History records a “Jerusalem fever” that gripped the world between 1000 and 1400. Millenarian expectations of a second coming of Christ, the violence of Islam and the response it brought about by the Europe of Crusaders, turned Jerusalem into the center of the world, quite literally. Pilgrims, merchants and soldiers from as far as Iceland and Ireland, Armenia and Ethiopia converged into the city that is now the capital of Israel. People of some 60 nationalities passed through, stayed or died in the city at the time.
Now, the Metropolitan Museum of Art brings it back from the Middle Ages to today’s center of the world, New York. But there are no claims about the existence of a celestial New York —the closest it gets to heaven are skyscrapers outdoing each other. Jerusalem, however, has a celestial counterpart. A New Jerusalem mirrors the earthly one in heaven, we read in the Book of Ezekiel and in Revelations.
The men and women who converged in Jerusalem at the time lived, traded and fought for the celestial city. Yet they also led worldly lives until they passed away into eternal life. And so the show begins with an unassuming yet amazing stash of paper-thin gold coins. There are some 2,600 dinars. Israeli archeologists dug it up last year. It is an unimaginable fortune now. It was a huge sum back then, too. About 150 dinars would buy a house in the Jerusalem of the time.
Everything on the exhibit goes on to show how the people flocking from all over the world spent their days in expectation of immortality. You can almost transport yourself to the era and its people by admiring the exquisite, gilded pages of the psalter made for the half-French, half-Armenian Queen Melisende of Jerusalem.
And you can also feel the yearning to be “next year in Jerusalem,” like the Jews say at the conclusion of the Passover Seder. Jerusalem 1000-1400: Every People Under Heaven at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York runs through 8 January 2017.