Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
March 3, 2009
Annabel Jane Wharton Selling Jerusalem: Relics, Replicas, Theme Parks Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006. 296 pp.; 78 b/w ills. Paper $32.50 (9780226894225)

Annabel Wharton’s Selling Jerusalem: Relics, Replicas, Theme Parks is the biography by proxy of a sacred site. It chronicles not the possession of Jerusalem via military conquest or pilgrimage, but rather the smaller-scale possession of proxies for it, the acquisition and construction of a series of surrogates for this most famously contested of holy sites. Following twists and turns of history from the early Christian period to the present, Wharton studies the ways in which proxies for the city have been sold. She also argues that these different iterations of Jerusalem have intersected with moments in what we might call the cultural history of economics. The fantasy of Jerusalem, a complicated symbol that intertwines specific histories, an impression of religious purity and the promise of salvation, and fables of Eastern wealth, is central to a whole series of economic developments in the West. The various proxies for Jerusalem include souvenirs, relics, replicas, reproductions, “images of mass consumption,” and spectacle (panoramas and theme parks).

In many of the cases Wharton studies, what is sold is a systematic experience, not simply a picture or individual object. Wharton proceeds through a series of suggestive juxtapositions and close readings of individual examples, with frequent gestures to contemporary analogies, whether in art or popular culture. Her approach is iconoclastic, her writing pleasant and occasionally pleasingly barbed. I occasionally wished for a bit more analysis—sometimes connections and arguments are left to the reader to make. But the book provides not only a fascinating survey of the selling (and replicating, fabricating, and displaying) of Jerusalem, but also a new model for studying a site through a very conscious attention to the history of its representation.

Chapter 1, “Fragmented Jerusalem: City as Gift,” addresses the “sacred debris,” aka relics, particularly of the True Cross (but also other local relics), in their mostly non-monetary circulation, from early Christian times to the twentieth century. Specific economic practices are associated with each stage of Wharton’s narrative, and the one associated with this form of proxy is gift-giving, although it quickly becomes clear that throughout the history Wharton studies no one followed the rules for it: relics were not supposed to be sold, but were. Relics were given elaborate containers to express the significance of the objects (often quite unassuming in appearance) housed within them; over time, the containers, or as Wharton calls them, their “gift wrapping,” have come to attract more acquisitive interest—aesthetic or historical—than the relics themselves. Finally, the gift wrapping comes to be viewed as pure commodity, as when, in the case of the reliquary now known as the Fieschi-Morgan box, it ends up in the hands of a rather desultory collector like the financier J. P. Morgan.

The idea of Jerusalem has always sparked the interest of people with available cash, and in the next episode Wharton studies, we see how the Crusades brought new opportunities for spending. Chapter 2, “Replicated Jerusalem: Temple, Templars, and Primitive Accumulation,” focuses on the Knights Templar, the military order founded in 1118 that played a major role in the Crusades. The Templars incorporated replicas of the Holy Sepulchre—as a characteristic rounded form—into their order’s churches, in particular, in Paris and London. For the Templars, Wharton argues, the Holy Sepulchre was both trophy and totem (sign of their military exploits in the Holy Land, and familiar symbol of their tribe). In this sense, and in the sense that they served as an advertisement for the Crusades, the order was structured around the representation of Jerusalem in the West. Speculation about the secret practices of the Templars has fueled novels and histories, but one of their primary functions, in addition to fighting, was banking. Individual Templars, who were required to be of noble birth, themselves brought funds to the collective holdings of the order; as members, they were not allowed to hold money except under special circumstances. Those desirous of gaining salvation by aiding in this pious enterprise of conquest augmented the Templars’ own wealth (though it remains unclear just how much excess wealth the order held). They were a source of financial credit for royalty at a time when usury was defined as any form of lending at interest and officially forbidden but covertly practiced, often by groups in socially marginal if economically powerful positions—Jews throughout Europe, Italian merchants in northern Europe, and the Templars. If their association with the eastern Mediterranean put them at a certain symbolic remove from typical social roles in western Europe, and hence in a position to serve this role, it also, presumably, facilitated their eventual “othering” and downfall.

Chapter 3, “Fabricated Jerusalem: Franciscans and Pious Mountains,” studies the sacri monti (of which the best known is that of Varallo in northern Italy) constructed by the Franciscan order to afford the pious a step-by-step recreation of Christ’s Passion. (Varallo was built in the 1490s and later reorganized following the Counter-Reformation interest in providing devotional experiences to the Christian faithful.) By the late Middle Ages, the Franciscans—also an order founded on the explicit rejection of personal wealth—had, in a sense, taken over the Templars’ role as Christian occupiers of Jerusalem, and in Italy they produced two different kinds of “mountains” that expressed the functions of piety and finance that the Templars had also embodied (along with fighting). The standard explanation for the appearance of the sacri monti, representations of holy narratives within the context of an imagined Holy Land, is that they served to present an experience of Jerusalem to those unable to travel there—bargain-basement pilgrimage. Though Wharton does not deny this motivation, she points out that it does not explain the timing of the mountains’ appearance, and suggests a deeper resonance between these mountains and the monti di pietà, a form of credit union also being constructed in the late Middle Ages as a way of providing credit for Christians without resorting to Jewish moneylenders (thus enabling cities to expel their Jews, often quite violently, and to defend themselves, if imperfectly, against anxieties about the polluting qualities of money). The sacred mountains, significantly, were also a way of producing an ideal Jerusalem free from non-Christians.

Chapter 4, “Mechanically Reproduced Jerusalem: Entrepreneurs and Tourists,” addresses image technologies of the nineteenth century that promised an ever more accurate view of the landscape of the Holy Land to a mass audience. These are not the schematic, numerically, and narratively organized sets of pilgrimage sites as in the holy mountains, but ostensibly unmediated and non-sectarian topographies. The chapter studies David Roberts’s lithographs, which constructed a sense of objectivity (and sectarian neutrality) in the rendering of the sites, though they were in fact far from objective. It also discusses an anti-Semitic novel that included illustrations based (among other sources) on Roberts’s lithographs, as well as the panorama, an architectural setting for presenting an illusory view of a vast landscape. As Wharton points out, the panorama’s construction of authority and (illusory) freedom coincides with aspects of the system of industrial capitalism. This chapter is quite enthralling on its own terms, although it is the one in which Wharton’s economic argument seems the most accidental; within the mass visual technologies she studies, and the logic of “speculation,” Jerusalem seems like an important example, but not perhaps a paradigmatic or indispensable one. However, this may itself be symptomatic of a split (or apparent split) in form and content effected by capitalism itself.

Chapter 5, “Spectacularized Jerusalem: Imperialism, Globalization, and the Holy Land as Theme Park,” addresses such topics as the Holy Land Experience theme park in Orlando, Florida, and Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ, along with twentieth-century architectural interventions in the city. Wharton shows how, following the Franciscans, the discourse of authenticity and unmediated experience requires the erasure of historical facts and artifacts associated with populations possessing unacceptable religious beliefs. In examining the “restoration” of Jerusalem itself in the twentieth century, Wharton demonstrates the significant power of Jerusalem’s proxies circulating in the West: she shows how the city itself has been consciously reconstructed at various stages to resemble these proxies more closely.

A few questions remained unanswered for me. While Wharton never claims to be providing systematic chronological coverage, I wondered, selfishly perhaps, whether more attention to the period between the fifteenth and nineteenth centuries—the gap between chapter 3 and chapter 4—might not have uncovered material that would have enriched the book. The story is mainly a Christian one, with Jewish and Muslim attachments to Jerusalem woven through the primary narrative; necessarily, some aspects of the story are left out. But for European and American audiences this has the virtue of bringing “home” the enduring attachments and violent passions associated with the Holy Land.

Selling Jerusalem has ambitions to contribute to our understanding of economic history. It may not be in ways that economic historians—and certainly not economists—will recognize, but I think Wharton’s study does provide useful material for thinking about, for instance, the sacred awe (and, perversely, corresponding pollution) associated with the money form. I wondered if these issues might have been extended to think more directly, in concrete economic terms, about the relationship between money and the East. The book might have made certain connections somewhat more explicitly. Why does Jerusalem have a persistent relationship to money? What is it about the yearnings it inspires that makes Jerusalem such a good case study for the history of economic practices and anxieties?

Selling Jerusalem makes important contributions to art history, as well as the history of landscape, colonialism, cross-cultural contact, and religion. It offers a wealth of detail in its case studies and provides much inspiration for new approaches to landscapes, objects, and cultural history. In an even deeper and more controversial way, it can show us how much of the conflict over “Jerusalem” has actually been fought over its necessarily imperfect, variable, ideological, and illusory representations—in proxy forms from the tiny to the grandiose.

Rebecca Zorach
Mary Jane Crowe Professor in Art and Art History, Weinberg College of Arts & Sciences, Department of Art History, Northwestern University

Please send comments about this review to