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Jerusalem 1000-1400 at the Met

Gospel Book Sis, Cilicia (present-day Turkey), 1346 Written by Nerses, a priest, and the scribe; illuminated by Sargis Pidzak. Armenian Patriarchate, Jerusalem
Gospel Book Sis, Cilicia (present-day Turkey), 1346 Written by Nerses, a priest, and the scribe; illuminated by Sargis Pidzak. Armenian Patriarchate, Jerusalem.

By Bobbie Leigh

The three Abrahamic faiths that define Jerusalem have fought, protected, cherished, and preserved this ancient and mile-square city, each in its own way. Jerusalem 1000-1400: Every People Under Heaven, The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s  blockbuster new exhibition,  presents some 200 objects —reliquaries, ceramics, glass,  lamps and lanterns,  jewelry, weapons,  and many, many books — expressions of Jewish, Christian, and Islamic art from the era of the crusades. The show is huge, well worth more than one visit. (It has only 65 fewer objects than the Met’s last mega show, Pergamon and the Hellenistic Kingdoms of the Ancient World.)

Reliquary of Saint Anastasios the Persian Holy Land, 969–70. Domkapitel and Domschatzkammer, Aachen Image: © Domkapitel Aachen (photograph by Ann Münchow)
Reliquary of Saint Anastasios the Persian Holy Land, 969–70. Domkapitel and Domschatzkammer, Aachen Image: © Domkapitel Aachen (photograph by Ann Münchow)

The co-curators, Barbara Drake Boehm and Melanie Holcomb, set their sights on gathering extraordinary manuscripts and precious art and artifacts from around the world.  Seeking was one challenge. The other was getting permission to borrow them.   The curators give great thanks to the Franciscans who had many items in their custody that they hoped to borrow. The curators tell the story of waiting to meet a friar in Jerusalem in a hotel lobby. Boehm wrote that she and Holcomb  sat there for a long time  waiting for a friar in traditional robes  and sandals  to appear  when a  young guy in black  jeans, a black t-shirt, sneakers and  sunglasses came up to them.“He picked us out, which was a good thing,” she wrote, “because we would have been there all day trying to figure that out.”

The Virgin and Apostle Capital. Terra Sancta Museum, Basilica of the Annunciation, Nazareth Image: © Marie-Armelle Beaulieu /Custodia Terræ Sanctæ
The Virgin and Apostle Capital. Terra Sancta Museum, Basilica of the Annunciation, Nazareth Image: © Marie-Armelle Beaulieu /Custodia Terræ Sanctæ

It was more than a “good thing” as one of the great treasures of the show is the so-called “Nazareth Capitals” under the jurisdiction of the Franciscans.  The capitals were made to grace the tops of columns, originally intended for a church or shrine and are universally recognized as best examples of Crusader-era sculpture. The five capitals were never  installed. Instead, they were hidden away to prevent destruction.  ((Jerusalem was in the hands of the Christians from the First Crusade in 1099 to 1187 when Saladin sacked it again.) The Franciscans discovered the capitals in 1908.  After much discussion, they granted permission to  the Met’s premier conservator, Jack Soultanian, to restore the capitals   and the deal was sealed. Now in pristine condition, they will return to the Church of the Annunciation in Nazareth in January.

The Saint Matthew Capital. Terra Sancta Museum, Basilica of the Annunciation, Nazareth Image: © Marie-Armelle Beaulieu /Custodia Terræ Sanctæ
The Saint Matthew Capital. Terra Sancta Museum, Basilica of the Annunciation, Nazareth Image: © Marie-Armelle Beaulieu /Custodia Terræ Sanctæ

Rather than present a chronological survey from 1000 to1400, the exhibition is organized by themes, each depicting a facet of life in the city. The first gallery, “The Pulse of Trade and Tourism,” evokes a marketplace, an astounding multi-cultural mix in the streets of Jerusalem at a time when much of the known world was obsessed with the Holy City. Money talked then as now.  A recently discovered horde of 700 solid -gold coins, discovered among a huge cache in the port of Caesarea a year ago, sets the stage for what people were buying and selling. Most astounding is the diversity of goods – ceramics, textiles, jewelry, religious souvenirs that appealed to traders, tourists, pilgrims, scholars, and locals from Iceland to India. Not all of it is dazzling but the varied objects give you an idea of how much stuff –even household goods such as copper platters – was for sale in this huge international flea market.

Jewish Wedding Ring Germany, first half of the 14th century.Thüringisches Landesamt für Denkmalpflege und Archäologie, Weimar (photograph by B. Stefan)
Jewish Wedding Ring Germany, first half of the 14th century.Thüringisches Landesamt für Denkmalpflege und Archäologie, Weimar (photograph by B. Stefan)

One intriguing, highly sophisticated object on view is a 700-year-old golden Jewish wedding ring, topped with what might be a tiny replica of the destroyed ancient Temple.  Scholars suggest its hexagonal form might be mistakenly modeled on the Muslim Dome of the Rock – just one of many cross-cultural artifacts.

Jerusalem has a bloody history and the curators don’t shy away from the battles fought in the city. As they say “art became as complicit as oratory” in encouraging the murder of those who prayed differently.  (When the First Crusade armies captured the city from the ruling Arab Caliphate in 1099, they slaughtered almost all the local Muslims and Jews.)  As the curators emphasize, even war gave rise to works of art.  One example is a 13th-century limestone tomb of a Crusader knight in the gallery devoted to the “Drumbeat of Holy War.” The soulful, young warrior, heavily armed, left his family in France to seek glory fighting in the Holy Land.  His sword is supposedly typical of Chinese weaponry. It is easy to imagine that he bought it in the city’s marketplace.

A Knight of the d’Aluye Family Loire Valley, France, after 1248 – by 1267 From his tomb in the Cistercian Abbey of La Clarté- Dieu, between Le Mans and Tours.The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, The Cloisters Collection, 1925. Image: © The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
A Knight of the d’Aluye Family Loire Valley, France, after 1248 – by 1267 From his tomb in the Cistercian Abbey of La Clarté- Dieu, between Le Mans and Tours.The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, The Cloisters Collection, 1925. Image: © The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

All three religions revered the written word. Lavishly inlaid pen boxes, the medieval equivalent of the zippered pencil cases we used as children, testify that these were “People of the Book.”  Among the most memorable examples are illuminations,   is a stunning paintings on gold paper as in “The Prophet Describes Jerusalem after His Night Journey.”  Although we don’t often encounter portrayals of the Prophet in most Islamic traditions, there are several miniatures such as “The Paths of Paradise,” where we see the “Prophet Encountering Jesus” and “Prophet Muhammad Visiting the Heavenly Pavilion of Abraham.”

The Archangel Israfil (detail) From The Wonders of Creation and Oddities of Existence (‘Aja’ib al-Makhluqat) by al-Qazwini (1202–1283) Egypt or Syria, late 14th – early 15th century. British Museum, London Image: © The Trustees of the British Museum
The Archangel Israfil (detail) From The Wonders of Creation and Oddities of Existence (‘Aja’ib al-Makhluqat) by al-Qazwini (1202–1283) Egypt or Syria, late 14th – early 15th century. British Museum, London Image: © The Trustees of the British Museum

A manuscript from the Mishnah Torah of Maimonides (1135-1204) is one of the few illuminations where we know the name of its creator. Its stunning image of the courtyard of the Temple with two priests performing ancient rites is attributed to the Master of the Barba Missal, a scribe for an elite Italian family. Its opulent burnished gold letters still glow. Another rarity from the Torah scholar Maimonides, who traveled to Jerusalem in 1165,is a floor plan of the ancient temple thought be sketched in his own hand.

Another remarkable work with attribution is a Gospel Book by Sargis Pidzak, an Armenian whose manuscript was brought by pilgrims to Jerusalem   around 1382.   Saint Matthew is seated writing his Gospel before a writing table. What is unusual is that the artist depicts divine inspiration by depicting the hand of God extending from the heavens.

Throughout the show, short video interviews with locals — a textile merchant, scholars, an Islamic interpreter and an Armenian Orthodox priest who works with other Christian denomination to schedule access to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre — give you a sense of the city today as you listen to the voices of people trying to preserve it. A Franciscan Friar says it all: “You know, Jerusalem, it is called the Holy City, but it is really made Holy City only if we are a little bit holy in it.”

The theme of the final gallery is “The Promise of Eternity” where huge photos of olive trees dominate. This is such a promising ending as the olive is one of the few trees that are able to root, grow, and bear fruit in dry, rocky soil.  It is even more of a fitting ending when you recall that in the story of Genesis, it was an olive branch that the dove brought back to Noah, signifying renewal and restoration.

Jerusalem 1000-1400: Every People Under Heaven is on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art through January 8, 2017.

Bobbie Leigh has written for many national publications including The Wall Street Journal, Travel & Leisure, and Departures. Currently she is a New York correspondent for Art & Antiques.
Bobbie Leigh has written for many national publications including The Wall Street Journal, Travel & Leisure, and Departures. Currently she is a New York correspondent for Art & Antiques.
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