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Jerusalem 1000-1400: Every People Under Heaven

Published on
November 3

The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s blockbuster show of the fall season, Jerusalem 1000-1400: Every People Under Heaven provides visitors with an even-handed glance into the opulence and culture of medieval Jerusalem as an ancient holy city and pilgrimage destination, as well as a center of commerce and artistic production.

Upon walking into the exhibition, the visitor is immediately confronted by a dimly lit “Treasury Room.” Spotlighted glass cases exhibit gold coins, rare medieval astrolabes, finely crafted glass--essentially a plethora of priceless material goods. This opulent entryway into the Museum’s recreation of the medieval city serves as a sort of “amuse bouche” for the treasures that are to come and hints at the commercial, cultural exchange-based role of the city of Jerusalem in the medieval world.

 

 

 

Planispheric Astrolabe Inscribed in Judaeo-Arabic
ca. 1300
The Nasser D. Khalili Collection of Islamic Art
(SCI 158)
 

 

 

 

 

 

 

As the exhibition progresses, the objects on display become more diverse, but by no means any less priceless. A selection of ancient, holy texts from each of the Abrahamic faiths are on display, as well as pilgrimage scrolls from each faith. Three scrolls of particular interest depict pilgrimages to the holy city of Jerusalem in specific religious contexts. The 15th century ‘Umra Certificate, a Muslim pilgrimage scroll certifying the completion of a pilgrimage, or hajj, includes major stops such as Jerusalem and Mecca. On the scroll, Jerusalem is represented iconographically by the famous Dome of the Rock and Aqsa Mosque, two green domes surrounded by lamp-filled arcades.

Similarly, the 16th century “Genealogy of the Patriarchs” (Yichus ha-Avot) is a commemorative scroll attributed to Jewish pilgrims to the Holy Land. Jerusalem is represented iconographically by the same two domes, as well as the lamp-filled arcades; however, these significant landmarks are labeled as “Solomon’s Study” and “the Temple,” respectively. In the accompanying 15th century Christian travel Peregrinatio in terram sanctam, or “journey to the holy land,” Bernhard von Breydenbach labels the Dome of the Rock “Solomon’s Temple,” cuts out the Muslim monuments that would have existed in the city, and depicts the Church of the Holy Sepulchre as the most dominant landmark. Through these records and scrolls, each Abrahamic faith lays an iconographic claim to the holy city that they generally do not wish to share.



Bernhardt von Breydenbach
Detail from plate of Jerusalem, Perigrinatio in terram sanctam
15th century
National Library of Scotland

 

 

 

This multiplicity of perspectives is reflective of the exhibition as a whole, which seems to attempt to depict medieval Jerusalem as a diverse cultural and artistic center that came to be through the mingling of different peoples and religions, each of which saw Jerusalem as a central player in their individual spiritual repertoires. If successful in its display of iconographic wealth and diversity, the exhibition does tend to skim over the conflict that has afflicted the region of the Holy Land for centuries.  

By the last room of the exhibition, it becomes apparent that the wall color has become lighter throughout the exhibition, from the dark, dimly lit “Treasury Room,” to the final room, a white-walled gallery suggesting “The Promise of an Eternal City.” If uplifting and hopeful, there is disappointingly little mention of the religious conflict and war that is central to a complete understanding of the city of Jerusalem. Although a deeply impressive and thoughtful exhibition, perhaps a more careful look at the Crusades, the multiple sackings of Jerusalem, the rampant religious persecution--even in one of the earlier, dark rooms--would have provided a more well-rounded understanding of the city that certainly was and is a cultural center, but one that is rarely peaceful.