NEW YORK — Visitors to the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s new exhibition on medieval Jerusalem are greeted by photos projected on a wall, which, put together, show the holy city’s contemporary skyline. The image that emerges is dominated by the Dome of the Rock; the Old City Walls and several churches can be seen as well. But neither the Western Wall nor any other iconic Jewish sites in the city appear.
This glaring absence sets the tone for what the Met calls a “landmark exhibition,” a collection of 200 stunning artifacts that impressively illustrate the world’s age-old fascination with Jerusalem, but could disappoint Jewish and Israeli museumgoers.
To be sure, the exhibition, called “Jerusalem 1000-1400: Every People Under Heaven,” underlines that the city was (and is) holy to all three Abrahamic religions. Jews, Christians and Muslims equally considered themselves people of the book, an inscription on a museum wall determines. “The city’s madrases, yeshivas and monasteries made the city something of a college town.”
But to this writer, the collection, culled from 60 lenders from across the globe, including the Israel Museum, appears to be heavy on Christianity and, to a lesser extent, on Islam, while Jewish themes seem much rarer. The exhibition also focuses on cultural and religious aspects, neglecting to highlight the often bloody clashes that occurred in the city throughout the Middle Ages.
(This exhibition steers clear, less surprisingly, of any modern controversies; the Holy City has been the flashpoint of tensions and deadly violence for decades, including a recent series of attacks called by some the “Jerusalem intifada.”)
Around the year 1000, the curators explain, Jerusalem witnessed an unprecedented rise in global importance, hosting pilgrims from Iceland to India, and even inspiring people who never set foot in the city. Over the next 400 years, “Jerusalem was home to more cultures, religions and languages than ever before. Through times of peace as well as war, Jerusalem remained a constant source of inspiration that resulted in art of great beauty and fascinating complexity.”
Indeed, as visitors stroll through the exhibition, they encounter some magnificent artifacts showcasing a fascination with the city that transcends geographical and cultural boundaries. Jerusalem-themed items include an Arabic astrolabe (an ancient astronomical device designed to help people navigate), a map of the city from 1400s Germany, a page on Jerusalem from a Syriac lectionary, ornate crosses from Ethiopia, goblets from France, incense boxes and mosque lamps from Syria or Egypt, and gospel books from Turkey.
There are, of course, some Jerusalem-related objects made by Jewish lovers of Zion, such as a page from the Barcelona Haggadah, a Jewish wedding ring from Germany, and a floor plan of the Temple, in Maimonides’ own handwriting. Maimonides, the curators note, visited the holy city and even prayed at the Temple Mount.
One highlight of the exhibition is filmed interviews with people living and working in Jerusalem, screened on the museum walls. Complementing the historical artifacts, these video installations apparently aim at connecting the city’s past with its present. Here, too, however, Christian themes dominate. They start with Bilal Abu Khalaf, a textile merchant in the Old City, who shows off his goods, imported from Syria, and talks about coexistence. “I like people to come to contact each other from different religions in my store. We like to keep Jerusalem safe. We have the three religions sharing, and I hope in the future to be much better,” he says.
Other interviewees include Nazeer Hussein Ansari, who runs a hospice for Indian visitors to Jerusalem; Father Samuel Aghoyan, an Armenian Orthodox priest who works at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre; Samar Nimer, who conserves manuscripts in a museum at the al-Aqsa mosque; Theodossios Mitropoulos, who works for the Greek Patriarchate, overseeing the repair and maintenance of church properties in Jerusalem; Mustafa Abu Sway, a professor at al-Quds University; and Franciscan Father Eugenio Mario Alliata.
In contrast, only three Jewish Israelis were interviewed. Writer Ruby Namdar, who has not been living in the city for nearly two decades, speaks beautifully about the destruction of the Temple as a “universal symbol” for a global loss of innocence.
Merav Mack, an expert on Christian communities in the Holy Land, says there was “much more interaction [between the city’s various communities] than we appreciate today.” Rather than looking at Jerusalem’s history as a “sequence of wars,” the debate should center on “cultural exchange,” she adds. “It’s fine not to agree but they were talking to each other, and it would be a shame to miss that.”
Haggai Netzer is a construction manager for the municipality in charge of preserving the city’s ancient roads, including the Via Dolorosa, because, he says, “we know how important this street is for all the Christians around the world.”
Six artistic themes
“There’s nothing Jewish here,” Bonnie Horen, a regular visitor at the Met, told this reporter during a recent visit to the exhibition. Acknowledging that she was exaggerating, she added: “It leans very heavily on the Christian and Muslim communities. That’s not a criticism. There wasn’t much [in terms of Jewish presence] due to the Crusades, which were some sort of ethnic cleansing.”
The exhibition, which opened in late September in the presence of Israel’s consul-general to New York, Dani Dayan, and runs until January 8, looks at six specific factors that made medieval Jerusalem such a source of artistic inspiration: the pulse of trade and tourism, the diversity of peoples, the air of holiness, the drumbeat of holy war, the generosity of patrons and the promise of eternity.
The section on holy war takes up less space than a student of medieval Jewish history might have expected, given the fact that the Crusades, which started in 1096, aimed at Christianity’s reconquest of Jerusalem from the hands of the infidels and left countless of massacred Jews in their wake.
“This period witnessed the intensification of both crusade in Christianity and jihad in Islam,” the curators explain, referring to the time between 1000 and 1400. “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.”
True, there are swords and a manuscript depicting weapons created for “the great Islamic warrior Saladin” and a sculpted effigy showing a French nobleman as a crusader in full battle armor for eternity.
And yet, the exhibition is remarkably devoid of depictions and discussions of conflict and violence — almost “sterile,” as one visitor remarked.
A feel-good show
“There’s no bloodshed. It’s like we’re trying to be one happy family,” said Deborah Feller, a New York artist and former assistant to the museum’s director, after having visited the exhibition.
Martin Donougho, a philosophy professor from Washington DC, said the exhibition was exactly what he expected, but admitted that “it could have been a bit bloodier.” The explanatory notes were too careful not to tread on anyone’s feet. “Welcome to the world of art museums,” he added.
Ellen Todd, a professor of American art history who also teaches a course on museums, agreed that the exhibition lacks awareness of the current fraught political climate. “As in: the crusades were then, this is now, and now let’s look at this cool bazaar,” she said. Curators kept it intentionally uncontroversial, she surmised. “It was a feel-good show in many ways. But we enjoyed it.”
Other museumgoers appreciated the exhibition’s kumbaya feel and its desire to stay out of contemporary controversy. “It conveys very positive and hopeful impressions of a potential for harmony among peoples of diverse religious and political persuasions, without favoring one over another,” said Richard Larschan, a retired English professor. “By representing artifacts from varying competing traditions in relation to one another, there is an implied reinforcement of what they share in common — spiritual values and mutual influences.”
The exhibition — Jerusalem 1000-1400: Every People Under Heaven — is open at The Metropolitan Museum of Art until January 8, 2017.