Tag Archives: margery kempe

Mount Joy: the view from Palestine

21 Jan

“And so they went on to the Holy Land until they could see Jerusalem. And when this creature, riding on an ass, saw Jerusalem, she thanked God with all her heart, asking Him for His mercy that, just as He had brought her to see this earthly city of Jerusalem, He would grant her the grace to see Jerusalem the blissful city above, the city of heaven…Then, for the joy that she had and the sweetness she felt in conversing with our Lord, she was on the verge of falling off her ass, for she could not bear the sweetness and grace that God performed in her soul. Then two German pilgrims went to her and kept her from falling off. One of them was a priest, and he put spices in her mouth to comfort her, believing her to have been ill. And so they helped her onwards to Jerusalem.” The Book of Margery Kempe.

The English mystic Margery Kempe, whose Book I have been translating recently, was making her way from Ramla to Jerusalem in 1413. She felt such sweetness and grace when she saw the holy city that she nearly fell off her ass. From Kempe’s account it’s likely that this moment – of both spiritual glory and embarrassing awkwardness – would have taken place on Mount Joy, the highest point around Jerusalem. Mount Joy  (Mons GaudiiMonjoie) is now the Palestinian village of Nabi Samwil [or Samuil], just 7 miles north of the Old City of Jerusalem, and less than a mile from the edge of the large Israeli settlement of Ramot, now a suburb of Jerusalem. It was customary, in the later Middle Ages, for pilgrims to travel on foot or by ass from Jaffa via Ramla and Emmaus to Mount Joy, there to gain their first view of the city, hence the name Mount Joy. Pilgrims like Kempe were led from place to place by Franciscans and local guides. Before Kempe’s time – certainly by c. 1100 – Nabi Samuel  had also become established as the burial-site, revered by Christians, Muslims, and Jews, of the prophet Samuel.

Mount Joy is interesting to me in the current context because of the ability of Jerusalem to be translated out of itself, which here extends to the hyper-mediated landscape around the city itself. In the later Middle Ages the view of Jerusalem from a hill known as ‘Mount Joy’ became as much a part of the pilgrimage route as visiting Jerusalem itself. In fact, medieval pilgrims would not have been able to see the now-iconic view of the Old City – the Dome of the Rock and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre – because these sites sit in a hollow, behind a hilly landscape. They would, however, have viewed the approaches to the city, and possibly some of the buildings on the suburban outskirts around the town.

The view of Jerusalem from Nabi Samuil, January 2014

The view of Jerusalem from Nabi Samuil, January 2014

The site itself is an interesting palimpsest of different religious traditions. Early Christians identified Mount Joy as ‘Ramatha’ (1 Samuel 25: 1) where Samuel died, although several other places (including the post-biblical, Arab town of Ramla, where pilgrims usually slept) were also identified with Ramatha. It is now controlled by the Israel Parks and Nature Authority (with a critique of the Authority’s control of the area, by alt-arch, here).

In the twelfth century, during the Crusaders’ establishment of a state in the Holy Land, a Premonstratensian monastery was founded at Mount Joy; but in 1187 it fell to Saladin and various battles were fought there. One story says that a hermit, named Elias, gave Richard I (the Lionheart) of England a relic of the True Cross there, which he had secreted at Mount Joy when Saladin took Jerusalem. Throughout this time, Jewish pilgrims often visited the site, and, possibly, a mosque was there in the thirteenth century. The Crusader church of St Samuel, photographed here, was significantly rebuilt in 1912 as a mosque, with the Crusader crypt and ruins incorporated into the new buildings (the tomb of Samuel itself, now a Jewish holy site, is in the basement, under the mosque).

The remains of the Crusader-era ramp and entrance to the buildings, a kind of fortress-church

The remains of the Crusader-era ramp and entrance to the buildings, a kind of fortress-church

The layers of different cultures came be seen very clearly and impressively now, following recent archaeological work there. Medieval Christian pilgrims always write about the view of Jerusalem from Mount Joy – like Mandeville, who says, ‘two miles from Jerusalem is Mount Joy, a pretty and delightful place. The prophet Samuel is buried there in a fine tomb. It is called Mount Joy because it is from there that pilgrims first see Jerusalem, a cause of great joy after their exertions’ (p. 49). The Christian pilgrims’ hearts and eyes were focussed on Jerusalem, shimmering in the distance and always full of spiritual promise. But, whilst pilgrims tend not to mention it, they must have noticed that they were taking part in something like cosmopolitanism: at Mount Joy, they would have seen Jews, Muslims, and non-Latin Christians praying, and the ruins left by the Crusaders who had been and gone before them.

The mosque (rebuilt in the 1920s) on top of the ruined Crusader-era church. In the foreground, Hellenistic and Hasmonean ruins, recently excavated.

The mosque (rebuilt in the 1920s) on top of the ruined Crusader-era church. In the foreground, Hellenistic and Hasmonean ruins, recently excavated.

Nabi Samuil has very far-reaching views over the entire area. Here, looking north, towards Givat Ze'ev, Bir Nabala, and Ramallah

Nabi Samuil has very far-reaching views over the entire area. Here, looking north, towards Givat Ze’ev, Bir Nabala, and Ramallah

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Jerusalem, geometry, and medieval Germany

21 Nov

The English pilgrim Margery Kempe made her way by foot and wagon, from Danzig, via Wilsnack, to Aachen in the fifteenth century. This is a long journey of over 700 miles and it was, for Kempe, through hostile territory. She was an elderly woman, in poor health, and throughout her journey she was both bullied and subject to considerable misfortune. Nevertheless, she stuck to her route, crossing the Rhine and reaching Aachen (Aix-la-Chapelle) to see the showing of the famous Aachen relics, which were brought out once every seven years. What kept Margery Kempe moving?
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The Book of Margery Kempe says almost nothing about what Kempe saw at Aachen, other than that she viewed the famous relics: of the Virgin Mary’s smock, Christ’s swaddling clothes, the decapitation cloth of John the Baptist, and the Christ’s loincloth from his Passion. Kempe must have thus visited the cathedral, where the relics were shown and were stored in the remarkable shrine of the Virgin Mary, an oak box decorated with silver gilt, made in Aachen between 1220 and 1239 (pictured below).

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Kempe had already visited Jerusalem, Rome, Canterbury, Walsingham, Wilsnack, and Santiago de Compostela, so she had visited all the most important pilgrimage sites in Western Europe; but the journey to Aachen complemented her journey to Jerusalem. In part, she was emulating St Birgitta of Sweden (1303-73), who had also gone to Jerusalem, Santiago, and Aachen. Whilst it is not made explicit in The Book of Margery Kempe, Aachen itself had long styled itself as a kind of ‘New Jerusalem’: indeed, the city’s founding by the Emperor Charlemagne (742-814) was an attempt to create an imperial city which combined the splendour of a New Rome with the spiritual promise of a New Jerusalem. The mathematical and geometrical dimensions of the cathedral have long been recognised as referring to the apocalyptic Jerusalem: an eight-sided dome, a sixteen-sided ambulatory, and eight arcades of columns, as eight represented perfection and harmony; the circumference of the octagon is 144 feet, the cardinal number of the Heavenly Jerusalem Apocalypse [Revelation]. 7:4, 14:1 etc.). This was mirrored in the remarkable chandelier (the ‘Barbarossa Chandelier’) given to the cathedral by Emperor Frederick I, and made in Aachen about 1165-70.

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The chandelier, which Kempe would most probably have seen, is an image of the Heavenly Jerusalem, according to Apocalypse, chapter 21. Its theme is, like the dome in which it hangs, the number eight. It resembles the city walls of Jerusalem, and has sixteen towers (with bases which speak to the person standing underneath), engraved with scenes from the life of Jesus, from the Annunciation to Christ in Majesty. 48 candles represent the twelve apostles, the twelve martyrs, the twelve confessors, and twelve virgins, recalling the liturgy sung when Roman kings were enthroned in the building.

Kempe’s eye for material luxury would also have been drawn to another Jerusalem scene in the cathedral: the sumptuous ‘Palo d’Oro’, a gold ‘sheet’ across the high altar, made in Germany about 1020, which is one of the earliest strip-art scenes of the Passion and looks forward to the Stations of the Cross/Via Dolorosa tradition.

20131122-080949.jpg It’s perhaps hard to make out the individual scenes from my images, but the scheme starts in the top-left corner (Entry into Jerusalem); the Flagellation can clearly be seen in the far-right panel of the middle row; the scheme ends with the Women at the Tomb. The scenes of the Passion like a montage of devotional ‘stills’, clearly anticipating the vivid tableaux summoned in the ‘mind’s eye’ of medieval mysticism, and a series of loci, like the later schema of the Stations of the Cross

Finally, the Byzantine-style mosaics, at the main entrance, which were renewed in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, feature images of the City of God – civitas Dei – surrounded by personifications of the four rivers of Paradise, making manifest the Heavenly Jerusalem built in this German city.
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