From the Deathbed to Heavenly Jerusalem

Jerusalem is one of the places, where the interactions of religion and urbanity can be seen most clearly. This is the case for the real city, but also imaginary versions of it. One of the most common (and interesting) such tropes, especially in medieval and early modern texts, is that of the Heavenly Jerusalem. It features in Christian and Jewish traditions as a kind of promised land, where the faithful dwell in heavenly peace. In Christianity, the term has also been used as another name for Heaven. The wish to establish a second Jerusalem was also a key motivation for Puritans, who wanted to create a New Jerusalem in North America, when they colonized the continent.

The KFG “Religion and Urbanity: Reciprocal Foundations” not only analyses real towns and cities, but also such imaginary ones, for example those that feature in biblical stories, legends recorded in travel accounts or foundation myths. In this way, the group seeks to develop a better understanding of how religion and urbanity shaped each other in the minds of theologians, scholars and travellers.

The story of the Heavenly Jerusalem is so important in this context that it also features in unexpected places. When reading a text from 1602 by the Catholic theologian Valentin Leucht (1550-1619) on doctrinal differences between Lutherans and Catholics, I was primarily interested in how Leucht described urban death rites. But in a passage on the benefits of a Catholic death, Leucht also mentions the Heavenly Jerusalem:

Valentin Leucht in an engraving by Lukas Kilian (1605) (See here for copyright details).

Wolan dieser Ort der Erquickung des Liechts / und Friedens / ist das schöne Oberste Hierusalem / die Herrliche Triumphirliche Kirche / die selige Wonung aller Heiligen und Außerwehlten. Der Erquickung zwar / dann wie der weiße Mann spricht: Iustus si morte praeoccupatus fuerit, in refrigerio erit. Der Gerecht wan[n] er schon mit dem Todt wirdt vorkommen / so wirdt er doch in der Erquickung seyn. Deß Liechts aber: dann dieselbige Stadt (wie in der Offenbaru[n]g stehet) mangelt keiner Sonn / keines Mons ihr zuleuchten / die Clarheit Gottes erleuchtet solche / unnd jhr Leucht ist das Lamb. Endtlich auch deß Friedes: Dann von solchem sagt der Prophet Esaias: Mein Volck wirdt wohnen in der Schönheit deß Friedes / un[d] in den sichern Wonungen / und in reicher Ruhe.

The text describes the Heavenly Jerusalem (“Oberste Hierusalem”) as a place of renewal and peace. But Leucht also gives this new Jerusalem a distinctly Catholic colouring by linking it to the triumphant (Catholic) Church and making it the place, where the saints dwell. This is not surprising, as the extract comes from a text refuting Lutheranism and criticizing the recent conversion of the Augustinian monk Gottfried Rabe to Lutheranism. Leucht was particularly skilfull with such semi-polemical, theological interpretations and during his lifetime some other Catholics even thought that his texts became too vulgar when describing Lutheran thought and practice. In comparison with other passages, where the Lutherans are described as stinking, lying fools, this description of the Heavenly Jerusalem is relatively mild in its confessional dimension. However, as other parts of the same text underscore the importance of saints and their power in interceding with God, the explicit reference to their presence would not have been lost on an early modern reader.

Leucht focuses, in particular, on the light in this Heavenly Jerusalem. He writes that there will be no lack of sun, nor moon, as the clarity of God will shine and the light is the lamb, that is Jesus. Leucht also reiterates the peace that was in this Heavenly Jerusalem. Both these features must have resonated with individuals living in the early modern period, as they were used to conflict and highly dependent on good weather for their sustenance. Besides, both the sun and moon were highly symbolic and, in this case, stood for a blissfull life in the heavenly Jerusalem. At the same time, the “light of truth” referred to Catholicism for men like Leucht. Perhaps the continual emphasis on the light was also a pun by Leucht, whose name means light.

The New Jerusalem in a woodcut cycle on the Apocalypse by Albrecht Dürer (1487/8). Note how the Heavenly Jerusalem is depicted as a medieval city. (See here for copyright information)

The motif of the Heavenly Jerusalem also gave Leucht the opportunity to show his biblical knowledge and in the margins of the text, he referenced biblical passages, mainly from Revelations, and in the main part of the text, he mentioned Isaiah. But, as was common for such texts, in the margins Leucht gave more specific biblical passage, lending authority to his claims and enabling a reader to look up the relevant passages. The text also links to other elements within Leucht’s interpretation. In many cases, the Heavenly Jerusalem was connected to Apocalypticism and the end times. Leucht also saw signs of the end, as he described the coming of Martin Luther and the many divisions in the German nation as indications of the arrival of the Antichrist, who would end the world. Finally, God would judge who were the righteous and who was damned.

And here the text, which described the peace and quiet in the Heavenly Jerusalem, comes full circle. It was only the Catholics, who could attain access to the Heavenly Jerusalem. Only through a good life and death were good Catholics able to enter this heavenly city. Whether from the deathbed or during the Apocalypse, only some were lucky enough to make it to the Heavenly Jerusalem. Leucht knew that many of the cities in the Holy Roman Empire were multiconfessional. He lived in pluriconfessional regions like Upper Lusatia and constantly engaged in polemical exchanges with Lutherans. Today, some scholars use diversity as a key indicator for what makes “a city”. But in Leucht’s imagination this heavenly city was a monoconfessional one. He mentioned many religious groups in his texts: Lutherans, Zwinglians, Calvinists, Anabaptists, Schwenckfelders, Jews, Muslims and heathens – but in his vision of the Heavenly Jerusalem there were only Catholics. For him, this was true peace.

— Martin Christ

Martin Christ is a KFG post-doctoral research fellow working on ducal burials and urban cemeteries in early modern Germany.

The full text of Leucht’s tract is available online, digitized by the Unviersity of Paderborn. The passage quoted above is on pages 143/44. If you want to know more about Leucht, other parts of the text or the Heavenly Jerusalem, please feel free to comment below.


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