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Imaginations: The Temple

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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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Moses Maimonides' Reconstruction of Solomon's Temple

Moses Maimonides was an important medieval Jewish scholar, sometimes referred to as the “second Moses” by his followers. While living in Egypt after a visit to the Holy Land, Maimonides completed a monumental commentary on the Mishnah (a collection of ancient Jewish law), in which he provided a number of different diagrams of the Temple. The Temple plan here is one of these diagrams. Unlike his predecessor Rashi, whose diagram of the holy land and and plan of the long-destroyed Temple were derived from the description in Ezekiel 40–48, Maimonides relied on the account of the Temple's architecture given in the Mishnah. The west side of the Temple complex appears at the top of the diagram, with east at the bottom. As the eye travels up the page, the first section depicts the women’s area, followed by the the men’s area, and then the priests' area. At the centre of the page, the dark brown stepped shape is the sacrificial alter. Above this are another series of chambers, including the the menorah, represented as a single line, and the Holy of Holies. For Maimonides, Jerusalem was an eternally sacred space filled with the Divine Presence. Although the Temple had been destroyed, the land where it had once stood remained deeply spiritually significant. Nevertheless, Maimonides' map is quite different from other maps of Jerusalem from the Middle Ages, in that he is concerned only to depict the complex layout of the building, as described in Middoth. His work is an attempt to grasp at the reality of the Temple as it once stood, rather than to embellish it with features from the imagination.

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Rashi's Diagram of the Holy Land

One of the most difficult tasks for interpreters of biblical texts has been to try to imagine and reconstruct the restored Temple which is envisioned in Ezekiel 40–48. One early instance of medieval imaginings of the Temple, based on Ezekiel’s descriptions, is the work of the Jewish scholar Rashi (1040–1105). Writing to a group of rabbis in Auxerre, France on the matter, Rashi hinted tantalizingly that, ‘concerning the northern outer chambers, about not being able to understand where they began to the north-west and how much they extended to the east ... I cannot add anything to what I explained in my commentary, but I shall draw a plan of them and send it to him.’ The images hinted to by Rashi’s letter have, like the Jerusalem Temple, been lost for several centuries. What has survived instead, in a number of thirteenth and fourteenth century CE manuscripts of Rashi’s commentaries, are his diagrammatic interpretations of the description of the Holy Land given in Ezekiel 45 and Ezekiel 48. The version here, inked some two hundred years after Rashi’s death, is an illustration for his commentary on Ezekiel 48. In it we can see the prophet’s proposed division of the Holy Land, with the land to be portioned off to God—the sanctuary—in the centre. Moving outward from this holiest space are the territories of the twelve Israelite tribes, beginning with the Levites who served in the Temple.

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El Greco's 'Christ Driving the Money Changers from the Temple'

El Greco was a Greek (Cretan) painter who trained in Venice and then moved to Spain in the 1570s. He is well known as a visionary painter of religious scenes, with a style prioritizing colour and light over form. He was in many ways ahead of his time and one of his signature features was his elongated, non-naturalistic figures. El Greco painted many versions of this scene of Jesus driving the money-changers from the Temple (Matthew 21:12–14), an atypical moment in Jesus’ usually non-violent ministry. This is an early version, from around 1570 CE, during his Venetian period. As such, the anatomy of the figures and the composition is more in the Italian Renaissance style than his later versions, in which Christ is more elongated and seems to exude light (as in the National Gallery version, from c. 1600). The composition is divided into two halves around the central figure of Christ, who stands with his whip poised above the group of money-changers on the left. This is a moment of great movement and energy. On the right are the ‘righteous’, commenting on the event. The image is part of an extensive artistic tradition using Jerusalem and the Temple as the backdrop for the depiction of a key New Testament narrative. The Temple itself is classical in style, replete with Corinthian columns, while the surrounding buildings owe more to Venetian architecture than to what we know of the historical Jerusalem of the first century CE. In a rather odd detail in the bottom right corner, El Greco has painted the four artists that he considered to be masters of the Renaissance (Titian, Michelangelo, Clovio and Raphael).

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'Jerusalem, with the Temple of Solomon' from the Nuremberg Chronicle

The Nuremberg Chronicle, Liber chronicarum, was authored by Hartmann Schedel (1440–1514) in 1493 CE and presents a world history that celebrates the city of Nuremberg as a spiritual and geographical hub comparable to the true Christian Jerusalem. By making this connection the book's author and its artists promoted their city as equally if not more important than the holy city, asserting Nuremberg’s centrality in the German Empire as well as the wider world. Unsurprisingly, the Chronicle contains more than one image of Jerusalem. In the illustration here, the artist Michael Wolgemut (1434–1519) imagines the cityscape as he thought it appeared while the first Temple stood. Jerusalem is pictured as a circular walled city, with Solomon’s Temple, Templum Salomonis, at its centre. The grand building is topped by three small domes, giving it the appearance of a Byzantine church rather than an antique temple. The destruction of the Temple by Titus is imagined in the same volume. In that image, the Temple blazes; it no longer looks like a church, but echoes the design of the Dome of the Rock, with a large bulbous dome carrying a crescent moon. The artist thus conflates the siege of Jerusalem by Titus, which many Christians hailed as the fulfilment of Christ’s prophecy that the Temple would be destroyed (Luke 21:6), with a contemporary Christian desire to bring an end to Islamic rule over Jerusalem.

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Matthaus Seutter's 'Prospectus Sanctae olim et Celebrimae, Urbis Hierosolymae', after Juan Villalpando

The works of Rashi, Maimonides and Nicholas of Lyra all offer literal diagrams of the Temple. Another important part of the iconographic tradition of Jerusalem are other, more imaginative, more theologically motivated, and more extensive reconstructions of the Temple, such as the map of Jerusalem produced by Juan Villalpando, a sixteenth century Spanish Jesuit priest, with a major Temple complex at the centre. Villalpando’s early modern printed reconstructions of the Temple were presented in a monumental illustrated three volume work, In Ezechielem explanationes, produced between 1594 and 1605 CE with assistance from Hieronymo Prado. With this work Villalpando aimed to offer the first comprehensive and to-scale reconstruction of the Temple, including its apparatus and its furnishings. As his title suggests, this was according to the description found in Ezekiel 40–48. As others concerned themselves trying to reconcile the varying accounts of the Temple presented by different biblical books and historical reports, Villalpando believed that the vision in Ezekiel was an accurate description of the Temple built by Solomon. He reasoned that the original Temple was planned by God, and was consequently entirely confident that the fantastic structure described by the prophet must have been a true-to-life memory of the temple destroyed by the Babylonians. Furthermore, the same Temple was also a vision of the Holy Church. Indeed, Villalpando was so confident in the original perfection of Solomon’s Temple that he went even further in his assertions about the architectural merit of the building and its Divine Architect. The Temple, he believed, formed the foundation for Vitruvian architecture and was the blueprint for all classical architecture in Greece and Rome. The work of baroque imagination that Villalpando produced on the basis of his convictions caused a great theological stir when it was published: he was tried for heresy by the Inquisition for misrepresenting scriptural accounts of the Temple, but eventually acquitted. Villalpando’s work considerably influenced later re-imaginings of the Temple, informing the architecture of monasteries and Churches across Europe. The version shown here was produced by Matthaus Seutter around 1734 and gives a sense of Villalpando's influence over subsequent imaginings of Jerusalem’s past.

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Rembrandt's 'Christ Driving the Money Changers from the Temple'

Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn was a Dutch master who ranged across printmaking, painting and draughtsmanship and had a particular interest in dramatic biblical scenes. His etching of Christ driving the money changers from the Temple (Matthew 21:12-14) was influenced by Albrecht Dürer’s woodcut image (c. 1508) of this scene and also by a general sixteenth century interest in the metaphorical symbolism of the purification of the Temple. The Temple had come to be seen as a symbol of the Church’s own need for purification, through condemnation of heresy and through internal reform. In this lively etching, Christ is depicted as the central figure from whom all the other action flows, as in the El Greco image of this scene. Unlike Dürer, who lights the scene from a candle above Christ’s head, Christ is illuminated here by light which emanates from his raised hand. People and animals scatter all around in the face of Christ’s anger—note the man being pulled along by his own cow on the right hand side of the image, which suggests that Rembrandt was perhaps inspired by the Johannine version of this episode, in which Christ finds merchants selling cattle, sheep and doves, in the Temple alongside the money changers. In the background, a religious ceremony continues uninterrupted, presided over by priests. In the foreground one of the money changers looks up at Christ in desperation—a very human moment amid the chaos.

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Lika Tov's 'Writing the Temple Scroll'

Lika Tov, a Holland-born Israeli artist, has used the Temple Scroll in this collograph work to re-imagine the scribe at work on the Temple Scroll manuscript at Qumran. The scribe occupies the right half of the image, while the left side depicts his imaginings about what the future Temple may look like. A menorah forms the basis of this future Temple, which is guarded or protected by angelic beings.

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Nicholas of Lyra's 'Temple Diagram' from the Commentary on Ezekiel

Although the history of the mapping of Jerusalem is dominated by Christian iconography, there are some aspects of Jerusalem's imagery that demonstrate Jewish influence on these Christian traditions. One such example appears the writings of Nicholas of Lyra, a Christian theologian whose work was highly indebted to contemporary Jewish scriptural interpretation. Indeed, Lyra himself informs readers of his influential commentary on the Bible, Postilla litteralis et moralis in totam bibliam, that he not only relied on the works of prominent Christian theologians but also and ‘especially Rabbi Solomon’, now known as Rashi. Rashi influenced Lyra’s use of illustrations to accompany his commentary, with the Postilla ultimately including around 35 drawings. These included a number of different elevations and plans for the Temple, some based on descriptions found in Kings and Chronicles and others on the prophetic vision of Ezekiel. The plan here is one of Lyra’s diagrams of Ezekiel’s Temple. It is clear from the layout that Lyra was visually quoting both Rashi and Maimonides, weaving Jewish images of the Temple into his own Christian context. At the centre of Nicholas’ rendering is the altar used for sacrifice, with a river flowing past—a crucial part of Ezekiel’s vision of the New Jerusalem (Ezekiel 47:1). Notably, the river does not feature in the plan produced by Maimonides, suggesting that Lyra was more strongly influenced by the Ezekiel vision—or, perhaps, inclined to include it because of the significance of the River of Life in Revelation (compare, for example, the Angers Apocalypse tapestry). Although Lyra was clearly informed by Jewish tradition concerning the Temple's layout, his theological understanding of the significance of this now lost part of Jerusalem differed meaningfully: while Jews such as Rashi continued to long for the restoration of the Temple in a future messianic age, Christians such as Lyra understood Ezekiel’s Temple as a prophetic precursor of the Church.

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Ezekiel 41:3–6 from Qumran

Ezekiel 40-48 paints a vivid picture of a restored Jerusalem Temple, depicting the return of Yhwh’s kabod (glory), regulations for the Temple, and the division of land surrounding the temple and city. Ezekiel’s plan is not just of a temple building, but of a clear structure for the proper worship of Yhwh in the renewed community.These fragments (4Q73/4QEzek a, frgs. 4-5), preserved among the scrolls at Qumran near the Dead Sea, preserve part of a copy of Ezekiel 41:3–6. The text tells of Yhwh’s triumphant arrival in the restored Jerusalem, the undoing of the disaster brought on when Yhwh left the Temple at the end of Ezekiel 11. The preservation of this text, possibly for a scroll of biblical excerpts, suggests that later Jewish communities valued the temple vision, whether or not they considered it a realistic expectation.