Jewish art challenges the taboo of Jesus

Jerusalem — At the center of the Israel Museum’s newest art exhibit stands an imposing, life-size marble figure of Jesus. The sculpture, titled “Christ Before the People’s Court,” would not be out of place in a church in Rome.

Yet in this depiction, the Christian savior wears a Jewish skullcap.

The sculpture, created by Russian Jewish artist Mark Antokolsky in 1876, is part of a collection of more than 150 artworks by 40 Jewish and Israeli artists who have used Christian imagery to challenge long-held taboos in both communities. It showcases the evolving attitudes of Jewish, Zionist and Israeli artists toward a figure whose place in Jewish history has been negotiated and reinterpreted over more than two millennia.

It is a risky statement for an Israeli museum.

Throughout history, Jews have traditionally shunned Jesus and his gospel. And while the Holy Land might be his accepted birthplace, for Jews in the modern state of Israel there is often resistance to learning about or even acknowledging Christianity.

This stems mainly from a fear of centuries-old anti-Semitism, especially in Europe, where the crucifixion of Jesus was used as an excuse to persecute Jews.

“We are talking about a 2,000-year-old tension between Judaism and Christianity and the fact that anti-Semitism grew in Christian thought and theology,” said the exhibition’s curator, Amitai Mendelsohn.

Mendelsohn said he was surprised at just how many Jewish artists throughout history, and today in Israel, have used Jesus and Christian themes as inspirations for their work.

It is a delicate subject for Jews everywhere, including in Israel, but artists by nature “are attracted to something that is forbidden for them,” he said.

Ziva Amishai-Maisels, a professor emeritus at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem who specializes in Christian imagery in Jewish art, said that religious Jews, who might be opposed to such depictions, would probably stay away from the exhibition. “Those who do go might be stunned,” she said, “but I don’t think they will react badly.”

Some of the works, though, could offend pious Christians, she said. “They might feel the images are sacrilegious, but the wall texts are explanatory enough — if they read them, it should calm them down.”

While some of the older works by European Jews challenge Christian anti-Semitism or look at how Jesus’ Jewish roots could act as a bridge between the two religions, more-contemporary pieces explore Jesus as an anti-establishment figure who suffered at not being understood.

Ronit Steinberg, an art historian from Jerusalem’s Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design, said the appeal for Jewish artists in depicting Jesus has changed over the years, but all are tied together by a common thread.

“In the 19th century, the main issue was the Jewish artist feeling emancipated, and it was important for those artists to connect with their surrounding and the time. For Israeli artists, it’s also a kind of emancipation from the heavy Jewishness of their country,” she said.

There’s the “Yellow Crucifixion,” a 1943 Marc Chagall painting showing Jesus as a Jew. Hued in yellow, perhaps representing the star the Nazis forced Jews to wear, Jesus is strung from a cross wrapped in a Jewish prayer shawl and phylacteries.

Another artist, Moshe Hoffman, a Hungarian Jew who survived the Holocaust, used his art to question Christianity’s role in the genocide. In one work, “Six million and 1,” Hoffman shows a Nazi guard attempting to pull Jesus from the cross to make him Jewish prisoner number 6,000,001.

Others used Jesus as a Jew to connect their Jewish identity to Christian surroundings. While Antokolsky was the first Russian Jewish artist to be accepted by his peers, he suffered an identity crisis from being Jewish and Russian.

As the exhibit, which is arranged chronologically, arrives at works from the past few decades, a theme develops in which Jewish Israelis use Christian iconography to question their political and national identity.

One such work is by Igael Tumarkin. His monogram is the metal frame of a standard-issue Israeli army cot twisted to form a cross. Flanked by material that appears to be a shredded Israeli flag, the piece was created in 1984 and was a protest against the war Israel was fighting in Lebanon at the time. The title, “Mita Meshuna,” means both “strange bed” and “strange death” in Hebrew.

Perhaps the best-known contemporary artwork on display is Adi Nes’s depiction of Leonardo da Vinci’s “Last Supper,” which substitutes Israeli soldiers for the apostles.

Nes’s photograph sold at Sotheby’s for $250,000, the highest an Israeli photograph has ever fetched. And the image has become a cultural icon for Israelis, suggesting perhaps that Christian themes are becoming more acceptable in Jewish culture.