From 1873 to this day, Jewish artists have been portraying Jesus as a Jew. This has never been just an "historical" approach to the subject, but was meant to convey specific messages to both Christians and Jews. To understand how this came about, we must go back to the theological origins of the debate concerning Jesus' origins.
The modern study of Jesus' Jewish background officially began in Christian theology in 1778, with the publication of The Aims of Jesus and his Disciples by Hermann Samuel Reimarus. This approach was developed by both Christian and Jewish scholars in the nineteenth century, each group acting with different aims. Christians wished to better understand Jesus within his historical and theological context. Jews agreed with this, but had two additional main objectives.
First of all, the Jews of the Emancipation, led by Moses Mendelssohn, were interested in building bridges between Judaism and Christianity. One way was in affirming Jesus' positive qualities, stressing that he had been a Law-abiding Jew who was not interested in destroying Judaism, and that he had spread Jewish ideas among the pagans. Thus Jesus could be allowed to enter the canon of Jewish teachers whose base was Judaism. This idea was affirmed in art in 1878-79 both by Mauricy Gottlieb in Poland, who portrayed Jesus wearing a prayer shawl as he preached in the synagogue in Capernaum, and by Max Liebermann in Germany, who depicted the 12-year-old Jesus in the Temple, surrounded by Jews dressed in a modern style. In both these paintings, the Jews display a range of emotions, from interest to skepticism, while they seriously contemplate Jesus' words. Both artists have stated that through these works they hoped to help make peace between Jews and Christians.
However, Jews also had a second goal in stressing Jesus' Judaism. 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. Moreover, he claimed, if Jesus came again, he would rise up against an aggressive Christianity as he had once stood up against the Pharisees.
This second use of Jesus, as a means of communicating with Christians through their own visual imagery, inspired many Jewish artists in the twentieth century. This symbolism reached its apogee in the period leading to World War II, when a group of Christian and Jewish artists took up this imagery and its message. In the White Crucifixion of 1938, Marc Chagall depicted Jesus wearing a head-cloth and a loincloth made from a prayer shawl. He is lit from on high by a ray of light and from below by a menora. He is mourned by the Jewish patriarchs and a matriarch, and surrounded by scenes of pogroms, in which Jews attempt to flee as Nazis burn their Torah Ark and books. In 1943, he took this symbolism even further in the Yellow Crucifixion: Jesus is crucified wearing his prayer shawl-loincloth and phylacteries, and is joined to an open Torah scroll placed on one of his arms. He is surrounded by refugees and by Jews who had tried to escape Germany aboard the Sturma, drowning when no country would allow them to debark. The following year, after the Nazis destroyed his home town, Chagall portrayed Jews in modern dress crucified in the streets of Vitebsk to make his message clear. Whereas the crucifixion became a basic motif in Chagall's work from that point on, he unambiguously defined what he wanted to portray: "My Christ, as I depict him, is always the type of the Jewish martyr, in pogroms and in our other troubles, and not otherwise."
Chagall was not the only artist to use this imagery in this context. In 1933, German Christian Otto Pankok used a combination of Jewish and Gypsy features to portray Jesus as a victim of the Nazis. In 1942-43, the Jewish American artist Mark Rothko did a variation on the crucifixion, multiplying and breaking down Jesus' body into heads, torsos, arms and legs bearing the stigmata. This imagery still resounds in George Segal's The Holocaust of 1982-83, where a cruciform figure lies among corpses set behind barbed wire. In 1945, Jewish artists working in different parts of the globe, such as Abraham Rattner in New York and Marcel Janco in Tel Aviv, broadened this imagery by portraying the PietÃ in which the skeletally thin Jesus is clearly a victim of the concentration camps. Two of the most obvious versions of this message were done during the war: in 1942, ManÃ©-Katz portrayed Jesus leaning down from the cross to embrace his dead Jewish brethren in a painting meaningfully entitled Now ye are all brethren?, while in 1945 Josef Foshko depicted an aged Jew being crucified while calling out a pointed variation of Jesus' words: "Forgive them NOT, Father, for they KNOW what they do."
Another noteworthy variation on this theme is a series of crucifixions done in Mexico by Jewish sculptor Mathias Goeritz, named Redeemer of Auschwitz. The most striking of these, done in 1951-53, is composed of burnt and broken bits of iron. Goeritz's message is that no one redeemed the victims of Auschwitz, and Jesus was burnt there in the crematorium along with his brothers.
From the Holocaust on, a number of variations on this subject have infiltrated the Church itself. Thus, in 1944, the British Christian Graham Sutherland was commissioned to paint a crucifixion for St. Matthew's Church in Northampton, and in his sketches portrayed Jesus as a bald-headed, skeletal victim of the Holocaust. The final painting is more traditional, but the stress on the skeletal demeanor of Jesus' body was retained. Moreover, Chagall received numerous commissions to work for the Church, and in his stained glass windows executed in the 1960s and 1970s for Metz Cathedral, Zurich's FraumÃ¼nster and St. Stephen's in Mainz, he depicted Jesus with a prayer shawl for a loincloth, and occasionally with a phylactery on his head.
But in these works Chagall was not only interested in stressing Jesus' Jewishness to Christians so that they might resist anti-Semitism, but also wished to fulfill the first mission of such imagery mentioned above: promoting peace between Jews and Christians by speaking also to the Jews. Thus in his Sacrifice of Isaac, part of his interfaith "Biblical Message" series of Old Testament scenes done in the 1950s-1960s, he placed Jesus carrying the cross surrounded by modern mourning and wandering Jews in the background. Whereas this is normative Christian imagery, as the sacrifice of Isaac is seen as a prefiguration of the crucifixion, it is done here in a way to stress the constant martyrdom of Jews. Moreover, in his painting Exodus of 1952-66, he showed Moses leading the ancient people of Israel, who now mingle with refugees from the Holocaust and the drowned victims of the Struma, all under the aegis of a gigantic image of Jesus crucified. When he did a variation on this theme in his Knesset tapestries in Jerusalem, he was precluded from using such a vivid Christian image. Here the Exodus moves from Moses on the right to Jerusalem and King David on the left, but a careful examination shows that in the small Sacrifice of Isaac on the left, behind Moses, Isaac lies on the altar in an inverted cruciform position. Chagall thus tried to get the message of the desired unity of Christians and Jews both to the Christians through their churches and to the Jews through the work decorating the main reception hall of Israel's parliament building.
Ziva Amishai-Maisels is a professor-emeritus in Art History at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. For more information on this subject, see her The Jewish Jesus, Journal of Jewish Art, vol. 9 (1982), 84-104 and her Depiction and Interpretation: The Influence of the Holocaust on the Visual Arts, Oxford: Pergamon, 1993, Part 2, Chap. 3.
Relevant to your professional network? Please share on Linkedin
Think others should know about this? Please share