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Imaginations: The Heavenly City

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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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Lucas Cranach the Elder's 'The New Jerusalem'

Unlike Albrecht Dürer’s very ambiguous version of the New Jerusalem, in which it is unclear whether the woodcut is depicting the Millennium or the New Jerusalem, Lucas Cranach's version is a fairly standard Reformation view of the scene from Revelation. The image was produced some as part of Cranach's Apocalypse series for Martin Luther’s New Testament of 1522 and, while it is fairly faithful to the text of Revelation 21:10—which tells us that John is taken by an angel to look down on the newly descended city—Cranach has clearly visualised the city in the style of a contemporary German city, much more than the New Jerusalem as described in Revelation or the historical city of Jerusalem of Cranach's own time. Thus there are angels appearing at three of the twelve gates, as described by Revelation 21:12, but otherwise the architecture is very much in the sixteenth century German style, with none of the gold and jewels or extreme dimensions stipulated by the text of Revelation 21. All in all the image constitutes a rather underwhelming end to the Cranach series—the angel ends up being the focal point, rather than the city—perhaps giving credence to those who argue that Revelation, as written, is impossible to visualise.

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Albrecht Dürer’s 'Apocalypse'

Although referred to as 'The New Jerusalem' image from Dürer’s Apocalypse, it is unclear whether this image is really meant to represent the New Jerusalem. If so, it is notable for its rendering of Jerusalem as contemporary Nuremberg, the town in which Dürer himself lived. Heavily influenced by the Koberger Bible of 1483 CE, Dürer’s Apocalypse of 1498 was one of the first printed Apocalypses and one of the most successfully early printed illustrated books. Capitalising on the new medium of print, Dürer visualised the entire narrative of Revelation in just fifteen images. The condensed visual narrative has both a synchronicity and an immediacy that earlier book versions of Revelation often lacked. Throughout the series, the heavenly and earthly realms are clearly demarcated, by clever placement of clouds and dense hatching over the human portion of the sky to evoke the spiritual darkness that plagues it. However, in this final image the sky is clear save for a few birds: it is as if a new dawn has broken, ushering in the New Jerusalem. At the gates, of the city an angel stands ready to usher in the multitudes. Nevertheless, the placement of the ‘chaining of Satan’ at the foreground of the image (Revelaation 20:1–3), leaves the viewer unsure of what Dürer intends to depict: the 'chaining of Satan' is the prelude in Revelation to the ushering in of the Millennium that precedes Armageddon and the Last Judgement. It is thus unclear whether Dürer meant this as an evocation of the New Jerusalem, or of the Millennial Age that will precede the arrival of the eternal city. Either way, we see a return of the urban emphasis in Dürer’s depiction, in contrast to The Ghent Altarpiece, as well, perhaps, as a hint at the idea that the New Jerusalem cannot be satisfactorily visualised by the human imagination at all.

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'The New Jerusalem' from The Angers Apocalypse Tapestry

This image of the New Jerusalem is from the fourteenth century Angers Apocalypse Tapestry, and is typical of the Anglo-Norman apocalypse iconography developed in the preceding century. Many of the illuminated manuscripts on which this monumental tapestry was based devote several images to visualising the New Jerusalem. This image is the first in the tapestry's New Jerusalem sequence, and visualises Jerusalem as a fortified medieval castle-city. The city descends from Heaven under the watchful gaze of God/Christ, hanging slightly awkwardly in the air above what is probably the sea, which is also said to be ‘passing away’ in the text of Revelation. There has been little attempt on the part of the artist, Jean de Bondol, to depict either the architectural splendour of the heavenly city as described in the text—the jewels, gold and precious metals, or its fantastical dimensions—or a city resembling the actual Jerusalem. As with other New Jerusalems (such as Lucas Cranach's woodcut), the artistic rendering of the city is not particularly reminiscent of Jerusalem itself. This is very much a symbol of the heavenly city, rather than a literal rendering. John stands, foot poised to leave his viewing shelter, from the safety of which he has observed his visions up until this moment.A second image from the tapestry's New Jerusalem sequence depicts the River of Life.

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'The River of Paradise' from The Angers Apocalypse Tapestry

This image of the New Jerusalem is from the 14th century Angers Apocalypse Tapestry. Unlike the first image in the tapestry's New Jerusalem sequence, which depicts the New Jerusalem as a city, this image depicts the New Jerusalem as the River of Life, flowing down from God’s throne amidst an Eden-like garden. As in the Trinity Apocalypse, God and the Lamb (Christ) remain in their mandorla (the almond-shaped aureoles of light) and are not mingling freely on earth. John, however, has left his shelter, symbolising his new-found understanding. His exit from the shelter—from which, in the Angers Tapestry, he has thus far viewed the whole of the Revelation—may represent symbolically the removal of barriers between the divine and the human realms that the coming of the New Jerusalem signifies (Revelation 22:2–4).

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'The New Jerusalem' from The Bamberg Apocalypse

The Bamberg Apocalypse was commissioned for the Holy Roman Emperor, Otto III, although it was not completed until after Otto’s death. The manuscript was produced in the scriptorium at Reichenau and contains the text of Revelation accompanied by fifty-seven illuminated images. This image, of the New Jerusalem, is typical of images throughout the series: uncluttered, even sparse, but effective at conveying both the narrative and the essence of Revelation. By removing all extraneous detail, the Bamberg artists focus the viewer’s attention firmly on the interaction between the angel and John, front and centre in the image. The angel appears to be pulling John up from his feet (in Revelation 22 John falls at the feet of the angel, attempting to worship him rather than God/Christ), while giving him the measuring rod with which he measures the New Jerusalem in Revelation 21. The art historian Frederick Van der Meer has drawn attention to the ‘shifty’ eyes of the main protagonists in the Bamberg series, suggesting that they convey a haunted quality. Here the focus is not so much on the New Jerusalem, which stands sparse and empty in the background, but on John. He appears here at the end of his visionary journey, wide-eyed with amazement at all he has seen. The Lamb (Christ) dominates the city of Jerusalem, cutting a rather lonely figure at the centre of the seemingly deserted city—at odds with the description in Revelation 21, in which it is filled with people from all nations. Visual priority has thus been given to John, perhaps at the expense of the city. The image stands as a fascinating counterpart to more conventional visualisations of the city of the New Jerusalem.

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'The New Jerusalem' from The Flemish Apocalypse

The Flemish Apocalypse is the first extant illustrated Apocalypse originating from the Low Countries and dates to around 1400 CE. In contrast to earlier illustrated Apocalypses such as the Trinity Apocalypse or the Bamberg Apocalypse, which sometimes devoted more than eighty images to visualising the text of Revelation, The Flemish Apocalypse uses only twenty-two images. This results in a more compressed, economical imagining of the vision, in which each image combines several elements of the narrative. In this case, all the elements of the New Jerusalem vision from Revelation 21—the descent of the city, the measuring of the city, and so on—are presented in a single image, while The River of Life from Revelation 22 is not depicted at all. Although the disproportionately large Lamb representing Christ is situated in the middle of the city, God remains in the heavenly realm above, indicating resistance on the part of the artists or theological advisors to depict God amongst mankind. Similar reservations are reflected in the Angers Apocalypse Tapestry and in the Trinity Apocalypse. The city itself takes the form of a castle, with twelve gates guarded by the twelve angels decreed in Revelation 21:12. While clearly not based on the actual city of Jerusalem, the Flemish Apocalypse's visualisation of the celestial Jerusalem has a realism lacking in earlier representations. The Flemish artists have also made an attempt to people the city (contrast the Bamberg Apocalypse), with kings offering each other gifts. This also gives the Flemish New Jerusalem a more celebratory air, compared to previous renditions.

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Max Beckmann's 'The Apocalypse'

This remarkable realisation of Revelation 21:4 (‘And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes') was produced by Max Beckmann as part of series of lithographs produced while in exile in Amsterdam during World War II. The work represents a very different dimension in the tradition of visualisations of the New Jerusalem. Other images in this collection, such as the Angers Apocalypse tapestry and the Ghent altarpiece, exemplify the strong tradition of representing the New Jerusalem as either a city or a landscape. Human presence and interaction has been notable mainly by its absence—even in William Blake’s The River of Life the human figures are secondary to the landscape and the river. In Beckmann's work, however, the New Jerusalem is conceived in primarily relational terms. In the colour rendering a winged figure dressed in a golden robe wipes away tears from a squat, human figure lying on a table. The prone figure is thought to be Beckmann himself as, in the tradition of Albrecht Dürer (1471–1526) and Jean Duvet (1485–c.1561), Beckmann has inserted his own likeness into his Apocalypse series several times. Through a circular window which resembles a port-hole lies what one presumes to be the new Heaven and new Earth of Revelation 21:1, but this is very much not the focus of the image. This presentation of the New Jerusalem as a place of consolation and intermingling between the divine and the human takes the imagined New Jerusalem a long way from the actual city of Jerusalem.

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The Silos Apocalypse

This early twelfth century CE image of the New Jerusalem is from the Beatus family of Apocalypse manuscripts and depicts Christ seated on his throne, above the river and tree of life. Produced mainly in Spain between the ninth to the twelfth centuries CE, at monasteries in Catalonia, Aragon, Navarre, and elsewhere, the Beatus Apocalypse manuscripts are all based on the Apocalypse commentary of the eighth century Abbot Beatus of Liebana. They all reflect a similar iconography, quite distinct from the Anglo-Norman Apocalypse iconography that had developed in Northern Europe and is reflected in the Trinity Apocalypse and the Angers Apocalypse tapestry. The images in the Beatus Apocalypse manuscripts tend to be uncluttered, dramatic and vividly coloured. This image of the New Jerusalem, from the Silos Apocalypse, is no exception. An angel with very elongated fingers shows John not the descending city of the New Jerusalem but instead the River of Life, descending from the throne of God and the Lamb (Revelation 22:1–2). This throne is depicted as identical with the Heavenly Throne Room described in Revelation 4–5. Thus God/Christ is surrounded by the twenty-four elders, who point at him with elongated fingers. To the left of the river is the Tree of Life. While the text declares the Tree of Life to be growing on both sides of the river—a physical impossibility—the artist has quite sensibly elected to depict it on one side only. This image of the New Jerusalem radiates a reassuring sense of calm but, with its heavy visual divide between the heavenly and earthly realms—evoked via a heavy and ornate brown barrier underneath the heavenly throne room—it perhaps lacks the sense of interactivity between the divine and the human that the text of Revelation is at pains to stress.

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'The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb' from the Ghent Altarpiece

The Ghent Altarpiece consists of twenty-four pieces painted by the brothers Hubert and Jan Van Eyck for a side chapel of St Bavo’s Cathedral in Ghent. It is a visual unfolding of the entire history of salvation, from Adam and Eve in Genesis, through the incarnation and passion of Christ in the gospels, to the promise of the New Jerusalem in Revelation. The central panel of the altarpiece, shown here, represents a foreshadowing of the New Jerusalem, with all peoples and nations flocking towards the Lamb (Christ) at the centre of the panel. As in the Angers tapestry, the paradisial, horticultural aspect of the New Jerusalem is foregrounded. Although real buildings from the cities of Utrecht and Ghent can be seen in the background, they remain on the periphery. The River of Life from Revelation 22:1–2 was often visualised rather crudely in earlier images, such as the Silos Apocalypse, as a river flowing from the throne of God; here it is conceived in the foreground of the image as a delicate fountain, surrounded by the precious stones of which the New Jerusalem is said to be made (Revelation 21:19–20). The emphasis in this vision of the New Jerusalem on humanity, who are at the heart of the scene, is overwhelming, evoking a vision of a second Eden. From all four corners of the panel come humanity: groups of martyrs—both male and female, saints, Old Testament patriarchs, pious pagans, apostles and popes. They all process towards the Lamb, who stands on the altar at the centre of the image. Unlike, for example, the Trinity Apocalypse, the New Jerusalem is here presented not foremost as a bejewelled and golden city, beyond the realms of human imagination, but as a spiritual place whose foundations are based in the faith and sacrifice of its inhabitants.

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'The New Jerusalem' from the Trier Apocalypse

This is a very early manuscript image of the New Jerusalem. It is from the Trier Apocalypse, one of the oldest extant examples of an apocalypse (Revelation) manuscript, produced in northern France in the early ninth century CE. Apocalypse manuscripts were copies of the text of Revelation, produced with integrated commentary extracts and sumptuous coloured images; they sometimes also included a ‘Life of St John’ or of other saints. They were produced for devotional use in monasteries and convents and for wealthy private patrons, often royalty. In this image from the Trier Apocalypse, we see the first of three images of the New Jerusalem. In this first scene, John is being shown the New Jerusalem by an angel. The following two images follow the typical medieval New Jerusalem schema, depicting John being instructed to measure the New Jerusalem by the angel (as in the Bamberg Apocalypse) and the Tree of Life (visible in the Silos Apocalypse). This image is notable for its spare evocation of the New Jerusalem, as well as its adherence to the detail of the text. As specified in Revelation 21:10, the angel has taken John to a mountain to view the celestial city as it descends and, in accord with Revelation 21:12, the artist has faithfully rendered the twelve gates of the city.

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Gordon Cheung's 'Rivers of Bliss'

Described by Paul Hobson as an example of 'the techno-sublime', Cheung delivers a very twenty-first century image of the New Jerusalem in this large-scale montage. Created as part of an exhibition entitled ‘The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse’, in which Cheung also tackled other themes directly lifted from Revelation (including the Four Horsemen themselves), Cheung applied his signature style to the New Jerusalem. In his landscapes, influenced by John Martin among others, Cheung transposes digital landscape imagery onto a base layer of collaged stock-listings newsprint from the Financial Times; he then augments the work with spray paint, oil pastels and ink. In this image the ‘rivers of bliss’, possibly a reference to the River of Life of Revelation 22:1, sit at the forefront of the image, with the Financial Times stock-listings reflected in them. The waters are enclosed in a rainbow, reminiscent of Revelation 4:3; in the background are scenes of fiery mountains and possibly buildings on fire—perhaps intended to capture the corrosion of capitalism. A lone figure—perhaps a latter-day John—watches from a mountain top. This is a far more ambiguous New Jerusalem than even John Martin’s work, a long way from the golden pomp of the Trinity Apocalypse’s ordered city vision or the Edenic visualisation presented by the Van Eyck brothers in The Ghent Altarpiece. Although it does present a kind of cleansing, it does not present a fully reassuring vision of the post-apocalyptic future.

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'The New Jerusalem' from the Trinity Apocalypse

The Trinity Apocalypse comes from a group of Apocalypse manuscripts known as the Anglo-Norman Apocalypse family. Produced in England and France from 1250 CE onwards, they are characterised by the sheer number of images that they used to depict the Apocalypse (up to eighty images in some cases). As with earlier Apocalypse manuscripts, these images were integrated with the text of Revelation and commentary extracts—in this case, extracts from the Berengaudus commentary—as well as illustrated lives of St John and other saints. The large number of images in these manuscripts tended to slow down the narrative and led to a more episodic approach to Revelation. In some chapters almost every verse was visualised. The Trinity Apocalypse devotes two relatively large images to the New Jerusalem. The first image depicts the city coming down from heaven while John is ordered by the angel to write down everything he sees in his book, akin to the scene in the Bamberg Apocalypse. The second image, shown here, is more interesting. It visualises the city from a bird’s eye, architectural perspective. The bejewelled walls of the city are arranged in a perfect square, in keeping with Revelation 21:16, and are set against a gold background, reflecting the textual claim that the city is made of pure gold and built on foundations of precious stones. John and the angel are depicted as almost crouching in worship at the bottom left corner. In the centre of the city, the Lamb (Christ) and God are situated in a mandorla (the almond-shaped aureoles of light), rather than mingling freely with the people as specified in Revelation 22:3. This is testament to reticence on the part of the artists about depicting God and Christ interacting with humanity in an unmediated setting; similar reticence may be seen in the Bamberg, Flemish and Silos Apocalypses. In the Trinity Apocalypse, too, there is a real emphasis on the architectural splendour and majesty of the New Jerusalem, as opposed to the breaking down of barriers between the divine and the human proclaimed in the text.

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John Martin's 'The Plains of Heaven'

John Martin’s evocation of the New Jerusalem is part of a triptych of canvasses made betwen 1851 and 1853 CE. This image is the culmination of the trio, the paradisical resolution to the dark themes of the two preceding works, 'The Great Day of His Wrath' and 'The Last Judgement'—interestingly, the coming of the New Jerusalem is foreshadowed at the top of the Last Judgement panel. In contrast to medieval and early modern visualisations of the New Jerusalem, which always present it as a city, Martin has created an altogether more rural version of the celestial city, like Blake. Although the ‘great and the good’—the cast of characters including Shakespeare and Galileo who were among the ‘saved’ in The Last Judgement—have been transposed to the middle of the painting, it is the incredible landscape that is the focus. This is very much in line with Martin’s Romantic tendencies, but may perhaps be criticised for neglecting the resolutely urban details of the description of the New Jerusalem in Revelation 21, as well as the fact that this is supposed to be a place of intermingling between the human and the divine. While God and the Lamb may implicitly be present in the paradisial landscape, this is left ambiguous.

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William Blake's 'The River of Life'

William Blake was affected throughout his life by the power of Revelation, its beasts and its vision of the future via the New Jerusalem. He produced watercolours and engravings on themes from Revelation during the 1790s and early 1800s as well as a series of watercolours on Revelation for his patron, Thomas Butts, between 1800 and 1805. His depictions of the city are perhaps the most influential of all imagined Jerusalems in the British artistic tradition.For Blake Jerusalem was the antithesis of Babylon—which, in his mind, was to be equated with London—and the locus of a new birth. He expanded on this idea at great length in his epic illustrated poem, Jerusalem: The Emanation of the Giant Albion (1804–1820). The image of the New Jerusalem shown here is, on the face of it, a fairly literal visualisation of the River of Life in Revelation 22:1–2. The city of the New Jerusalem described in Revelation 21 is not depicted. A river flows from the sun in the background—probably God’s throne of Revelation 22:1—through a street of the ‘city’, encircled by fructifying trees of life. The banks of the river are adorned with classical buildings, perhaps harking back to a nobler age, and the overall impression is one of space and light, in contrast to the dark and dirty London of Blake’s poems. Although this New Jerusalem is peopled—in contrast to many of the earlier manuscript depictions where humankind is conspicuous by its absence—it is difficult to make out who the figures are. The androgynous figure dressed in white and swimming with his back to us may be Jesus, while the flying figure is probably an angel. In contrast to Blake’s other works, there is no manifest difference in size between the human figures and divine ones; it is of interest that Blake has included children in this vision of the New Jerusalem—perhaps suggesting that, in his view, one appears in heaven at the age at which one dies.

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The Temple Scroll from Qumran

The Temple Scroll is the largest single preserved composition found in the Qumran caves near the Dead Sea. A small portion of the scroll, columns 41–44, is shown here. This work has been called the most important halakhic (Jewish legal) composition known from the Second Temple period. It is generally considered to have been compiled no later than the last quarter of the second-century BCE, describing systems that served as forerunners to the wider Qumran communities. As it precedes the Qumran community, it was not written by them, but its presence among other texts belonging to the community indicates that it was copied by and likely significant to them. The most well preserved copy of the Temple Scroll is 11QTemple Scroll a (11Q19), which was found in Cave 2 and is about eight metres long, with 65 extant columns (2-66). The copy is written in two hands, with one scribe writing columns 1-5 at the end of the first-century BCE and another scribe writing the remainder of the Scroll probably at the beginning of the first-century CE. The main purpose of the Temple Scroll is to envisage an idealised version of Jewish everyday life and religion that should be lived and maintained in the present, rather than a state which should be implemented in the later days.

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Songs of the Sabbath Sacrifice from Qumran

The Songs of the Sabbath Sacrifice are a group of liturgical songs to be used on each of the first thirteen Sabbaths of the year, dating by the solar calendar. The copies found at Qumran are not generally understood as sectarian in nature. That is, they do not appear to reflect practices particular to the Qumran community. Eight manuscripts of the work were found in Qumran Cave 4 (4Q400 through 4Q407), with a further copy in Cave 11 (11Q17). The manuscripts date to the late Hasmonean and Herodian periods, from the middle of the second century BCE to the middle of the first century CE. The Songs focus on the angels and their worship and service of God in the heavenly Temple / palace, depicting the celestial sanctuary as a living temple comprised of a vast array of angelic beings.

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The New Jerusalem Text from Qumran

The New Jerusalem Text (4Q554), composed in the first third of the second century BCE in Aramaic, conveys in minute detail an architectural plan of a city of huge proportions. The city has twelve gates named after the twelve tribes of Israel. Although the city is not named, the descriptions are usually taken as referring to the New Jerusalem. It is similar in many ways to the description of the temple in the Temple Scroll, but there are no direct literary links between the two texts. Further images of the New Jerusalem text and most other Dead Sea Scrolls can be seen in the Leon Levy Dead Sea Scrolls Digital Library.

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Ian McKeever's 'Jerusalem'

Like a number of British artists of the twentieth century, Ian McKeever’s work on Jerusalem is less about the historic city than it is about the Jerusalem of the imagination of William Blake. Developed around Blake’s Jerusalem: The Emanation of the Giant Albion, McKeever’s series of prints contribute a new layer to the city’s visual history. In Blake’s work, the New Jerusalem is conceived as the final paradise, achieved through the creative process. In making his abstract prints—which complement and build directly onto the work of Blake—McKeever’s dialogue with Blake represents part of his own particular artistic journey towards the holy city of the imagination.