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.