IV. Jerusalem the Beautiful

Ten measures of beauty descended to the world; nine were taken by Jerusalem and one by the rest of the world. [Babylonian Talmud: Kidushin 49b]

“Perched on its eternal hills,” wrote Mark Twain in Innocents Abroad (1867), “white and domed and solid, massed together and hooped with high gray walls, the venerable city gleamed in the sun.” “So Small!” he remarked, “. . . why, it was no larger than an American village of four thousand inhabitants . . .” He mused further: “The thoughts Jerusalem suggests are full of poetry, sublimity and more than all, dignity.” Having entered the gates and wandered through the streets, he observed, “. . . Jerusalem is mournful and dreary and lifeless. I would not desire to live here.” But after visiting the Holy places, he left Jerusalem and concluded that “. . . all that will be left will be pleasant memories of Jerusalem . . . a memory which money could not buy from us.”

As Mark Twain’s sentiments indicate, Jerusalem has occupied a special place in the hearts and minds of many peoples through the ages. Without its strong religious associations, this small and remote city would have held little attraction for travelers, authors, or artists. Powerful spiritual yearnings served as a magnet for religious pilgrims who provided the earliest portrayals of the city. Religious inspiration, always a potent influence in art, probably accounts for the fact that Jerusalem has been portrayed more often than virtually any other city. Jerusalem’s status as a paragon of beauty is celebrated in King Solomon’s Song of Songs: “Thou art beautiful, O my love . . . comely as Jerusalem” [6:4].

Few artists undertook the long and hazardous journey to Jerusalem during the late Middle Ages and Renaissance. Most resorted instead to descriptions in Holy Scriptures, historical accounts, and travelers’ narratives, supplemented by their own imaginations. The resulting portrayals were, with a few notable exceptions, mixtures of second hand observations and inspired fantasy.

The most popular view of Jerusalem is from the Mount of Olives, overlooking the city from the east and providing an unobstructed view of the Temple Mount and other holy sites. In his book Those Holy Fields, the Reverend Samuel Manning wrote: “This is the view over which Jesus wept, when he beheld its beauty.”