By Felicity Richards
The Special Collections of Walsh Library at Fordham University in New York City preserves several folios of a medieval manuscript with text from the Postilla super total Bibliam, a biblical commentary of the thirteenth-century Franciscan scholar Nicholas of Lyra (b. 1270 in La Vielle-Lyre France, one hundred thirty-five kilometers west of Paris).[i] This work was copied widely in later medieval Europe and published in an early printed edition of 1472, though it has never appeared in a modern scholarly edition.[ii] The text on the folios held at Fordham corresponds to Nicholas’s commentary on Ezekiel 42-48. On the last of these manuscript folios is a stylized depiction of the city of Jerusalem that has heretofore never been described or analyzed in published scholarship.
By way of introduction, a few notes about the manuscript as a whole are in order. The folios are approximately 42 x 21 centimeters. Each folio has two columns, and, in each column, there are approximately 66 lines. On the folio with the Fordham image, there are approximately 24 lines per column. The parchment itself has survived in good condition; the top left corner of several folios is torn, but otherwise there is no additional excess damage to the parchment.
There is no attached date to the Fordham MSS Group 2 folios, but an approximate date and a potential geographic location can be surmised when examining the script. The Fordham manuscript is a conglomerate of two scripts. On the one hand, the script itself is most closely related to a French style of script called Lettre Bâtarde, commonly used in France throughout the fifteenth century, which helps point to a potential location and time for the creation of the Fordham manuscript.[iii] The elongated and tall shape of the letter s and f, in addition to the slightly angular slant of letters such as a, indicate that they belong to this style. On the other hand, it also bears some similarity to another script found throughout Europe during the Gothic period (thirteenth through fifteenth centuries), Gothic Quadrata Bookhand.[iv] Gothic Quadrata Bookhand is characterized by angular letters and the regularity of the handwriting.[v] Another characteristic of Gothic Quadrata Bookhand that appears in the manuscript is “biting of bows.”[vi] This refers to instances when two letters share one stroke and the bows of the letters overlap.[vii] This is often the case in the Fordham manuscript. The script is thus an unusual blend of these two different styles.
The city of Jerusalem was a central subject for illuminators of medieval manuscripts. Images of Jerusalem often supplement texts, helping the reader to imagine what Jerusalem could look like. Some provide an idealized vision of Jerusalem; others strive for accuracy. Scholarship traditionally views these images through the lens of biblical exegesis. It is clear that a major driver behind the depiction of Jerusalem in these manuscripts is the tradition of a Heavenly or New Jerusalem, an idea first found in the Book of Ezekiel and developed as well in the Book of Revelation and other ancient texts. In these works, the Heavenly or New Jerusalem is imagined as a heavenly or future incarnation of Jerusalem; the New Jerusalem is often but not always associated with the apocalypse.
In medieval Hebrew manuscripts, Jerusalem is invoked in a variety of ways. One of the most direct references to Jerusalem is associated with a line often recited towards the end of the Passover Seder, “Next Year in Jerusalem.” Among Jews of the diaspora, the hopeful exclamation looks forward to the Jews’ return to Jerusalem while also invoking the coming of the Messiah, and more generally a sense of hope and renewal. Another focus of Jewish manuscript illuminations is the temple of Jerusalem, as it appears in various biblical texts. 1 Kings and other passages throughout the Prophets and later Jewish texts portray the Temple of Solomon as God’s dwelling place on Earth, and illuminations in biblical manuscripts illustrate the temple accordingly.
Christian devotional manuscripts often place images of Jerusalem in two different contexts. First, Jerusalem is illustrated in depictions of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem (Mt. 21:1–11, Mk. 11:1–11, Lk. 19:28–44 and Jn. 12:12–19). The manuscript illuminations that depict this scene from the Gospels vary greatly in how they depict Jerusalem. Some manuscripts, such as the St. Alban’s Psalter and the Isabella Breviary, depict the walls of Jerusalem in the background with Jesus on a mule entering the city gate. It is the walls and gateway of the narrative, and not the larger city, that is the focus.[viii] These illuminations serve as reminders of how important Jerusalem was in the stories of Jesus as they are told in the Gospels, and how sacred the city became for Christians after its Christianization in the fourth and fifth centuries.
Depictions of Jerusalem also frequently appear in apocalyptic contexts, often in relation to the book of Revelation. In these cases, it is the New Jerusalem that is depicted, rather than the historic city, the Jerusalem of Jesus’ lifetime. These illustrations attempt to render what this heavenly city will look like. In the Christian Bible, the idea of a new Jerusalem appears towards the end of the Book of Revelations and it is believed to be where God will manifest upon return to Earth. John believes that the New Jerusalem is the place that Saints will return to Earth, alongside God.[ix] Revelations 20 describes the final judgement that occurs. This centers around both God and Satan deciding who is pious and who has sinned and thus if they will be sent to hell or to the New Jerusalem. But in Revelations 21:1-3, the New Jerusalem appears as a beacon for all who have been judged as pious:
“And I saw a new heaven and a new earth. For the first heaven and the first earth was gone, and the sea is now no more. And I John saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a great voice from the throne, saying: Behold the tabernacle of God with men, and he will dwell with them.” (Revelations 21:1-3)
For Christians, Jerusalem holds a special place as it is where Jesus died and was resurrected. But in the book of Revelation, composed by a Jewish follower of Jesus, John of Patmos, in the decades after Jerusalem’s destruction by the Romans, Jerusalem becomes the ideal city where the resurrected Christ will reside for eternity – and it is no longer the same Jerusalem in the same physical location, it is, rather, an ideal. This version of Jerusalem, while it resembles the physical city of Jerusalem, in fact comes down from Heaven along with the Saints and angels.[x] Creating an apocalyptic New Jerusalem reassures the believer of the promise of an experience with God and a hope for life after death.[xi] Jerusalem thus symbolizes eternal life alongside God in a metaphorical city of Jerusalem. The New Jerusalem, according to later Christian depictions, appears to be a place where God will always be found, replete with angels.
The image of Jerusalem in Nicholas of Lyra’s manuscript is interesting because it does not appear in a text about Jesus’ entry into the city nor as an illustration of the Book of Revelation. Rather, it is placed after the commentary on the description of the vision of Jerusalem in Ezekiel 48, immediately following the verses detailing the city gates:
“And these are the goings out of the city: on the north side thou shalt measure four thousand and five hundred. And the gates of the city according to the names of the tribes of Israel, three gates on the north side, the gate of Ruben one, the gate of Juda one, the gate of Levi one.” (Ezekiel 48:30-31)[xii]
There is nothing ornate about the illustration: there is no gold leaf and it does not contain a lavish rendering complete with people and a narrative. A closer examination, however, reveals that it is more than a simple schematic. The illustration in the manuscript depicts the city.
While the Jerusalem image is the only major artwork in the folios held by Fordham, the manuscript does feature some decorations associated with reading aids in the text, such as red underlining of the biblical text, red chapter headings, and illuminated book headings, showing which part of the Bible is dealt with in the associated commentary. The only parts that could be considered lavishly decorated are the abbreviations for the names of the biblical books on the top of the page. These, in addition to several initials, resemble common features in deluxe manuscripts. The drawing surrounding the letters is intricate and is featured across all of the folios. There is a large amount of detail prevalent in these initials. The artist who created this manuscript had an artistic flair.
These three images are examples of the intricate headers, or initials, on the top of the manuscript folio that state what part of the Bible is being discussed. These are just some of the more intricate decorative initials that are found scattered throughout. When these textual design features are compared with the image of Jerusalem, it becomes clear that the simplicity of the Jerusalem image was deliberate.
The 48 lines underneath the illustration contain a brief essay or extended sequence of Nicholas of Lyra’s thoughts connecting the idea of a historical city of Jerusalem with the description of the future Heavenly city of Jerusalem. For example, Nicholas of Lyra writes:
“It is certain however, from 3 and 4 Kings that the Temple of Solomon was built in the city of Jerusalem, and by consequence the temple was rebuilt by Zerubbabel, and in this the Latin and Jewish historians agree. The Temple, however, and the city of the vision which are described above are distant from each other by 28 miles or more. Therefore, it is impossible, it would seem, that the vision both of the rebuilding of the Temple and of the city should be understood [as taking place] after the return from Babylon.”[xiii]
This section of Nicholas of Lyra’s text indicates that he is concerned with solving the conundrum of the relationship between the temple in Jerusalem that Ezekiel describes in his text (that appears after the destruction of the first temple) and the temple in Solomon’s Jerusalem (that is, the first temple). This sentence, in conjunction with the illustration, demonstrates Nicholas of Lyra’s impulse to harmonize divergent biblical texts and solve textual problems.
The illustration itself depicts twelve distinct gates, which correspond to the tribes of Israel. At the top, labeled the western side (occidens), is Gad, Asher, and Naphtali. Next, on the side labeled North (aquilo), is Reuben, Judah, and Levi. At the bottom, where it is labeled East (oriens), is Dan, Simeon, and Joseph. The final set of names on the southern side (auster) is Zabulon, Issachar, and Benjamin.[xiv]
For a reader of Nicholas of Lyra’s commentary, the names associated with these gates gesture both backwards and forwards in the biblical text, referring both to the sacred geography of the Holy Land and also to the eschatological architecture of Ezekiel’s heavenly Jerusalem. The twelve tribes refer to Jacob’s sons (and in two cases grandsons), who appear in the second half of the book of Genesis as individuals, are then blessed by Jacob at the end of Genesis, and become tribes within the People of Israel in the remainder of the Pentateuch and Prophets, playing a prominent role as well in the conquest of the land following the Exodus from Egypt and the time spent wandering in the desert. The prominence of the names in the image of Jerusalem would likely have called to mind some elements of this sacred history and the sacred geography that went along with it.
But the reader would also have been reminded of the New Jerusalem, the city described in the book of Revelations 21, even though this image accompanies a commentary of Ezekiel. The chapter begins: “And I John saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband” (Rev. 21:1). In the description of the New Jerusalem that follows, John turns to the city’s gates: “And it had a wall great and high, having twelve gates, and in the gates twelve angels, and names written thereon, which are the names of the twelve tribes of the children of Israel. On the east, three gates: and on the north, three gates: and on the south, three gates: and on the west, three gates” (Rev. 21:12-13). This description refers directly to Ezekiel 48 and the gates that the text describes, but John is very explicit about the function of these gates in an eschatological context: “And the gates thereof shall not be shut by day: for there shall be no night there. And they shall bring the glory and honor of the nations into it. There shall not enter into it anything defiled, or that makes abomination or a lie, but they that are written in the book of life of the Lamb” (Rev. 21: 25-27). The image of Jerusalem can thus also be viewed as a map with the center representing the holiness of the coming New Jerusalem. At the center of the image, Jerusalem is not written but rather “city” (civitas), a city at the center of all the tribes, and perhaps the center of the world.
The apocalyptic resonances of the Jerusalem image in the Fordham folio become especially clear when compared with an image of Jerusalem in the Trinity Apocalypse (Cambridge, Trinity College Library, R.16.2) from the thirteenth century. In the Trinity Apocalypse, the city of Jerusalem is depicted as a simple square surrounded by twelve gates, three on each side. Unlike the Lyra illustration, however, the center of this apocalyptic rendering features the figure of Jesus Christ, an angel, and a tree. An angel at the bottom left corner of the illumination guides an individual into the center of New Jerusalem to be joined with God. God is clearly marked as being in the center of the image due to the figure of Jesus sitting with a lamb on one side and the Bible on the other side.
The image from the Fordham manuscript is not the sole image from a manuscript of Nicholas of Lyra’s commentary on Ezekiel that depicts the temple in Jerusalem. A manuscript from Oxford University (Bodleian, MS. Canon. Bibl. Lat. 70, fol. 165v), for example, contains an image depicting a vastly different depiction of the temple in Jerusalem. A manuscript of Nicholas of Lyra’s Postilla litteralis on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art likewise contains a drawing of the “Elevation of Solomon’s Temple” in bright reds, blues, and yellows.
In recent years, scholars have shown that Nicholas of Lyra’s commentary was influenced by the Tanakh commentary composed by Shlomo Yitzchaki, known as Rashi (1040-1105). Rashi had a unique style of commentary that subsequently became widely adopted. He often applied a more literal approach to commentating on the Bible, prioritized the “literal translation” rather than agreeing with midrashic commentaries often found in earlier rabbinic compilations of biblical exegesis.[xv] This method was soon adopted by Christian and Jewish scholars.[xvi]
How did Nicholas of Lyra learn about and read Rashi? Nicholas of Lyra grew up in Lyra, nearby a town called Evreux, also a center of Jewish thought at that time.[xvii] It is possible that he learned Jewish commentary orally through interacting with individuals in this town. However, this is not the broadly accepted theory. The more likely scenario is that Nicholas read and worked with Hebrew manuscripts themselves.[xviii] Several studies have noted Nicholas of Lyra’s dependence on earlier Jewish biblical commentaries, a reliance Nicholas himself acknowledged.[xix] Sarah Bromberg, in her study of Nicholas of Lyra, mentions, for example, the similar use of diagrams in Rashi’s writings.[xx]
What does a close examination of Nicholas of Lyra and Rashi’s commentary on Ezekiel reveal? Ezekiel discusses the layout and structure of the temple in Jerusalem. Rashi seeks to clarify portions of the Bible that seem confusing. One such example is Ezekiel 46:2-3:
“And the prince shall enter by the way of the porch of the gate from without, and he shall stand at the threshold of the gate: and the priests shall offer his holocaust, and his peace offerings: and he shall adore upon the threshold of the gate, and shall go out: but the gate shall not be shut till the evening. And the people of the land shall adore at the door of that gate before the Lord on the sabbaths, and on the new moons.” (Ezekiel 46:2-3)
Rashi’s commentary seeks to clarify this passage, which states that the gates to the temple will only close in the evenings. Rashi questions the specific timing of the gates’ closure: why do they remain open all day? His commentary explains that the gates are open to allow the people to come and bow down all day long. As Rashi writes: “And the people of the land shall prostrate themselves: all day, and whoever comes, too, and in the evening they shall close it.”[xxi] Rashi’s commentary does more than simply clarify the confusing parts of the text, however. It also points out some instances where there may be some inconsistencies, unusual wording that needs to be clarified, or expands on concepts.
Like Rashi, Nicholas of Lyra attempts to interpret the discussion of the temple courtyard to fit his reading of scripture, discussing the dimensions of Solomon’s temple in the context of the historical city of Jerusalem. Then, Nicholas compares the historical city with the city represented in Ezekiel as the New Jerusalem. Lyra attempts to understand exactly how the two biblical descriptions of Jerusalem relate in terms of their scale, layout, and architecture.
If Nicholas of Lyra himself depended on Rashi, and perhaps worked alongside Jewish scholars in making his commentary, what relationship might the Jerusalem image in the Fordham manuscript have with images of Jerusalem in Jewish manuscript traditions? In Hebrew religious manuscripts, the idea of a New Jerusalem is not closely tied with the notion of an apocalyptic narrative ending as much as it is with the idea of the community’s return to the actual city or the advent of the Messiah to the city to take up divinely ordained leadership. For example, the Worms Mahzor, a thirteenth-century manuscript from Germany, depicts a rebuilt Jerusalem – that is, the city in the future, when Jews will return and rebuild.[xxii]
In the Worms Mahzor, the illumination frames the text, acting as an accompaniment to it. Unlike the Fordham illustration, in which the image works to visually depict the text, the Worms Mahzor illumination works as background to supplement the words written. The most important words on the folios are encased by the historical city of Jerusalem. In the Fordham illustration, the text is placed below the image, suggesting that the text is in part explained by or subsidiary to the illustration. Also, the decorative elements stand in stark contrast to the Fordham manuscript.
Both the Fordham illustration and the Worms Mahzor depict Jerusalem’s gates, but they direct the gaze of the viewer very differently. In the Worms Mahzor, the viewer is invited to peer into the gates – and thus into the city – but what the viewer sees when they do so is the text of the Mahzor itself. In the Fordham illustration, in contrast, the eye is automatically drawn to the writing in the center of the illustration. The margins on the previous folio appear to draw a line oriented in the east-west orientation to the names of the tribes written. Once your eye is drawn to the first tribe, it then travels to all of the other names written across the border. This then suggests that the most important part of the illustration is the words, rather than the decorations. Or perhaps, they can be viewed in tandem.[xxiii] In both, the text stands at the center, with the illustrations supplementing, adorning, and explaining the text.
Felicity Richards received her BA from Fordham College at Lincoln Center in 2019 and her MA in History, with a medieval concentration, from Fordham University in 2021.
This blog post is an excerpt from Felicity Richard’s MA thesis, titled “Commentary on Ezekiel Found in the Fordham Collection: An Examination of Jerusalem in Nicholas of Lyra’s Commentary.” This manuscript illumination and corresponding essay will be featured in an upcoming exhibition at Fordham’s Walsh Library, curated by Prof. Sarit Kattan Gribetz in conjunction with her “Medieval Jerusalem: Jewish Christian, Muslim Perspectives” course.
The Depiction of Jerusalem. Nicholas of Lyra. Fordham Library. New York City, Fordham University Library, MSS Group 2m. f. 3v.
The New Jerusalem. Trinity Apocalypse. Cambridge, Trinity College Library. R. 16.2, 25 v.
Worms Mahzor. Jerusalem, National Library of Israel, Hebrew MS4, vol 1, f. 98r.
Next Year in Jerusalem. Barcelona Haggadah. London, British Library. MS Add 14761, f. 88.
Temple Diagram. Nicholas of Lyra. Bodleian, MS. Canon. Bibl. Lat. 70, fol. 165v.
Elevation of Solomon’s Temple. Nicholas of Lyra. Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Cloisters Collection, 2011.20.4.
Dombibliothek Hildesheim, St. God. 1 (St. Alban’s Psalter).
London, British Library Add MS. 18851 (Isabella Breviary).
Bromberg, Sarah. “Exegetical Imagery for King Manuel I of Portugal: Solomon’s Temple in Nicholas of Lyra’s ‘Postilla.’” Zeitschrift Für Kunstgeschichte 77.2. (2014): 174.
Clemens, Raymond, and Timothy Graham. Introduction to Manuscript Studies. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2007.
Geiger, Ari. “A Student and an Opponent: Nicholas of Lyra and His Jewish Sources,” in Nicolas de Lyre: francise an du XlVe siècle, exégète et théologien, edited by Gilbert Dahan(Paris: Institut d’études augustiniennes, 2011, 167-203.
Gundry, Robert H. “The New Jerusalem: People as Place, Not Place for People.” Novum Testamentum 29.3 (1987): 254-264.
Kogman-Appel, Katrin. “Jewish Art and Non-Jewish Culture: The Dynamics of Artistic Borrowing in Medieval Hebrew Manuscript Illumination.” Jewish History 15:3 (2007): 187-234.
Krey, Philip D. “Nicholas of Lyra: Apocalypse Commentator, Historian, and Critic,” Franciscan Studies 52 (1992): 53-84.
Lee, Pilchan. The New Jerusalem in the Book of Revelation: A Study of Revelation 21-22 in the Light of its background in Jewish Tradition. Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2001.
Lucie-Smith, Edward. The Thames & Hudson Dictionary of Art Terms, 2nd ed. London: Thames & Hudson, 2003: “Lettre bâtarde.”
Lyra, Nicholas. Postilla Super Totam Cum Postilla Nicolae Lyrani, edited by Jean and Jacques de Cuilly. Venice: Giunti, 1603.
Matenaer, James M. “Lyra in Light of Condemnation.” Franciscan Studies 65 (2007): 349-69.
Merrill, Eugene H. “Rashi, Nicholas de Lyra, and Christian Exegesis.” The Westminster Theological Journal 38.1 (1994): 66–79.
Meyer, Ann Raftery. Medieval Allegory and the Building of the New Jerusalem. Cambridge: DS Brewer, 2007.
Nuvoloni, Laura. “The Woodcut as Exemplar: Sources of Inspiration for the Decoration of a Venetian Incunabulum.” Transactions of the Cambridge Bibliographical Society 15:1 (2012): 141-163.
[i] Philip D. Krey, “Nicholas of Lyra: Apocalypse Commentator, Historian, and Critic,” Franciscan Studies 52 (1992): 54.
[ii] Nicholas of Lyra, Postilla Super Totam Cum Postilla Nicolae Lyrani, edited by Jean and Jacques de Cuilly (Venice: Giunti, 1603).
[iii] Raymond Clemens and Timothy Graham, Introduction to Manuscript Studies (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2007), 169-170; “Lettre bâtarde,” in Edward Lucie-Smith, The Thames & Hudson Dictionary of Art Terms, 2nd ed. (London: Thames & Hudson, 2003).
[iv] Clemens and Graham, Introduction, 153-154.
[v] Clemens and Graham, Introduction, 154.
[vi] Clemens and Graham, Introduction, 154.
[vii] Clemens and Graham, Introduction, 154.
[viii] Dombibliothek Hildesheim, St. God. 1 (St. Alban’s Psalter); London, British Library Add MS. 18851 (Isabella Breviary).
[ix] Robert H. Gundry, “The New Jerusalem: People as Place, Not Place for People,” Novum Testamentum 29.3 (1987): 255.
[x] Gundry, “The New Jerusalem,” 255.
[xi] Pilchan Lee, The New Jerusalem in the Book of Revelation: A Study of Revelation 21-22 in the Light of its background in Jewish Tradition (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2001), 8.
[xii] All references to Ezekiel in the context of the Latin commentary are from the Douai-Rheims translation, originally published in 1582.
[xiii] Nicholas of Lyra. Postilla, cols. 1479-1480.
[xiv] In Latin, the first row is Gad, Aser, Neptalim. The second row is Reuben, Juda, Leui. The third column is Dan, Simiamin, Ioseph. The final row is Zebulon, Isarcar, and Binyamin.
[xv] Eugene H. Merrill, “Rashi, Nicholas de Lyra, and Christian Exegesis,” The Westminster Theological Journal 38.1 (1994): 68-69.
[xvi] Merrill, “Rashi, Nicholas de Lyra, and Christian Exegesis,” 68.
[xvii] Geiger, Ari. “A Student and an Opponent: Nicholas of Lyra and His Jewish Sources,” in Nicolas de Lyre: francise an du XlVe siècle, exégète et théologien, edited by Gilbert Dahan(Paris: Institut d’études augustiniennes, 2011), 167-203, at 7.
[xviii] Geiger, “A Student and an Opponent,” 8.
[xix] James M. Matenaer, “Lyra in Light of Condemnation,” Franciscan Studies 65 (2007): 350; Sarah Bromberg, “Exegetical Imagery for King Manuel I of Portugal: Solomon’s Temple in Nicholas of Lyra’s ‘Postilla,’” Zeitschrift Für Kunstgeschichte 77.2. (2014): 174; Laura Nuvoloni, “The Woodcut as Exemplar: Sources of Inspiration for the Decoration of a Venetian Incunabulum,” Transactions of the Cambridge Bibliographical Society 15:1 (2012): 146.
[xx] Bromberg, “Exegetical Imagery,” 175. The majority of the article discusses the depiction of Solomon’s Temple in Nicholas of Lyra’s Postilla. This illustration follows along with Lyra’s tradition of using diagrams to supplement his commentary.
[xxi] Rashi on Ezekiel 48:3.
[xxii] Ann Raftery Meyer, Medieval Allegory and the Building of the New Jerusalem (Cambridge: DS Brewer, 2007), 5.
[xxiii] Katrin Kogman-Appel, “Jewish Art and Non-Jewish Culture: The Dynamics of Artistic Borrowing in Medieval Hebrew Manuscript Illumination,” Jewish History 15:3 (2007): 206.