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Jesus in Jewish Art: The Missing Pieces

10/16/2013 09:35 am ET | Updated Jan 23, 2014

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Medieval and Renaissance artworks commonly Christianized Jesus, his family and close followers while omitting their Jewish identities. This phenomenon contributed significantly to the historic rift between Christianity and Judaism by picturing Jesus and Jews as separate in religion and ethnicity. That was particularly true for the centuries in which Christians were denied direct access to their bible, from which they might have learned about Jesus,the dedicated practicing Jew.

Recently, though, there have been efforts to correct the distortions and misrepresentation in artworks. The 2011-2012 exhibit Rembrandt and the Images of Jesus, curated by the Louvre, the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Detroit Institute of Arts featured Rembrandt's paintings of a Jewish Jesus:

For Rembrandt, working from a Jewish model would have been a means of returning to a historical truth, or portraying Jesus unadulterated, as the Jew that he was -- a form of realism scoffing at tradition. -- Louvre comment

The explosion of interest in the paintings of Jewish artist Marc Chagall, with several major exhibits this year alone, has brought public attention to his surprising trove of paintings of Jesus as Jew and Christian, bonded by the theme of suffering. The current Chagall exhibit at the Jewish Museum in New York City, Love, War and Exile includes 24 paintings that focus on the crucifixion, often showing Jesus with a prayer shawl rather than a loin cloth, in a context of Holocaust persecutions. Almost half of the works in the Jewish Museum exhibit center around the crucifixion -- and many more of Chagall's Jesus and crucifixion paintings were not included in the exhibit. For example, his most famous crucifixion painting, "White Crucifixion," which is at the Chicago Art Institute, is not in the current show.

The exhibit of Rembrandt's Jewish Jesus, which was more religion-neural than clearly Jewish, and the Chagall exhibit, which features his crucifixion paintings, represent steps in the direction of correcting the falsification of biblical history in the extensive collections of artworks that the public sees in Medieval and Renaissance galleries of museums around the world.

Chagall was not alone among 19- and 20th-century Jewish artists to create artworks of Jesus, and sometimes of a Jewish Jesus. Art scholar Ziva Amishai-Maisels explains that artists sought to address anti-Semitism:

Faced with rising anti-Semitism throughout Europe and pogroms in Russia from 1871 on, Jewish writers and artists tried to explain to Christians that in persecuting Jews they were attacking the brothers of their Christ rather than emulating his example of humility and charity. The first Jewish artist to express these ideas was Mark Antokolsky, a Russian working in Rome, who in 1873 sculpted Jesus before his judges, stressing his Jewish facial features -- a slightly hooked nose and side-curls -- and depicting him in a skullcap and a costume that recalls a prayer shawl. He stated explicitly in his letters to his Russian Christian patrons that his purpose in doing so was to warn Christians that they were not abiding by Jesus' doctrines, and that in attacking Jews they were persecuting Jesus himself.

Toward the same goal, Maurycy Gottlieb painted "Jesus Preaching in the Synagogue at Capernaum" (1879), in which Jesus is wearing a prayer shawl while standing behind an open Torah scroll. In the same period, German artist Max Liebermann painted the 12-year-old Jesus in the Temple. But faced with public criticism that his image of young Jesus was too Jewish, Liebermann capitulated and redid it, removing Semitic features and giving Jesus blond curls.

Later Jewish artists addressed the horrors of the Holocaust. In addition to the works of Marc Chagall, most frequently cited is the 1942 exhibit "Modern Christs" at the Puma Gallery in New York City. Of the 26 artists who contributed to the exhibit, 17 were Jewish. Aside from a few of the most prominent artists in this show like Adolph Gottlieb, Louise Nevelson, Max Weber and Max Beckmann, many of the others are less known and are rarely if ever mentioned in references to the exhibit. Details about the artwork contributions to the exhibit are difficult to locate. Not surprising since information about the exhibit is scant and the catalogue is not readily available. After some sleuthing, I located a rare copy of the "catalogue" at the Frick Collection Reference Library in New York, where I was able to obtain a duplicate. The scant two pages only include the names of the artists and the titles of their works but no images. To ensure that this exhibit does not slip into oblivion, I'm listing the artists and their works.

Painters

1. Manfred Schwartz: "Quo Vadis Domine"
2. Michel Georges-Michel: "Christ Ecorche"
3. Fred Nagler: "Pieta"
4. Max Weber: "My Christ"
5. Puma: "The Savior"
6. Sygmunt Menkes: "Ecce Homo"
7. Jean Charlot: "Jesus Is Taken Down From the Cross"
8. Rose Kuper: "Christ Head"
9. Harry Shoulberg: "Christ"
10. Max Beckmann: "Descent From the Cross"
11. Mane Katz: "Now Ye are Brethren?"
12. Byron Browse: "Crucifixion"
13. Nahum Tschgacbasov: "Christ in Chaos"
14. Adolph Gottlieb: "Crucifixion"

Sculptors

15. Hugo Robus: "Betrayal"
16. Anita Weschsler: "Alone"
17. Marek Schwarz: "Mask Christ"
18. Louise Nevelson: "His Story"
19. Louis Slobodkin: "The Student Jesus"
20. Elsa Schmid: "St. Christopher"
21. Jose De Creeft: "The Great Semite"
22. Minna Harkavy: "Christ Head for Composition"
23. Oronzio Malderelli: "Flight Into Egypt"
24. Lillian Landis: "Head of Christ"
25. Aristodimos Kaldis: "Golgotha" (In the catalogue this was listed above with the painters)
26. Mrs. Stephen S. Wise: "Crucifixion" (This item was probably a late addition to the exhibit since it was handwritten in the catalogue)

In many instances these artworks were probably not typical of the work of the artists who produced them. That may explain why it's challenging to find exhibits or other venues where the works may have appeared, or to even locate images of the pieces. Aside from Max Beckmann's, "Descent from the Cross," many of the works in the Puma exhibit may be lost or are in private collections and not available to the public.

Other prominent Jewish artists not included in the Puma exhibition produced crucifixion images in the war years as outcries against the ongoing genocide of the Holocaust. In an untitled abstract expressionist rendition of the crucifixion (circa 1941-42) "Mark Rothko depicted not just one martyr or Jesus but a group of martyrs, their bodies unexpectedly and brutally hacked to pieces... " Emmanuel Levy's powerful painting, Crucifixion -- Jude (1941), shows the anguished rage of a Jew nailed to the cross; his talit and tefillin straps are waving in a posture of protest.

As impressive as these various exhibits and individual artworks may be in calling attention to Jesus' Jewish identity, they are too few to correct the distortions and omissions in artworks that influenced the perceptions of Jesus by generations of Christians and Jews over many centuries --and still today in the Medieval and Renaissance artworks in the permanent collections of museums.

The art exhibit I am organizing, Putting Judaism back in the Picture: Toward Healing the Christian/Jewish Divide, will feature new renditions of Medieval and Renaissance paintings that restore the Jewish identity of Jesus, his family and close followers to illustrate the two sides of the Jesus story: Jesus the dedicated Jew and Jesus whose life and teachings inspired a new religion. The exhibit will also include artworks that integrate these two themes, as well as other creative efforts at expressing the common heritage and foundation of Christianity and Judaism. In addition, we will strive to include works from the 19th and 20th centuries, like those in the 1942 Puma Gallery exhibition, to the extent that they can be located.

This art exhibit is based on the conviction that the historic rift between Christianity and Judaism will not be healed until Jews look at Jesus and see a faithful Jew, and Christians look at an orthodox Jew and see Jesus.

Note: If you have information about the artworks in the Puma Gallery exhibition please email to jjartexhibit@aol.com so that details about these works can be resurrected and preserved.

Bernard Starr is a psychologist, college professor and journalist. He is the author of Jesus Uncensored: Restoring the Authentic Jew. Website: click here.