Jerusalem Re-enchanted

By Sara Lipton

Nineteenth-century travelers to Jerusalem were notoriously disappointed by what they found. Herman Melville complained in his Journal of a Visit to Europe and the Levant (1857) that “the color of the whole city is grey & looks at you like a cold grey eye in a cold old man … Judea is one accumulation of stones — stony mountains & stony plains; stony torrents & stony roads; stony walls & stony fields, stony houses & stony tombs; stony eyes & stony hearts. Before you and behind you are stones. Stones to the right & stones to the left … No country will more quickly dissipate romantic expectations than Palestine — particularly Jerusalem.”[1] Albert Rhodes, American consul to Jerusalem in the 1860’s, was equally disenchanted with the denizens of the city: “monks ignorant of the elementary principals of their faith; Jews living three thousand years ago; natives with minds of children; all sitting, eternally sitting, and none working.”[2]

Such Orientalist writings enshrined an idea of Jerusalem as a backwater — sleepy at best, corrupt and degenerate at worst — a tangible symptom of the disease afflicting that “sick man” of Europe, the Ottoman Empire. That image is echoed by modern historians of the Middle East, who tend to contrast medieval Jerusalem’s symbolic importance with its actual political, economic, and cultural insignificance. Without explicitly saying so, this is the idea that the current exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art,  Jerusalem 1000-1400: Every People Under Heaven, seeks to overturn. There is precious little gray, and no signs of stasis or backwardness in this sumptuous show. Instead, we are treated to a dazzling display of prosperity and creativity. The textiles, glassware, and metalwork are technological and artistic marvels; the dozens of manuscripts in 12 languages (and nine alphabets) are monuments to learning and wisdom; and what stones there are tend to be marble and gems.

The emphasis of Jerusalem 1000-1400: Every People Under Heaven is not on landscape or people, politics or rulers, faith or history, but on things. These things come from a vast geographical area, as far west as Spain and as far east as India, reflecting the show’s dual interests: in Jerusalem both as creative inspiration and creative center. The show’s aesthetic (rather than historical) focus is underscored by its organization. It is not arranged chronologically — objects from the eleventh and the fifteenth centuries appear side by side — and it offers relatively little contextualization or religious instruction.[3] This choice has dismayed some critics — artifacts from the larger and wealthier Christian and Muslim communities necessarily figure more prominently than objects associated with Judaism, for example — and it may confuse some visitors unfamiliar with medieval history. But it seems fitting for the country’s premier art museum to focus on art.

And what art it is! Every room contains treasures — both storied masterpieces (the Psalter of Melisende, Cat. 121; the remains of the pulpit given to al-Aqsa Mosque by Saladin, Cat. 93b) and, in an impressive curatorial feat, hitherto unknown gems from religious institutions and private collections. Among the many must-see objects, I would single out the carved limestone capitals from the Church of the Annunciation in Nazareth (Cat. 101a-e), with figures whose swirling lines of drapery and intense, mournful expressions seem to simultaneously embody both the soulfulness and the violence of the Holy Land. Visually glorious, they offer poignant testimony to the insecurity of war: the capitals, carved shortly before Saladin’s invasion of the area, were buried at the approach of his army and never installed in the church for which they were made. On a more intimate scale, the ivory cross of Sybil of Anjou (Cat. 123) is a miracle of quiet refinement. Jesus is calm and dignified, his closed eyes, leaning head, pale, naked trunk, and slightly bent knees suggesting his humble humanity, while delicate designs lining the cross’s edges turn the gibbet into an elegant backdrop fit for a God-king. The superb Qur’an made for Sultan Baybers II in 1304-06 (Cat. 133) surrounds golden verses with ornate blue and gold geometric designs of astonishing intricacy, which nonetheless achieve an overall balance and harmony.

Aesthetics do not always take center stage, however. Presumably neither the ceramic pot for cooking lentils (Cat. 11) nor the two unnervingly long, heavy, sharp swords (Cat. 105, 107) were selected for their artistic merit. Some of the most astonishing manuscripts — a treatise on armor owned by Saladin himself (Cat. 104), a plan of the first Temple drawn by the great Jewish philosopher Maimonides (Cat. 38), the letter scrawled by the Spanish poet Judah ha-Levy telling a friend about his desire to “go east” (Cat. 22) — are exciting for their historical rather than artistic value. It seems that no exhibition on Jerusalem can fully avoid history.

141-chasse-of-ambazac-300
Chasse of Ambazac. From the Treasury of Grandmont Limoges, ca. 1180 – 90. Image courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

And in that realm, the results are more mixed. The show opens, surprisingly and refreshingly, with a gallery entitled “The Pulse of Trade and Tourism” — a secular reframing of the more expected “pilgrimage” that signals a desire to push back against yet another cliché: of Jerusalem as Holy City, sacred to the three Abrahamic faiths, and somehow separate from the mundane world. Indeed, nothing could be more worldly than the first object the visitor encounters: a pile of approximately 2,600 gold dinars — enough money, the label tells us, to buy 15–20 large houses. Elsewhere in the gallery, exquisite gold filigree jewelry, an intricate blown glass perfume sprinkler, and an imposing copper and silver bowl with a noble’s coat-of-arms furnish salutary reminders that people didn’t just fight and pray in the Holy Land, but also ate, flirted, preened, and played.

But clichés are hard to slay. The second object in the gallery immediately pivots back to the holy. The focus of a map of the Holy Land in a massive manuscript written and painted by a 13th-century English monk is unabashedly religious. Brother Matthew plotted a path for pilgrims, not idle vacationers, and marked out sites renowned for their spiritual significance, rather than natural or manmade splendor. The culmination of the gallery at the far end, like the culmination of the ideal Christian pilgrimage, is the Holy Cross itself, or at least its ostensible fragments, displayed in glittering gold and silver crosses whose form and lavishness were designed to signal the still greater value of the priceless relics within.

This tension between the curators’ desire to escape traditional frameworks and timeworn assumptions, and the enduring power of those frameworks and assumptions, is evident throughout the exhibition. The second gallery, like the title of the exhibition, seeks to complicate the overly simplistic formula of three monolithic and competing “Abrahamic faiths,” highlighting instead the “Diversity of Peoples.” Its wall text rightly notes the rich variety of beliefs and languages within Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, and this variety is vividly demonstrated via manuscripts written in Hebrew, Arabic, Latin, Coptic, Ethiopic, Karaite-Arabic, Persian, Syriac, Greek, Georgian, Armenian, and Samaritan for a dizzying range of groups and sects. Myriad objects in other galleries further blur the boundaries between, and complicate identities among, Muslim, Jew, and Christian. An 11th-century astrolabe (navigational device) from Muslim Spain (Cat. 2b) features the name ‘Jerusalem’ in Arabic, Judeo-Arabic (Hebrew in Arabic characters), and Latin. It is hard to know why. To flaunt the learning of a proudly poly-lingual owner? So that it might be shared by — or sold to — members of different faiths? To proclaim that it could navigate the entirety of the world? An Egyptian- or Syrian-made copper platter (Cat. 19a) surrounds the arms of a great French-Cypriot crusading family with an Arabic inscription wishing the owner “power, victory, and long life.” Within etched roundels along the outer band, haloed saints sit crossed-legged, Indian-style. In the 14th-century Moskowitz Mahzor (Cat. 61a), German Jews imagined Jerusalem’s Gates of Mercy, Muslim structures built upon earlier Jewish sites, in the form of a high Gothic cathedral.

Yet this admirable (and accurate) underscoring of Jerusalem’s religious and human complexity is somewhat undermined in subsequent galleries. Three rooms are devoted to specific buildings — the Temple (necessarily “Absent”), the Church of the Holy Sepulchre [sic], and (linked together) the Dome of the Rock and the Aqsa Mosque — a selection that implicitly reconstructs the previously deconstructed monoliths of Judaism, Christianity, Islam. These are, of course, major monuments that cannot be ignored, but a more complex picture might have emerged from also examining, for example, the Georgian Monastery of the Holy Cross, the Armenian Orthodox Cathedral of St. James the Great, and/or the Mamluk Ashrafiyya Madrasa.

Similarly, a gallery dedicated to ‘The Drumbeat of Holy War” provides a simplified view of Levantine military affairs. Certainly during the centuries in question, Christians and Muslims frequently and ferociously battled each other in the name of faith. But Holy War was not the only kind of war waged in the Holy Land between 1000-1400. For much of that period, there were equally active intra-Muslim and intra-Christian rivalries. It was the conquest of Fatimid-held Jerusalem by Seljuk Turks in June 1073 that eventually helped spark the First Crusade. The crusaders proceeded to establish four Crusader States, which as often battled each other, or their Greek Orthodox neighbors (both sides occasionally aided by Muslim allies), as Muslim opponents. Saladin is best known in the West for his capture of Jerusalem in 1187, but he spent most of his career conquering Muslim Syria, and was on excellent terms with the Christian queen of Georgia. The small watercolor of indeterminate date depicting “Scenes of Carnage,” probably from Egypt (Cat. 106), may just as easily be a portrait of dynastic or internecine strife as of Holy War.

Beautiful as the objects assembled here are, they do not fully uphold an image of Jerusalem as an artistic capital, as opposed to an artistic muse.  The fact is, many objects ostensibly testifying to Jerusalem’s own creativity were not made in Jerusalem. Some might qualify on a technicality — Ashkelon, Nazareth, Tiberias, and Acre were cities within the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem. But the inescapable impression conveyed is that Jerusalem owed its high material culture to its location between the great cities and courts of Syria and Egypt, and its trade contacts with Sicily and Italy. The coins at the opening of the exhibition found off the coast of Caesarea were minted in Cairo, and probably bound for a Syrian port. Linens, silks, and rich embroideries were imported from Spain, Egypt, even Gujarat. In some cases, the connection to Jerusalem is so tenuous as to prompt a kind of “Six Degrees of Separation from Jerusalem” parlor game. The mid 14th-century silver belt “possibly from Genoa” (Cat. 18) reflects “international taste,” and recalls “tales of the Holy Land” in which precious belts play a large role. A Syriac New Testament dating to 1212 was made in and for a monastery in southeastern Turkey; other than the references to Jerusalem in the text, its connection to the city seems to rest in the fact that monastery was founded shortly after its founder had returned from a journey to Jerusalem. The 13th-century aquamanile (water pitcher) in the form of a mounted knight is from Germany; it is included here because the steed seems to be dappled gray warhorse — a breed introduced to Europe from Islamic lands.

If the curators’ second goal — to recuperate Jerusalem as an artistic center — is less than fully realized, the exhibition nonetheless ranks as a stunning success: the most brilliant demonstration of medieval Jerusalem’s power to inspire artistic creativity ever mounted. The 15th-century, Jerusalem-born author Mujir al-Din once boasted of his home town: “from the moment [a visitor] sees these ennobled places he will receive so much delight and joy as can scarcely be described …”[4] The same might be said of the visitor to Jerusalem 1000-1400: Every People Under Heaven.

 

Jerusalem 1000-1400: Every People Under Heaven will be showing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York through January 8, 2017.

 


[1] The Writings of Herman Melville. The Northwestern-Newberry Edition. Journals (Evanston, Ill., 1989), pp. 90-91.

[2] Ruth Kark, American Consuls in the Holy Land, 1832-1914 (Jerusalem and Detroit, 1994), p. 314.

[3] The catalogue, by contrast, provides extensive historical background and explanation.

[4] Donald P. Little, “Mujīr Al-Dīn Al-Ulaymī’s Vision of Jerusalem in the Ninth/Fifteenth Century,” Journal of the American Oriental Society 115: 2 (1995): 237-47 (at p. 242).

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