- Pleasurable Perplexity:Reflecting the Holy City
The exhibition Jerusalem 1000–1400: Every People under Heaven, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York September 26, 2016, to January 8, 2017, was a remarkable achievement. Organized by Barbara Drake Boehm and Melanie Holcomb, it brought together 149 items (many with multiple individual objects) from fifty-seven different collections, including major public museums, libraries, church treasuries, other institutions (notably the Armenian and Greek Patriarchates and the Israel Antiquities Authority), and a number of private collections in the United States and many other countries. Forty-two scholars contributed to the splendid catalogue of the exhibition, which has color photographs of each item in the show, and which will certainly be a major resource for future scholarship. My remarks here are focused on the exhibition itself, which I had the privilege of visiting four times, first alone, then with my graduate seminar, then with my wife, and finally with a group of medievalist art historians on a Study Day initiated by Gerhard Lutz from the Hildesheim Dommuseum. I would gladly have visited again and hope that many of the readers of this essay had the opportunity, and the pleasure, of doing so.
Because I was writing a book on early Islamic Jerusalem when the initial plans for the exhibition were being formed,1 I learned about it early and was amazed that such a project was being considered. There are so many potential problems with any large-scale loan exhibition—high [End Page 551] costs, sometimes unpredictable lenders, changing personnel at the many different institutions involved—and I admire the courage of any curators who undertake such projects. Jerusalem poses all those problems in a particularly acute form, and here I am not referring only to the contemporary political disputes. So many of the great monuments in the city are, well, monumental and could not possibly be brought to New York even were their guardians prepared to lend them. I also wondered initially about the time frame, 1000–1400 c.e., which seemed to exclude the early Jewish period before the Roman destruction of the city in the first century, as well as the early Christian phase in the fourth through sixth centuries, and the early Islamic phase in the seventh and eighth—in other words, the classic formative phases for all three of those religious traditions for whom Jerusalem is so significant. Those dates seemed to me, initially, then, to raise the danger of making it a Crusades show.
My concerns were misplaced. It was a wonderful show, bringing together marvelously diverse, interesting, and often very beautiful material, works seldom seen together or juxtaposed in this way. The organization was thematic rather than chronological, geographical, or by division according to religious affiliation. Instead there were six themes: Trade and Tourism in Medieval Jerusalem; Pluralism in the Holy City; Experiencing Sacred Art in Jerusalem; Holy War and the Power of Art; Patronage in Jerusalem; and Seeking the Eternal Jerusalem. Within each thematic grouping, gathered into a distinct space, were works of many different media spanning the exhibition's entire chronological range, and sometimes a bit beyond. There was little arrangement by chronology, still the most frequent default organization for historical exhibitions. Most thematic sections included at least one video station, always comprising a continuously running loop of a single person speaking: for example, in the first gallery, Bilal Abu Khalaf, a textile merchant; in the second, Merav Mack, a Jerusalem specialist on manuscripts and archives; and later Armenian and Franciscan priests, and even Nazeer Hussain Ansari, who runs a hospice for Indian pilgrims.2 The diversity of views and of peoples implied in the subtitle is clearly a major element of the exhibition's story. All the videos tread lightly around controversies and presented a picture of a remarkably diverse contemporary population in the city while at least implicitly reflecting on the diversity of the medieval city. The usual scholars whom one associates with historical documentaries were mostly absent, substituting...