Art of the Redemption 9: Verdi’s ‘Jerusalem’
Giuseppe Verdi’s less well known opera I Lombardi (sometimes called Jerusalem) is set in the Holy Land at the time of the Crusades. Act III opens with this beautiful song in honour of Jerusalem. It is sung by crusader knights, women, and other pilgrims as they get their first view of the Holy City. They are overcome with emotion as they see their destination which means not just the end of an earthly journey but somehow also their eternal destination.
Jewish tradition says that when joy was being distributed by God one tenth of it went to the rest of the world and nine tenths to Jerusalem, and that when sorrow was being distributed by God one tenth of it went to the rest of the world and nine tenths to Jerusalem. It is the place where God chose to dwell, his glory abiding in the Temple at Jerusalem. The city is sacred to Muslims who believe that it was there Abraham was prepared to sacrifice Isaac and from there Mohammed was taken up to heaven
For Christians, of course, Jerusalem is the place where the drama of our redemption was enacted. The significance of Jerusalem for Christians cannot be understood without appreciating what the city meant to the Jews. The wonderful psalms about this city as well as the great prophecies about its place in the coming Kingdom of God are cherished by Christians also as foundational to their faith. We look back at the saving events that unfolded in Jerusalem with the passion, death and resurrection of Jesus. We celebrate those events in our liturgies so that we live now within them. We look forward to the coming again of Christ when ‘New Jerusalem’, the city not built by human hands, comes down out of heaven from God.
Verdi describes Jerusalem as ‘the promised city’, ‘the fatal city’, the place of ‘blood well shed’. The women pray through their tears that when they come to die they may depart from this city to the bosom of God. The men recall that it was among Jerusalem’s rocky heights that ‘the Lamb of mercy’ was bound. The wolves that surrounded the Lamb fell to the ground when he said ‘I am he’ – Io son: where the singing reaches a climax. This is the city over which he wept, they continue, and it is here that poor humanity receives salvation. In the final part men and women sing together about the Jerusalem that is to come: ‘O mountains, O plains, O valleys eternally sacred to human thought! Behold, the living God comes, a terrifying warrior’.