Jerusalem as a Place of Desire and Death, at the Metropolitan Museum

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Arrows of desire: Jerusalem has been aiming them at the hearts of pilgrims, tourists and potentates for thousands of years. And the complex sensations the stings can deliver — exhilarating, devastating — is what the Metropolitan Museum of Art captures in “Jerusalem 1000-1400: Every People Under Heaven.”


The show, which opens on Sunday, is in classic Met epic mode: 200 objects from some 60 international collections (several in the Middle East) and a time frame in the past, with perspectives from the present through short, conversational interviews with Jerusalem historians and citizens. Much of the art itself, though, is refreshingly far from grand. With standout exceptions, such as the megaweight metalwork toward the end, objects are small or fragile or both, and look especially so in these overscale galleries: bits of fabric, scraps of sculpture, pocket-size icons, glassware, books. If the image of Jerusalem in art is otherworldly and monumental, the one projected by the show, of a city with appetites, personalities and ethnic tension, is human-scale and earth-rooted.

Three major faiths have laid claim to that city. For Jews, it’s the place where, at the End of Days, the Messiah will appear; rebuild the Holy Temple, twice-destroyed; and sort out the righteous from the rest. For Muslims, the city is sacred as the point from which the prophet Mohammad, after a miraculous night flight from Mecca, began a tour of heaven. To Christians, Jerusalem is a giant walk-through reliquary of Jesus’ life and death, with every street, every stone, soaked in his aura.

If spiritual links among these stakeholders are strong, so are ideological differences and sociopolitical rivalries, which can, and have, turned lethal. The show — organized by Barbara Drake Boehm, the senior curator for the Met Cloisters, and Melanie Holcomb, a curator in the department of medieval art — leads us into a field of violent combat, but does so gradually, focusing at the outset on a relatively peaceable form of human competition: shopping.

Medieval Jerusalem was a jumping international market town, and its prosperity is announced at the Met by an upfront show of cash: a pile of gold dinars, some dating to the ninth century, discovered by the Israel Antiquities Authority just last year. Glinting and paper-thin, the coins have a globalist history. The gold was mined in Ghana, marketed in Morocco and minted in Sicily, Tunisia and Egypt, primarily in Cairo, the capital of the Fatimid dynasty, which for a time ruled Jerusalem from afar.

What would such coinage buy in Jerusalem’s markets? Everyday things, for sure: bread and veggies; a length of Indian cotton cloth; a pretty, mass-produced clay bowl. But the pile far exceeds the average household budget. It is a fortune, more than enough for a serious splurge: for a pair of fat gold filigree bracelets, say, or an entire kitchen’s worth of high-priced pots and pans. If you, the owner, were feeling devout, or were nagged by consumer guilt, you could easily afford to commission a deluxe, mosque-worthy Quran; or spring for a first-class icon of the Virgin and Child; or pick up all 14 volumes of the Mishneh Torah — the Book of Divine Service — for home reading.

Even if you did nothing but window-shop, you would end up rich with experiences. An action-packed illustration, “Christ’s Entry Into Jerusalem,” found in a 13th-century book of Gospel readings, is a vision of multiculturalism on parade, with skin of every hue and shade. Whether the painter, possibly a monk in Iraq, actually set foot in the city, we don’t know. But we do know that his view of its diversity was spot on.

Medieval Jerusalem had a large Ethiopian Christian population, with churches of its own. Sufis from India walked the streets. So did monks and rabbis from Greece, Persia and Spain. Francis of Assisi would have been there, if he could (a shipwreck spoiled his plans), but many of his followers arrived and stayed. Maimonides — physician, philosopher and huge Jerusalem fan — paced out the floor plan of the vanished Temple and made a hazy but exacting ink sketch of it that is, inconspicuously but astonishingly, part of the show.

The Holy Temple may have been physically absent, but it was psychologically ever-present, for many in the form of an unappeasable yearning. And images of it, or of its celestial counterpart, appear in art. In a 15th-century illumination it stands, stolid and gold-roofed, against a line of Judean hills. Even more remarkably, it appears in perfect sculptural miniature as the ornament on a Jewish wedding ring.

By the end of the 11th century, portability and discretion were pluses when it came to religious art. Being Muslim or Jewish had become a liability. In Europe in 1095, Pope Urban II put out the call for Christians to liberate Jerusalem from people “absolutely alien to God.” Accordingly, in 1099, Crusader armies showed up at the gates and began an ethnic and religious cleansing. They slaughtered Muslims, burned Jews alive in synagogues and cut down Christians who happened to cross their path.

“Jerusalem 1000-1400: Every People Under Heaven” is on view to members until Sunday, when it opens to the public. It runs through Jan. 8 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art; 212-535-7710, metmuseum.org.

New York Times

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