The three images featured in this exhibition, although separated by about a century, have a lot in common.
First, they all had a liturgical function and were used in churches that adhered to the Oriental Orthodox tradition, where they would have played an important part in the construction and maintenance of a communal identity.
Second, they present a narrative which escapes the conventional bonds of time and space: in the T'oros Roslin Gospels an Old Testament prophet is presented as a witness to a New Testament event; in the Kebran Gospels an episode that occurred in Jericho is situated in front of the gates of Jerusalem; and in the panel from the Hanging Church the viewer is directed towards Christ’s redeeming sacrifice upon the cross and his Second Coming. The representational approach which characterizes these three scenes is based on a concept of history that owes much to biblical exegesis and that conceptualizes the past not as a linear sequence of moments but as a series of interlinked and supernaturally guided events. For this reason, despite their similarities, the three images work like a commentary and lead the viewer to different interpretations of the same theme through subtle variations in content.
In this respect, it is interesting to focus on the distinctive ways in which Jerusalem is represented in the three images. In the T'oros Roslin Gospels the gate of the city is surmounted by two small buildings and a ciborium. This ciborium, which often appears above Jerusalem in medieval Armenian miniatures, evokes the aedicule built around the tomb of Jesus (Matthew 27:59–60; Mark 15:46; Luke 23:53; John 19:41–42) inside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. The motif plays on the ideological relationship between the Temple of Jerusalem and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, which came to be regarded as the new Temple of Jerusalem after the fourth century. Therefore, the city towards which Jesus advances in the T'oros Roslin Gospels represents the historical Jerusalem as well as the New Jerusalem described in the visions of Ezekiel (Ezekiel 40–48) and John of Patmos (Revelation 3:12; 21:2, 10).
In the Ethiopian miniature from the Kebran Gospels, the Entry into Jerusalem is situated within an ambiguous space where inside and outside are not clearly distinguished. On the one hand, we see a series of small buildings above the arched gate to the right. On the other hand, there are lamps hanging from the upper frames of the two panels and columns behind the group in procession. The figure bent over a manuscript in front of Jesus provides a key for understanding this spatial ambivalence: the image has two dimensions, one represents the biblical story, the other its liturgical re-enactment. In the Kebran miniature Jerusalem stands not only as a symbol for the earthly and heavenly city but also as the ‘mother’ of all churches (Galatians 4:26).
Finally, in the carving from the Hanging Church in Cairo, Jerusalem is not even represented. How do we explain this omission? The answer lies in the original function of the panel which was part of a set of carvings that decorated the double doors of a sanctuary barrier of a Coptic Church. Medieval Coptic authors describe the church sanctuary as being the tabernacle, the holy of holies, and an image of the heavenly Jerusalem. It follows that the doors to the sanctuary represent the gates of the New Jerusalem and of the new Temple. Thus, the artist of the panel did not need to represent Jerusalem because the scene decorated a set of doors which symbolized its gates and that were placed in front of the sanctuary that was taken to represent heaven. The function of the panel showing the Entry into Jerusalem, combined with the eschatological references discussed elsewhere in this exhibition, adds a layer of meaning to the detail of the tree, which can now additionally be understood in the light of Revelation 22:14: ‘Blessed are those who wash their robes, that they may have the right to the tree of life and that they may enter the city by the gates [emphasis added]’.
Bolman, Elizabeth S. 2006. ‘Veiling Sanctity in Christian Egypt: Visual and Spatial Solutions’, in Thresholds of the Sacred: Architectural, Art Historical, Liturgical, and Theological Perspectives on Religious Screens, East and West, ed. by Sharon E. J. Gerstel (Washington, DC: Dumbarton Oaks), pp. 73–106
Frazer, Margaret E. 1973. ‘Church Doors and the Gates of Paradise: Byzantine Bronze Doors in Italy’, Dumbarton Oaks Papers, 27: 145–62
Gnisci, Jacopo. 2014. ‘Picturing the Liturgy: Notes on the Iconography of the Holy Women at the Tomb in Fourteenth- and Early Fifteenth-Century Ethiopian Manuscript Illumination’, Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, 78.3: 557–95
Ousterhout, Robert. 1990. ‘The Temple, the Sepulchre, and the Martyrion of the Savior’, Gesta, 29.1: 44–53
21 And when they drew near to Jerusalem and came to Bethʹphage, to the Mount of Olives, then Jesus sent two disciples, 2saying to them, “Go into the village opposite you, and immediately you will find an ass tied, and a colt with her; untie them and bring them to me. 3If any one says anything to you, you shall say, ‘The Lord has need of them,’ and he will send them immediately.” 4This took place to fulfil what was spoken by the prophet, saying,
5“Tell the daughter of Zion,
Behold, your king is coming to you,
humble, and mounted on an ass,
and on a colt, the foal of an ass.”
6The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them; 7they brought the ass and the colt, and put their garments on them, and he sat thereon. 8Most of the crowd spread their garments on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. 9And the crowds that went before him and that followed him shouted, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!” 10And when he entered Jerusalem, all the city was stirred, saying, “Who is this?” 11And the crowds said, “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth of Galilee.”
11 And when they drew near to Jerusalem, to Bethʹphage and Bethany, at the Mount of Olives, he sent two of his disciples, 2and said to them, “Go into the village opposite you, and immediately as you enter it you will find a colt tied, on which no one has ever sat; untie it and bring it. 3If any one says to you, ‘Why are you doing this?’ say, ‘The Lord has need of it and will send it back here immediately.’ ” 4And they went away, and found a colt tied at the door out in the open street; and they untied it. 5And those who stood there said to them, “What are you doing, untying the colt?” 6And they told them what Jesus had said; and they let them go. 7And they brought the colt to Jesus, and threw their garments on it; and he sat upon it. 8And many spread their garments on the road, and others spread leafy branches which they had cut from the fields. 9And those who went before and those who followed cried out, “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! 10Blessed is the kingdom of our father David that is coming! Hosanna in the highest!”
29When he drew near to Bethʹphage and Bethany, at the mount that is called Olivet, he sent two of the disciples, 30saying, “Go into the village opposite, where on entering you will find a colt tied, on which no one has ever yet sat; untie it and bring it here. 31If any one asks you, ‘Why are you untying it?’ you shall say this, ‘The Lord has need of it.’ ” 32So those who were sent went away and found it as he had told them. 33And as they were untying the colt, its owners said to them, “Why are you untying the colt?” 34And they said, “The Lord has need of it.” 35And they brought it to Jesus, and throwing their garments on the colt they set Jesus upon it. 36And as he rode along, they spread their garments on the road. 37As he was now drawing near, at the descent of the Mount of Olives, the whole multitude of the disciples began to rejoice and praise God with a loud voice for all the mighty works that they had seen, 38saying, “Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!” 39And some of the Pharisees in the multitude said to him, “Teacher, rebuke your disciples.” 40He answered, “I tell you, if these were silent, the very stones would cry out.”
12 The next day a great crowd who had come to the feast heard that Jesus was coming to Jerusalem. 13So they took branches of palm trees and went out to meet him, crying, “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord, even the King of Israel!” 14And Jesus found a young ass and sat upon it; as it is written,
15“Fear not, daughter of Zion;
behold, your king is coming,
sitting on an ass’s colt!”
16His disciples did not understand this at first; but when Jesus was glorified, then they remembered that this had been written of him and had been done to him. 17The crowd that had been with him when he called Lazʹarus out of the tomb and raised him from the dead bore witness. 18The reason why the crowd went to meet him was that they heard he had done this sign. 19The Pharisees then said to one another, “You see that you can do nothing; look, the world has gone after him.”