Europe’s Oldest Painting of the “Real” Jerusalem

November 16, 2022 | Menachem Wecker
About the author: Menachem Wecker, a freelance journalist based in Washington DC, covers art, culture, religion, and education for a variety of publications.

In medieval Christian art, it’s easy to find depictions of Israel’s ancient and modern capital. These were not based on the city’s actual layout at any given time, but instead on artists’ imagination. For this reason, the Cleveland Museum of Art touts a triptych by an anonymous Austrian painter, dating to around the year 1500, as an “exceptional” attempt at a “topographically accurate” cityscape. Menachem Wecker notes that the painting is itself based on a 1486 woodcut by the Dutch artist Erhard Reuwich—who had visited Jerusalem himself—and comments on its significance:

Many artists drew upon theological conceptions of heavenly and earthly Jerusalems, and it was easy—particularly for those who never visited the city—to think about the Holy Land as a symbol, rather than a real place. This remains the case today. No matter how much one reads in the news about Jerusalem, or no matter how many pictures one sees or how much time one spends on Google Maps “walking” old city streets, one can only approximate the sense one has of actually navigating Jerusalem.

When I see images like Reuwich’s [woodcut and the Jerusalem triptych], I think of abundant news story, even in major newspapers, that leave me scratching my head when they state that the Aqsa complex is Islam’s third-holiest site, without also noting that Jerusalem is central to Christianity and is the holiest city in Judaism. . . . I often wonder how many readers come away from those stories thinking that Muslims have revered Jerusalem from the start, and Jews and Christians are Johnny-come-latelys (or St. John-come-lately).

Of course, when one considers the history of Jerusalem and sets aside the different theological positions of the various faith groups, one is likely to conclude that Jerusalem was significant to Christians and Muslims respectively precisely because it was central to Judaism first. If not for all of the prophecies about the Holy Land in Jewish scripture, it is easy to imagine that Jesus, who was Jewish, would not have set out for Jerusalem, which would mean there would be no reason to require a church on a site that would be so central to his story. And if there had not been two Jewish Temples in Jerusalem, and a long prophetic association with that city, would Mohammad have taken his night journey to and from [what is now] al-Aqsa? Doubtful.

The 1486 woodcut and ca. 1500 painting show a then-modern city superimposed on a biblical and ancient one, with Jewish, Christian, and Islamic holy sites nearly built on top of one another. All are pieces of the Holy Land puzzle, and although centuries have passed, quite a lot remains the same.

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