condemned to oblivion. What Constantine did was something else, too: he took the imagined city of the Christians and grafted it onto the landscape of a Roman military colony that had been built on the plowed-under remains of earlier Jerusalems. What could not be plowed had been left in ruins and now became part of a larger symbolic landscape: a new Jerusalem overshadowing the remains of the old, as Eusebius noted.

A few centuries later, as Muslim tradition asserts, the conquering caliph ʿUmar b. al-Khaṭṭāb entered the city looking for the “holy house,” bayt al-maqdis, as the Arabs called the city. What he was shown by Bishop Sophronius was a glorious Roman shrine to the resurrection (Gr. anástasis; Syr. qiyāmā); what he was shown by his Jewish native informants was the ruins of the original Temple, now a dung heap. The early Muslims took a sweet form of revenge on the Christian rhetoric of contempt for the “remains of the Jews”1 by punning on the Syriac name of the shrine to the resurrection (calling it qumāmah, i.e., dung heap) and rebuilding the holy house they believed had been there since creation, a temple to the maker of the universe first built by the angels.

How to represent a city that is and is not there was also the question tackled by Barbara Drake Boehm and Melanie Holcomb when they began, about six years ago, to plan the Jerusalem exhibit now on view at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, Jerusalem 1000-1400: Every People Under Heaven. When they first visited Jerusalem looking for remnants of the high Middle Ages, they began to see them everywhere. This is not so surprising, as Barbara Drake Boehm and Melanie Holcomb are accomplished medievalists who had come to the city for that very purpose.

templeimplements

Implements and furniture of the Jerusalem Temple, kept alive in Jewish memory through word and image. Illumination from a Catalan manuscript of the Hebrew Bible, first quarter 15th c., gold and ink on parchment (Jay and Jeannie Schottenstein Collection, Columbus).

But they found more. Through the clutter of modern national archaeology, which foregrounds the city’s biblical antecedents, they saw that most of the Old City (except for  its Ottoman-era walls) is actually a medieval city. Once you pay attention, you recognize Mamluk, Latin Christian, and earlier styles in the ornate archways, the gates and arches of Jerusalem’s Noble Sanctuary (al-ḥaram al-sharīf), the water fountains (subul; sing. sabīl) in the shuk or market, and the schools (madāris; sing. madrasah) along the western and northern edge of the ancient Herodian platform. The Old City’s churches, hospices, and monasteries of the Greeks, Armenians, Georgians, Syrians, Franciscans, and others we see today were either built or rebuilt in those centuries, or else built more recently on the remains of medieval Christian foundations. One of the most enchanted places in the Old City is the ruin of a German crusader church near the ascent from the Western Wall to the Jewish Quarter. Once you start looking, the Middle Ages are everywhere.

Boehm and Holcomb also found something else. Aside from the residential quarters and pious institutions, the Old City today is still a commercial center. The shuk, which serves as a shopping center for the locals and a market of locally produced and imported wares and trinkets for pilgrims and tourists, very much resembles what the city was like in the Middle Ages. To prove it, the exhibit does two things. It surrounds the objects on display with images of the Old City of Jerusalem today, and it opens with a display of objects attesting to the vibrancy of medieval commerce and trade. It lets you enter the medieval city not so much as a holy place but as a real place. To make the point, the first vitrine holds a shining golden coin horde from Caesarea. Before we meet the Crusaders or receive glimpses of books produced or used in and around Jerusalem, we see textiles from far away Gujarat; silks and woven carpets produced in Egypt; fine ceramic, glass, and metalware – some showing Chinese influence; and bejewelled reliquaries treasured by the Frankish nobility. We read how these or similar objects surface in stories about stolen belts or relics. As an example of the latter, we hear about a Christian monk who stole a precious relic from a local church but was subsequently overtaken by remorse when, as in the biblical book of Jonah, his homebound boat was caught in a tempest. This story from Amalfi became part of the legend of the transfer of the relic to its final resting place.2

matthewparisholyland

Map of the Holy Land from the Chronica Majora of Matthew Paris (d. 1259). Oriented along an east-west vertical axis, in this map the walled city of Jerusalem appears at the upper right, with the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the Dome of the Rock, and Al-Aqsa Mosque visible within. At the upper left (i.e. to the north) Mount Ararat with Noah’s Ark appears in Armenia, while the city of Acre, a major port in Palestine during the Crusader era, appears at the bottom (i.e. to the west of Jerusalem) (Corpus Christi College ms. 26; courtesy The Master and Fellows of Corpus Christi College, Cambridge).

The objects attest to the vibrancy of an economy of exchange that was in place before, during, and after the Crusades. The opening room thus serves as a caveat – perhaps the inverse of the inscription on Dante’s inferno: Have hope as you enter this Jerusalem! When you think of that medieval place, don’t only think of religion, and don’t think of the three Abrahamic religions as monolithic. Don’t think of a clash of civilizations, but of a real place where people met – though sometimes using the implements of war and driven by exclusionary rhetoric – and where they learned from one another. They even gave one another the celestial world as a gift! This is quite literally the point of one of the objects on display, a celestial globe that the sultan Al-Malik al-Kamīl may have given to Frederick II at the time when the latter, instead of taking Ayyubid Jerusalem by force – as he was instructed to do by two popes – negotiated a peaceful arrangement that allowed Christians to “own” the city for a period of ten years instead.

globe

A celestial globe made of copper with gold and silver inlay gifted by the Ayyubid sultan Al-Malik al-Kamīl (r. 1218-1238) to the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II of the house of Hohenstaufen (r. 1212-1250) during treaty negotiations in 1229 during the Sixth Crusade (Museo Nazionale di Capodimonte, Naples).

The exhibition illustrates something else, namely, the plurality of cultural inheritances of the age on display. The eras of Fatimid, Latin, Ayyubid, and Mamluk rule of Jerusalem are generally more likely to be unfamiliar to Protestants. I don’t mean to disparage Protestants for paying little attention to medieval history. I mean to say that there is nothing there that matters to the average Protestant on a visceral level. For others, on the other hand, the high and low moments of that age as well as its great cultural productions are of enduring value. Roman Catholics, Armenians, Greek, Georgians, Ethiopians, and Syrian Christians are not only present in Jerusalem, but maintain the same rites, practices, and pious commitments as their medieval predecessors. We need to remember that the Protestant Reformation did away with most, if not all, of these practices and traditions in favor of a new biblicism that circumvented the authority of tradition. That was precisely the point of the Protestant Reformation. Its side effect was the disparaging of just about everything that was holy to the people of the Middle Ages.

In contrast, the Catholic Franciscan order still considers itself the custodian of the Holy Land. The Greek Orthodox, Armenian, Coptic, Syriac, Ethiopian, and Latin churches still (grudgingly) share responsibility for the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Similarly, the Islamic mosques, shrines, schools, and other institutions supported by pious endowments (documented in the exhibit’s theme of “Patronage”) have been in continual use up to the modern age, and the authors whose manuscripts are on display here are still read today. The eleventh-century Persian philosopher and mystic al-Ghazālī, who made his home in Jerusalem, is still among the most widely cherished orthodox Islamic thinkers. For a Jewish visitor, the exhibition offers moving autographs (manuscripts written by the author himself) by Rambam (Moses Maimonides, d. 1204), whose Mishneh Torah is the basis of Jewish law even today, and by Judah Halevi (d. 1141), whose Hebrew poetry is among the finest ever produced. The works of these and other greater and lesser figures are not displayed to draw attention to them as individuals, but rather to illustrate a number of themes, including languages and writing systems, and also the struggle of medieval thinkers to come to terms with the differences between biblical descriptions of Jerusalem’s holy Temple (what is not there) and the actual place they saw with their own eyes.

salzmann

Majestic, serene, and devoid of human life: detail, photograph of the Temple Mount/Ḥaram al-Sharīf by Auguste Salzmann (2005.100.373.13; Gilman Collection, Gift of The Howard Gilman Foundation, 2005; courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art).

The exhibit does justice to the differences between Christian, Muslim, and Jewish communities without essentializing them. The boundaries between these traditions are shown to be permeable. In appearance, a Syriac version of the New Testament gospel may look like a Qurʾān. Some of the Hebrew writing of Maimonides is actually in the Arabic language. And when it comes to the last theme of the exhibit, on Jews, Christians, and Muslims imagining the end of time and the heavenly Jerusalem, they may use different visuals, but the scenarios and the artistic devices used to depict them resemble one another. In this manner, the political part of the exhibit (entitled “The Drumbeat of War”) is framed on one end by the sphere of commerce – desired objects of material culture attesting to the day-by-day economy of exchange of goods – and on the other by images of a perfect world in Paradise whose entrance may be hidden, though we all know it is in Jerusalem.

The exhibit comes with a beautiful catalogue that is a distinguished achievement in its own right, with essays by art historians, medieval historians, and specialists on Jerusalem.3 The essays are grouped according to the same themes around which the exhibition is organized—“Trade and Tourism in Medieval Jerusalem,” “Pluralism in the Holy City,” “Experiencing Sacred Art in Jerusalem,” “Holy War and the Power of Art,” “Patronage,” and “Seeking the Eternal Jerusalem.” Here, too, the curators avoid organizing the exhibition in chronological order of the regimes that took turns at ruling Jerusalem, and  Jewish, Christian, and Muslim perspectives are thematically integrated.

The exhibition will be on display until January 2017 and may be viewed in concert with another exhibit, on the same floor of The Met, of Auguste Saltzmann’s photographs of Jerusalem from 1854. Charming in its own right, the contrast could not be stronger between the colorful, multivocal medieval city documented in Every People Under Heaven and the stark sepia images of architectural features of the city just before the urban boom of the second half of the nineteenth century, images that are devoid of signs of humans or human activity except for archaeological features, especially the Ottoman walls and gates of Jerusalem. The very least we can learn from this contrast is that the Western gaze has changed. We are now more interested in the ordinary lives of peoples of the past as they can appear to us through the material objects they left behind, and less in abstract ideas. What has not changed is that the manner in which we display Jerusalem reflects what we think about it today. For Saltzmann, Jerusalem was a landscape attesting to its biblical past and expectant of the great eschatological change. For Boehm and Holcomb, the medieval past has lessons to teach for the real and actual Jerusalem of today. They were not sure how their exhibition was going to be received by different parts of the public, but their experience so far has been overwhelmingly positive. That should not come as a surprise either. Who would not like to see a Jerusalem where Jews, Christians, and Muslims somehow got along?

 

MICHAEL ZANK is a native of Germany, a trained Protestant theologian and a Jewish philosopher who teaches philosophy, history, and literature of western religions at Boston University, where he also serves as the director of the Elie Wiesel Center for Jewish Studies. He is currently working on a brief history of Jerusalem and why the city came to matter to Jews, Christians, and Muslims.

 

[1] See Andrew Jacobs, Remains of the Jews: The Holy Land and Christian Empire in Late Antiquity (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2004).

[2] The phenomenon of “sacred theft” was vividly described by Patrick J. Geary in his now classic Furta Sacra: Thefts of Relics in the Central Middle Ages (rev. ed.; Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1991 [1978]).

[3] Barbara Boehm and Melanie Holcomb (eds.), Jerusalem 1000-1400: Every People Under Heaven (New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2016).

Add comment

You entered an incorrect username or password

Sorry, you must be logged in to post a comment.

1 comment

by Newest
by Best by Newest by Oldest

The Holy between the Imaginary and the Real

Jerusalem 1000-1400 at The Metropolitan Museum of Art


Michael Zank


How do you represent a city that is and is not there? This has been the question for Jews since the days of the first destruction of the city in 586 BCE. It was the question for Emperor Constantine and his mother Helena, who ventured to retrieve a city that Emperor Hadrian had condemned to oblivion. What Constantine did was something else, too: he took the imagined city of the Christians and grafted it onto the landscape of a Roman military colony that had been built on the plowed-under remains of earlier Jerusalems. What could not be plowed had been left in ruins and now became part of a larger symbolic landscape: a new Jerusalem overshadowing the remains of the old, as Eusebius noted.

A few centuries later, as Muslim tradition asserts, the conquering caliph ʿUmar b. al-Khaṭṭāb entered the city looking for the “holy house,” bayt al-maqdis, as the Arabs called the city. What he was shown by Bishop Sophronius was a glorious Roman shrine to the resurrection (Gr. anástasis; Syr. qiyāmā); what he was shown by his Jewish native informants was the ruins of the original Temple, now a dung heap. The early Muslims took a sweet form of revenge on the Christian rhetoric of contempt for the “remains of the Jews”1 by punning on the Syriac name of the shrine to the resurrection (calling it qumāmah, i.e., dung heap) and rebuilding the holy house they believed had been there since creation, a temple to the maker of the universe first built by the angels.

How to represent a city that is and is not there was also the question tackled by Barbara Drake Boehm and Melanie Holcomb when they began, about six years ago, to plan the Jerusalem exhibit now on view at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, Jerusalem 1000-1400: Every People Under Heaven. When they first visited Jerusalem looking for remnants of the high Middle Ages, they began to see them everywhere. This is not so surprising, as Barbara Drake Boehm and Melanie Holcomb are accomplished medievalists who had come to the city for that very purpose.

templeimplements

Implements and furniture of the Jerusalem Temple, kept alive in Jewish memory through word and image. Illumination from a Catalan manuscript of the Hebrew Bible, first quarter 15th c., gold and ink on parchment (Jay and Jeannie Schottenstein Collection, Columbus).

But they found more. Through the clutter of modern national archaeology, which foregrounds the city’s biblical antecedents, they saw that most of the Old City (except for  its Ottoman-era walls) is actually a medieval city. Once you pay attention, you recognize Mamluk, Latin Christian, and earlier styles in the ornate archways, the gates and arches of Jerusalem’s Noble Sanctuary (al-ḥaram al-sharīf), the water fountains (subul; sing. sabīl) in the shuk or market, and the schools (madāris; sing. madrasah) along the western and northern edge of the ancient Herodian platform. The Old City’s churches, hospices, and monasteries of the Greeks, Armenians, Georgians, Syrians, Franciscans, and others we see today were either built or rebuilt in those centuries, or else built more recently on the remains of medieval Christian foundations. One of the most enchanted places in the Old City is the ruin of a German crusader church near the ascent from the Western Wall to the Jewish Quarter. Once you start looking, the Middle Ages are everywhere.

Boehm and Holcomb also found something else. Aside from the residential quarters and pious institutions, the Old City today is still a commercial center. The shuk, which serves as a shopping center for the locals and a market of locally produced and imported wares and trinkets for pilgrims and tourists, very much resembles what the city was like in the Middle Ages. To prove it, the exhibit does two things. It surrounds the objects on display with images of the Old City of Jerusalem today, and it opens with a display of objects attesting to the vibrancy of medieval commerce and trade. It lets you enter the medieval city not so much as a holy place but as a real place. To make the point, the first vitrine holds a shining golden coin horde from Caesarea. Before we meet the Crusaders or receive glimpses of books produced or used in and around Jerusalem, we see textiles from far away Gujarat; silks and woven carpets produced in Egypt; fine ceramic, glass, and metalware – some showing Chinese influence; and bejewelled reliquaries treasured by the Frankish nobility. We read how these or similar objects surface in stories about stolen belts or relics. As an example of the latter, we hear about a Christian monk who stole a precious relic from a local church but was subsequently overtaken by remorse when, as in the biblical book of Jonah, his homebound boat was caught in a tempest. This story from Amalfi became part of the legend of the transfer of the relic to its final resting place.2

matthewparisholyland

Map of the Holy Land from the Chronica Majora of Matthew Paris (d. 1259). Oriented along an east-west vertical axis, in this map the walled city of Jerusalem appears at the upper right, with the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the Dome of the Rock, and Al-Aqsa Mosque visible within. At the upper left (i.e. to the north) Mount Ararat with Noah’s Ark appears in Armenia, while the city of Acre, a major port in Palestine during the Crusader era, appears at the bottom (i.e. to the west of Jerusalem) (Corpus Christi College ms. 26; courtesy The Master and Fellows of Corpus Christi College, Cambridge).

The objects attest to the vibrancy of an economy of exchange that was in place before, during, and after the Crusades. The opening room thus serves as a caveat – perhaps the inverse of the inscription on Dante’s inferno: Have hope as you enter this Jerusalem! When you think of that medieval place, don’t only think of religion, and don’t think of the three Abrahamic religions as monolithic. Don’t think of a clash of civilizations, but of a real place where people met – though sometimes using the implements of war and driven by exclusionary rhetoric – and where they learned from one another. They even gave one another the celestial world as a gift! This is quite literally the point of one of the objects on display, a celestial globe that the sultan Al-Malik al-Kamīl may have given to Frederick II at the time when the latter, instead of taking Ayyubid Jerusalem by force – as he was instructed to do by two popes – negotiated a peaceful arrangement that allowed Christians to “own” the city for a period of ten years instead.

globe

A celestial globe made of copper with gold and silver inlay gifted by the Ayyubid sultan Al-Malik al-Kamīl (r. 1218-1238) to the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II of the house of Hohenstaufen (r. 1212-1250) during treaty negotiations in 1229 during the Sixth Crusade (Museo Nazionale di Capodimonte, Naples).

The exhibition illustrates something else, namely, the plurality of cultural inheritances of the age on display. The eras of Fatimid, Latin, Ayyubid, and Mamluk rule of Jerusalem are generally more likely to be unfamiliar to Protestants. I don’t mean to disparage Protestants for paying little attention to medieval history. I mean to say that there is nothing there that matters to the average Protestant on a visceral level. For others, on the other hand, the high and low moments of that age as well as its great cultural productions are of enduring value. Roman Catholics, Armenians, Greek, Georgians, Ethiopians, and Syrian Christians are not only present in Jerusalem, but maintain the same rites, practices, and pious commitments as their medieval predecessors. We need to remember that the Protestant Reformation did away with most, if not all, of these practices and traditions in favor of a new biblicism that circumvented the authority of tradition. That was precisely the point of the Protestant Reformation. Its side effect was the disparaging of just about everything that was holy to the people of the Middle Ages.

In contrast, the Catholic Franciscan order still considers itself the custodian of the Holy Land. The Greek Orthodox, Armenian, Coptic, Syriac, Ethiopian, and Latin churches still (grudgingly) share responsibility for the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Similarly, the Islamic mosques, shrines, schools, and other institutions supported by pious endowments (documented in the exhibit’s theme of “Patronage”) have been in continual use up to the modern age, and the authors whose manuscripts are on display here are still read today. The eleventh-century Persian philosopher and mystic al-Ghazālī, who made his home in Jerusalem, is still among the most widely cherished orthodox Islamic thinkers. For a Jewish visitor, the exhibition offers moving autographs (manuscripts written by the author himself) by Rambam (Moses Maimonides, d. 1204), whose Mishneh Torah is the basis of Jewish law even today, and by Judah Halevi (d. 1141), whose Hebrew poetry is among the finest ever produced. The works of these and other greater and lesser figures are not displayed to draw attention to them as individuals, but rather to illustrate a number of themes, including languages and writing systems, and also the struggle of medieval thinkers to come to terms with the differences between biblical descriptions of Jerusalem’s holy Temple (what is not there) and the actual place they saw with their own eyes.

salzmann

Majestic, serene, and devoid of human life: detail, photograph of the Temple Mount/Ḥaram al-Sharīf by Auguste Salzmann (2005.100.373.13; Gilman Collection, Gift of The Howard Gilman Foundation, 2005; courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art).

The exhibit does justice to the differences between Christian, Muslim, and Jewish communities without essentializing them. The boundaries between these traditions are shown to be permeable. In appearance, a Syriac version of the New Testament gospel may look like a Qurʾān. Some of the Hebrew writing of Maimonides is actually in the Arabic language. And when it comes to the last theme of the exhibit, on Jews, Christians, and Muslims imagining the end of time and the heavenly Jerusalem, they may use different visuals, but the scenarios and the artistic devices used to depict them resemble one another. In this manner, the political part of the exhibit (entitled “The Drumbeat of War”) is framed on one end by the sphere of commerce – desired objects of material culture attesting to the day-by-day economy of exchange of goods – and on the other by images of a perfect world in Paradise whose entrance may be hidden, though we all know it is in Jerusalem.

The exhibit comes with a beautiful catalogue that is a distinguished achievement in its own right, with essays by art historians, medieval historians, and specialists on Jerusalem.3 The essays are grouped according to the same themes around which the exhibition is organized—“Trade and Tourism in Medieval Jerusalem,” “Pluralism in the Holy City,” “Experiencing Sacred Art in Jerusalem,” “Holy War and the Power of Art,” “Patronage,” and “Seeking the Eternal Jerusalem.” Here, too, the curators avoid organizing the exhibition in chronological order of the regimes that took turns at ruling Jerusalem, and  Jewish, Christian, and Muslim perspectives are thematically integrated.

The exhibition will be on display until January 2017 and may be viewed in concert with another exhibit, on the same floor of The Met, of Auguste Saltzmann’s photographs of Jerusalem from 1854. Charming in its own right, the contrast could not be stronger between the colorful, multivocal medieval city documented in Every People Under Heaven and the stark sepia images of architectural features of the city just before the urban boom of the second half of the nineteenth century, images that are devoid of signs of humans or human activity except for archaeological features, especially the Ottoman walls and gates of Jerusalem. The very least we can learn from this contrast is that the Western gaze has changed. We are now more interested in the ordinary lives of peoples of the past as they can appear to us through the material objects they left behind, and less in abstract ideas. What has not changed is that the manner in which we display Jerusalem reflects what we think about it today. For Saltzmann, Jerusalem was a landscape attesting to its biblical past and expectant of the great eschatological change. For Boehm and Holcomb, the medieval past has lessons to teach for the real and actual Jerusalem of today. They were not sure how their exhibition was going to be received by different parts of the public, but their experience so far has been overwhelmingly positive. That should not come as a surprise either. Who would not like to see a Jerusalem where Jews, Christians, and Muslims somehow got along?

 

MICHAEL ZANK is a native of Germany, a trained Protestant theologian and a Jewish philosopher who teaches philosophy, history, and literature of western religions at Boston University, where he also serves as the director of the Elie Wiesel Center for Jewish Studies. He is currently working on a brief history of Jerusalem and why the city came to matter to Jews, Christians, and Muslims.

 

[1] See Andrew Jacobs, Remains of the Jews: The Holy Land and Christian Empire in Late Antiquity (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2004).

[2] The phenomenon of “sacred theft” was vividly described by Patrick J. Geary in his now classic Furta Sacra: Thefts of Relics in the Central Middle Ages (rev. ed.; Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1991 [1978]).

[3] Barbara Boehm and Melanie Holcomb (eds.), Jerusalem 1000-1400: Every People Under Heaven (New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2016).

The Holy between the Imaginary and the Real

Jerusalem 1000-1400 at The Metropolitan Museum of Art

The Holy between the Imaginary and the Real

Jerusalem 1000-1400 at The Metropolitan Museum of Art