- Jerusalem at the Met
Jerusalem 1000–1400: Every People under Heaven names an impressive exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art that ran from September 26, 2016 to January 8, 2017; it was organized by Barbara Boehm and Melanie Holcomb. The fact that so many people have made art that relates to this city holy to the three Abrahamic faiths—Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—testifies to its draw and the reasons for which such an exhibition is not just important but essential to educate the world on its traditions.1 The colorful illustrated catalogue is a sumptuous record of the format of the exhibition and the wealth of objects included.
One of the most striking and significant elements of this exhibition on the perception of Jerusalem in the Middle Ages was its multicultural approach. Scholars often treat the culture of only one faith of this region because of limited training or the fear of venturing out of their academic siloes. Yet, as the exhibition's curators assert, medieval Jerusalem was an environment in which "variety occurred across multiple dimensions: religious, linguistic, ethnic, and cultural" (p. 65), and thus it deserves to [End Page 562] be treated in its rich complexities. The curators chose not to organize the catalogue (and the exhibition) by the three faiths but rather by six themes, incorporating materials from each of the religions in each theme and highlighting connections among them. The common themes relate across the cultures to allow for a comprehensive look at this fascinating place that is both an urban center and religious concept. Importantly, that mix "that was medieval Jerusalem yielded an environment of perpetual instability" (p. 75). The catalogue is mostly successful in balancing this instability through its thematic organization and variety of multimedia objects from the three faiths, though at times its balance is disturbed when the ordering of the themes, lack of graphics, or selection of certain topics within the themes weaken its cohesiveness.
The first section of the catalogue, "Trade and Tourism," demonstrates in its introductory essay how commerce and travel can break down barriers between faiths. The three supplemental essays on domestic goods, Jewish-Muslim encounters, and souvenirs from the Holy Land provide context for the material and social culture associated with the holy city in this era. The variety of objects in this section fruitfully illustrates how people came to Jerusalem from all over and what objects show that movement. Yet, "given the life-threatening dangers and discomfort encountered by seafarers on the Mediterranean," I propose that the catalogue should first have established the reasons "why anyone would have traveled to Jerusalem" (p. 9; emphasis added) at all. Why did the city develop into such a special place in the psyche of so many? By having the "Experiencing Sacred Art in Jerusalem," "Holy War and the Power of Art," and "Seeking the Eternal Jerusalem" sections at the start, and only then turning to its cultural production in sections on "Trade and Tourism in Medieval Jerusalem," "Pluralism in the Holy City," and "Patronage in Jerusalem," the catalogue would have offered a more coherent path to follow.
The next section, "Pluralism," skillfully demonstrates the complexity of cultures present in medieval Jerusalem. The section's introductory essay by the curators explains the different faiths' attitudes toward the city. The four brief supplemental essays are informative, though uneven, in their nature and number. They address one Christian, two Jewish, and one Muslim topic, focused either on a person (Saint Sabas and Maimonides), a group (the Karaites), or a type of text (the Merits of Jerusalem). To gain a similar perspective on each faith, it would have been beneficial to concentrate on comparable types and numbers of topics across the faiths. Nevertheless, the objects chosen effectively demonstrate the intricacies not just among but within different faiths by examining sectarian divisions. [End Page 563] The New Testament from Mar Aziza monastery (no. 34) with its Syriac text shows how Syriac Christians branched off from other Orthodox sects through...