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Imaginations: The Modern City

Modern artists’ renderings of Jerusalem are deeply informed by the complex religious, political, and cultural history of the city. In art of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries Jerusalem appears not so much as a geographical city as a palimpsest, constructed from layers of meanings developed over centuries. Yet, while these artistic re-makings of Jerusalem unavoidably allude to the city’s long and complex past, many also respond to its most recent and highly turbulent past. Jerusalem’s modern identity has been highly contested. Following a period of considerable persecution of Jewish communities in the latter part of that century, thousands of Russian Jews fled to the Promised Land; in Europe the Zionist movement developed in support of a Jewish homeland in Palestine. In 1917, Great Britain pledged its support, agreeing to help facilitate the establishment of a Jewish state. The British Empire’s support and a rapid increase in the Jewish population of Palestine over the next four decades, combined to create considerable tension with the Arab population already resident in Palestine, including several outbreaks of violence. In 1948 the United Nations attempted to partition the land between a majority-Arab Palestine and a new, majority-Jewish Israel. Jerusalem was divided, with Israel controlling the western part of the city and Palestine controlling the east. But the allocation of the land—including access to holy sites such as the Western Wall and the Temple Mount—have remained strongly contested. In the subsequent decades Jerusalem has witnessed continual clashes as well as ongoing efforts to broker peace. While recognizing the city’s continuing and deep divisions, a number of the representations of the city in this collection express their hopes for reconciliation in the earthly city; others seek out a distant heavenly sanctuary, a New Jerusalem. 

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Imaginations: The Temple

According to the Bible the first Jerusalem Temple was built by Solomon in the tenth century BCE, only to be destroyed by Babylonian invasion in 586 BCE. Struggling to come to grips with the implications of this disaster, Ezekiel 40-48 reports a vision of a new Jerusalem and a new Temple, created by God. After the Persians defeated the Babylonians in the late sixth century BCE, the descendants of the people who had been deported to Babylonia were permitted to return to Jerusalem and rebuild the Temple, albeit not on the glorious scale envisioned in Ezekiel. This ‘Second Temple’ was totally rebuilt under Herod (c. 20 BCE) before being destroyed by Titus and the Romans in 70 CE. One of the most difficult tasks for biblical interpreters has been to imagine and reconstruct this lost building. This collection explores some of the ways in which the Temple, both past and present, has been imagined. These imagined Temples begin with Ezekiel, whose highly structured, idealised Temple, with distinct levels of holiness and strict instructions for performing the correct sacrifices. This in turn influenced the descriptions given by the Temple Scroll found at Qumran by the Dead Sea (c. 150–100 BCE). The New Jerusalem Scroll, also from Qumran (c. 100–50 BCE), pushes its vision well into a future, eschatological era. As these authors re-imagined the Temple they often leaving traces of their own desires for and fears about the future. As these written imaginings were taken on by medieval and modern artists, they posed a number of challenges, not least in their often fantastical features. The artistic renderings featured in this collection responded to these challenges in a variety of ways, drawing on biblical texts, the historical Jerusalem and other cities of their own day, and—of course—their own imaginations.

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The Ancient City: Religious Diversity

Archaeological and textual evidence make clear that Israelite religion developed out of, alongside, and in response to the cults of the many gods and goddesses of the ancient Near East. Major male deities with origins in the southern Levant include the Caananite god El and the Israelite god Yhwh, while Mesopotamian deities such as Assur and Marduk also make occasional appearances in the region. These deities are usually associated with themes of kingship, creation and justice, and sit at the head of their respective pantheons. Other well-known gods include the Canaanite deities Ba’al (a storm-god) and Resheph (a god of plague) and the Mesopotamian deities Shamash (a sun-god) and Sin (a moon-god). Alongside these male deities were a number of female deities. Some of them were considered consorts or wives of one of the male gods. Thus, Athirat was the consort of El and a major female goddess in the Canaanite pantheon; other notable Canaanite goddesses include Anat (the consort of Ba’al), Asherah, Astarte, and Qudshu. Biblical and extra-biblical texts very strongly suggest that the goddess Asherah was closely associated with Yhwh, perhaps as his consort, though the exact nature of their relationship is unclear and highly contested. Ishtar was the most prominent Mesopotamian goddess during the Neo-Assyrian period. Many of these female gods had similar characteristics; some were associated with fertility, but they also covered other areas—such as war. The symbols associated with these female gods are often similar, and it can be difficult to distinguish among them. In this collection you will find examples of this religious diversity in Israel and Judah as it was manifested in inscriptions, figurines of gods and goddesses, amulets and other jewellery, and cultic ritual objects. The exact pronunciation of the name of Israel’s God is unknown, as the divine name was considered too holy to speak at a relatively early stage. It may have been pronounced ‘Yahweh’, but—in part because of the uncertainty of this pronunciation and in part out of respect for Jewish tradition, which continues to hold that the divine name should not be pronounced—it is a common scholarly convention to write the name using only the consonants of the Hebrew text, that is, as Yhwh or YHWH, and this is also the convention of this exhibition.

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The Ancient City: The Public Sphere

The city of Jerusalem was the capital of a small city-state called Judah which, for more than a century prior to its destruction, was a client kingdom of Mesopotamia-based empires: first the Neo-Assyrian Empire, followed by the Neo-Babylonian Empire. Being a client kingdom, or a vassal, meant that Judah sent tribute payments to the Assyrian king, promised not to fight against him or against his allies, and sometimes to fight with him against his enemies. In exchange, the Assyrian king would protect Judah from its own enemies. The capital was dominated by the palace, home of the Davidic kings and their court, and by the temple, centre of the State Religion. This public sphere formed the backbone of life in ancient Jerusalem and Judah. Its activities brought people together and unified them as a people. While private lives would have differed from family to family, the people of Jerusalem and Judah would have shared common ground in their identity as a people ruled by a specific king, with a particular attachment the god associated with the royal family, Yhwh.

The monarchy was the foremost of Judah's public institutions, and the kings’ fortunes in trade and warfare played a significant part in the livelihood of the people. When the kings were strong, winning battles, brokering treaties and securing useful trade routes, the people prospered and the kingdom could grow economically. When the monarchy was weak, the people suffered with their king. The royal household was also directly responsible for the administration of the kingdom. One of major royal activity was the levying of taxes to support the army, the temple, and the governmental system; evidence of this kind of administrative activity may be seen in the seals, stamps, and ostraca (inscribed pot sherds) from Iron Age Judah. Our knowledge of life in the city and its environs comes in part from the biblical texts and in part from archaeological excavations at sites in and around the city. This collection highlights various aspects of public life in ancient Judah, and in its close neighbour to the north, Israel. First among these is the institution of monarchy and its relationship to the Assyrian and Babylonian empires: in the Black Obelisk of Shalmaneser III we see the Israelite king Jehu paying tribute to the Assyrian king, while the reliefs of the capture of Lachish mark the terrible price of Hezekiah's rebellion against Sennacherib. Second, the collection highlights public aspects of cultic practice: we see the temple at Arad as an important focus of the city's religious activity, while other cultic items from Judah and beyond also illustrate religious activities in the public realm. The collection also illustrates the particular hallmarks of a developed state: an organised bureaucracy and economy. 

Section from the Temple Scroll (11Q19), Qumran, 1st c.BCE - 1st c. CE, col. 41-44 copy.jpg

Imaginations: The Heavenly City

The New Jerusalem as described in Revelation 21–22 represents the most complete explanation available to Christians of what heaven will be like. Although the city contined to loom large as a place of pilgrimage, images of the New Jerusalem were more common and, in some ways, more accessible than imagery associated with the city itself.

The descriptions of the New Jerusalem in Revelation 21–22 are highly detailed, depicting a recognizably earthly city. It is initially presented as an urban environment populated by embodied humans as well as Christ and God. This description of the city as having twelve pearly gates, foundations of precious stones, and walls and streets of gold gives way to an alternative vision of the New Jerusalem as a sort of new Eden in Revelation 22. Here the city is dominated by a river flowing from God’s throne and the tree of life, which produces twelve kinds of fruit and healing leaves. Although referred to as the ‘Holy City, Jerusalem’, these descriptions do not bear much relation to the historical city, despite some overlaps with Solomon's and Herod’s Temples and with Ezekiel’s visions. Written around 90 CE, the descriptions of the New Jerusalem found in Revelation must be viewed in relation to the most recent destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE; indeed, the idea of a New Jerusalem may have been intended as compensation for the perceived failure of the first Jerusalem. Certainly this is a more universal place than the historical city; the gates are permanently open and God dwells amongst his peoples and nations. There is no need of a Temple, because God and Christ reside there, nor any need for sun or moon, because God and Christ provide the light.  The multi-faceted descriptions and unworkable dimensions of the New Jerusalem of Revelation 21–22 have challenged artists, allowing great scope for interpretation. Medieval interpretations tended to cope with the combination of Eden with an urban city by visualizing the New Jerusalem across three separate images, each capturing a different aspect of the city and the narrative: the city descending from the sky, John measuring it up, and the river of life and the fructifying trees. Renaissance and Reformation images tend to focus just on the urban aspect, in contrast to later artists such as William Blake and John Martin who present New Jerusalem in Edenic terms. Those who visualize New Jerusalem as a city do so in terms of the cities of their own time and context, rather than attempting to bring in visual elements from the actual city of Jerusalem. Van Eyck, for example, evokes the New Jerusalem via well-known buildings from nearby Utrecht and Ghent. The range of images in this selection seek to provide a sense of the city as it is evoked in the text as well as the way it has fired the imagination of subsequent artists.

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The City Destroyed

Jerusalem’s destruction in 586 BCE was precipitated by the collapse of the Neo-Assyrian Empire and by the subsequent struggle for power between Egypt and the Neo-Babylonian Empire, both of which sought control over the southern Levant, including Judah. For the four decades between 626 BCE and 586 BCE, Judah and its leaders in Jerusalem were caught between these two powers. Judah’s loyalties vacillated as the fortunes of the Egyptians and the Babylonians waxed and waned. It was perhaps inevitable, or at least unsurprising, that Judah eventually found itself on the wrong side of history: the Babylonians were ultimately triumphant, and Judah’s destruction came about because its kings twice betrayed their oaths of loyalty to the Babylonian king, Nebuchadnezzar II. The first time this happened, the Babylonians besieged the city and deported its king, Jehoiachin, along with a number of other members of the court, including the priest Ezekiel. This was in 597 BCE. The Babylonians then replaced Jehoiachin with one of his relatives, Zedekiah, in the hope that he would prove a more pliable and more loyal ruler. Unfortunately for the city he also broke his oath of allegiance. This prompted another siege, beginning in 588 BCE and culminating in the fall of the city in 586 BCE. This time, the Babylonians were ruthless in their punishment. They killed or deported many of the city’s inhabitants, destroyed much of the city, and burned the Temple. Much of the biblical literature reflects the trauma of this experience, as the people of Judah and their descendants tried to understand what had happened to them, both practically and theologically. In this section you can discover the words of lament with which Jerusalem’s inhabitants mourned their city, ancient depictions of the fate of these and other conquered peoples, and information about the life of deportees in Babylonia, as well as later artistic imaginings of these events and musical reactions to them.

The astute observer will note that a number of the artistic renderings of the destruction of Jerusalem in this collection elide the destruction of the city in 586 BCE by the Babylonians with its destruction in 70 CE by the Romans, at the end of the Jewish Revolt against Roman control. The revolt was initially very successful (from a Jewish point of view) and the Romans had to send a number of legions to quell the rebellion, which they did with brutal efficiency. One of the last fortified cities to fall was Jerusalem, and the Roman troops looted and burnt the city. Much of this is narrated in the Jewish War by Flavius Josephus. These two destructions have often been merged in the artistic tradition, with the second destruction understood in the light of the first. 

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The Ancient City: The Domestic Sphere

Although many of our textual sources about ancient Judah and Jerusalem focus on the big public issues such as nation, king, and temple, the unsung labour of the domestic and private sphere were the foundation of ancient Judean society—as they are with any other society. Although the objects in this collection may not have quite the cachet of palace gates and monumental walls, everyday household items such as figurines, jewellery, or pottery vessels, reveal a much about the lives of those who used them. A Cypriot jug or a pottery sherd with Phoenician decoration is a sign of international commerce, for example, when it is found in a Judean house. The presence of a figurine or an amulet of a god or goddess, on the other hand, is a sign of the religious beliefs of the house's occupants. Ovens and storage jars can help archaeologists date occupation or destruction levels very precisely, using scientific methods to test the traces of food or other organic material still left on them. Even everyday pottery vessels like bowls, jugs, cooking pots, and kraters, provide the backbone of dating of archaeological sites, by revealing the slow change of ceramic styles over long periods—which in turn allows archaeologists to date archaeological layers. Our knowledge of life in the city and its environs comes in part from the biblical texts and in part from archaeological excavations at sites in and around the city. The activities illustrated by this collection centre on private spaces, especially the home. It focuses on the House of Ahiel and its surrounding neighbourhood in Jerusalem, exploring aspects of daily life associated with this particular house, such as food preparation, consumption and storage, hygiene, cultic activities, and textile production, as well as bringing in everyday objects discovered outside the city, to help imagine what life there might have been like before its destruction by the Babylonians in 586 BCE. No one knows how big Jerusalem was just prior to its destruction. Population estimates range from as low as 15,000 people to at least as high as 25,000, due to uncertainty about ancient population density and disagreements over the size of the city. Whatever its exact size, the city was tucked away in the hill country, off the beaten path from the main thoroughfares nearer the coast. 

Map of the City of Jerusalem, from 'Peregrinatio in Terram Sanctam' by Bernhard von Breydenbach (1440-97.jpg

Imaginations: The City as Destination

Jerusalem has been a spiritual focal point for Jews, Christians and Muslims for centuries—a holy city and dreamed of destination for their adherants. The city’s centrality has been reflected not only in religious expression, writings and art, but has also affected the way the city has been mapped. Most of the maps here are not the kind of cartography familiar to the modern eye: generally speaking, these plans were not intended to help potential visitors to the Holy Land navigate Jerusalem. Instead, they chart a combination of the real and the imagined geography of the city. The line between the landscapes of the Bible and the landscape of the present day are blurred, as the imagined heavenly city is incorporated into maps of the real world. Most medieval maps of Jerusalem were undertaken by Christian artists whose goal was to provide the viewer with an image of a city they would almost certainly never have the opportunity to visit. During the Crusades, as Christians and Muslims fought for control of the Holy Land, many European mapmakers designed maps with the sole purpose of affirming the city as a site of purely Christian holiness, shaping the geography of the city to erase the Jewish and Islamic presence in Jerusalem. Not all maps, however, were born out of conflict. Another feature of map-making was to encourage pilgrimage to the city. Even in cases where people were unable to visit the actual holy sites of Jerusalem, visually evocative pilgrimage itineraries allowed those who studied them to make an imagined spiritual pilgrimage, journeying in their mind’s eye to the holy, heavenly Jerusalem.  With the invention of the printing press in 1440 CE, maps production increased rapidly. As cartographic skills improved, imaginative elements also lost their prominence, though they hardly disappeared. Even the most topographically accurate maps, however, remained religiously and politically charged.