Behold the icon

The Israel Museum puts Jesus in the spotlight, but with a largely local slant, in an exhibition of 150 works by 40 artists, including Reuven Rubin, Marc Chagall and Moshe Castel.

The Israel Museum puts Jesus in the spotlight (photo credit: ELIE POSNER)
The Israel Museum puts Jesus in the spotlight
(photo credit: ELIE POSNER)
It seems there is no more iconic image than Jesus, with or without the cross. In one of the most interesting current exhibitions “Behold the Man: Jesus in Israeli Art”, (running until April 22), the Israel Museum has placed this central figure firmly in the spotlight, but with a largely local slant.
Outgoing museum director James Snyder noted that the prevalence of Jesus’s image in art, across the ages, is evidence that “these works transcend time, place, culture, and even religion, revealing the universal impulse to define one’s own identity by appropriating symbols from collective world history.”
The breadth of the representational scope in the exhibition is highly impressive, and you can spend hours walking around the display spaces, taking in works from the late 19th century right up to the present day.
All told, the exhibition takes in some 150 works by 40 artists, and leapfrogs between artists of diverse approaches and eras such as Reuven Rubin, Igael Tumarkin, Marc Chagall and Sigalit Landau.
The exhibits were sourced from the museum’s own repositories and from private and public collections in Israel and internationally, among them the National Museum in Warsaw and Centre Pompidou in Paris.
The exhibition time line starts from 19th-century Russian Jewish sculptor Mark Antokolsky’s imposing 1876 marble statue Christ before the People’s Court. The towering figure, which stands at well over two meters, exudes a sense of a very human, possibly frail, figure.
As such, the initial feeling was that the exhibition was going to offer me some insight into Jesus the man, rather than the ubiquitous icon.
“This is the person,” says Dr. Amitai Mendelsohn, senior curator of the David Orgler department of Israeli art. “The idea was to take the figure of Jesus as a figure from Jewish art into Israeli art, from the end of the 19th century up to today, through the work of all kinds of artists.
“The figure of Christ is problematic, to say the least,” Mendelsohn observes. “He is controversial in the Jewish world, and was the source of the fiercest theological debate of the last 2,000 years, between Judaism and Christianity.”
Minefields notwithstanding, Mendelsohn was also cognizant of the exciting prospect of firing his own imagination and, of course, stirring the interest and emotions of the visiting public.
However, as Mendelsohn emphasizes, “This exhibition looks at the man, and not at Christianity per se...
It looks at the figure of Jesus as a reflection of the artist himself,” he continues, “Jesus as the outcast, who faces an audience that doesn’t understand him.”
For some reason, despite the obvious seriousness of the subject matter, an image of Monty Python’s tongue-in-cheek movie Life of Brian hove into my mind’s eye. Despite his wealth of knowledge about Jesus and his in-depth research work into the topic, Mendelsohn is not beyond a bit of related humor.
“You know, if you want to parody something, you have to go for the most sacred areas,” he notes. Indeed, when it came out in the late 1970s, there was uproar right across the Christian world, and the Pythons were even accused of blasphemy. And although there are not too many comical elements to “Behold the Man,” there are some lighter moments along the way.
“This is dangerous ground,” says Mendelsohn. “This is a topic which can prompt discussion, and I think it will, and people are taking a great interest in this.”
ORTHODOX JUDAISM, over the centuries, has not taken a too favorable view of Jesus.
“The two primary elements of this exhibition are the approach of Judaism toward Jesus – which is a very severe approach,” Mendelsohn explains. “Throughout history, through all the persecution of Jews, the Inquisition and anything else you care to mention, the Jews never wavered from their opposition to Jesus, to the messianic view of Jesus.
“And the Jews didn’t even give that up when they were about to be killed. They were opposed to Christianity, and the basis of that is the belief in the messianic teachings of Jesus.”
It is still a sensitive area, although Jewry’s stance on Jesus began to change in the 18th century, particularly pursuant to the teachings of German Jewish philosopher Moses Mendelssohn, which were to feed the concepts developed by the Haskala – the Jewish enlightenment – mode of thought of the 18th and 19th centuries.
Maurycy Gottlieb’s evocative 1879 painting Christ Preaching at Capernaum, produced shortly before the Jewish Polish artist died at the age of only 23, depicts tallit-clad Jesus’s first public appearance following his baptism. It is a landmark work in terms of Jewish perspective on Christianity.
“Here we have a Polish Jew, who did not deny his Jewish roots,” says Mendelsohn. “On the contrary, Gottlieb had a very strong Jewish identity. He was progressive in the respect that he was familiar with this spirit [of Reform Judaism], which also made its way to Galicia and Krakow. He grew up not far from Krakow.”
It is said that the members of the Capernaum community had been looking forward to something of a fire-and-brimstone sermon from the newly baptized speaker, only to be sorely disappointed. “This painting is an expression of the new wind blowing through Judaism at the time, which believed that Jesus was a Jew.”
There are intriguing points of interest and some real eye-openers right across “Behold the Man,” and, possibly, there is no more astonishing an inclusion than that of Marc Chagall’s The Crucified, from 1944.
“A lot of people are very surprised when they see a work by Chagall with Jesus in it,” Mendelsohn remarks.
“Chagall is the ultimate Jewish artist. There is no more famous Jewish artist, especially in the 20th century.”
Despite his seemingly unimpeachable standing in the Israeli-Jewish psyche, Chagall developed a great interest in Christian icons. “He was obsessed with the figure of Jesus, and that is not very well known in Israel.
It started very early for him,” says Mendelsohn, indicating a Cubist-informed gouache watercolor-and-pencil creation called Golgotha. “He gets to Paris in 1912, and Golgotha is one of the first paintings he produces there.
Chagall identified with the figure of Jesus. He related to him as 100% Jewish.”
The Crucified adds a new dimension to the representation of Jesus in Jewish art. “Chagall made this while the Holocaust was in progress, and he paints Jesus on the cross, but as a Jewish man,” notes Mendelsohn. “He showed him as a symbol of Jewish suffering. This is one of the more powerful paintings on this subject.”
THE HOLOCAUST seems to appear in The Wandering Jew, by Samuel Hirszenberg, too. It depicts an apocalyptic scene in which a terrified figure does his utmost to escape from a forest of dark towering crosses.
“You immediately think of the Shoah, but this was painted in 1899,” says the curator. “This is the figure of the wandering Jew, who is constantly punished and never stops moving, that is the myth of the Jew who didn’t help Jesus on the way to the crucifixion.”
Regardless of the ostensibly negative vibes, there is a fundamentally positive message in the work.
“The idea is that he will get out of the crosses, and he will get here to the Land of Israel,” says Mendelsohn.
“This is about the vision of Zionism.”
As we progress through the last century, and on into the current one, the portrayals of Jesus and associated sensibilities, for example, through the image of Mary and the idea of definitive maternity, become increasingly jazzier.
Tumarkin’s Mita Meshuna (the Artist’s Monogram) brings us right into the heart of the Middle Eastern conflict. The mixed-media sculpture was made in 1984, while Israel was still heavily embroiled in Lebanon and IDF soldiers were being killed or wounded on an almost daily basis.
Mita Meshuna is a play on words – in Hebrew, although spelled differently, mita can mean bed or death. The centerpiece of the work is an army field bunk, which hangs down from a horizontal plank of wood, with the name of the work stenciled onto it, with a piece of distended black material – suggesting a loincloth – and a strip of an Israeli flag flanking the “body.”
Tumarkin’s contribution to the exhibition also includes his 1982 work Beduin Crucifixion, which comprises a seemingly random collection of clothing and implements representing the Beduin tradition and way of life.
Iconic Israeli art also has a say in the Jesus department, through the work of Reuven Rubin and, in particular, his 1922 painting The Madonna of the Vagabonds.
In it Rubin has Mary front and center, with one breast bared, symbolizing the rebirth of the Jewish nation through Zionism. The infant Jesus is also in evidence, as Rubin filters his patriotic ardor through the use of Christian iconography.
“Rubin is the most important Zionist artist of the 1920s, the definitive Land of Israel artist,” observes Mendelsohn. “This was made a year before he made aliya, although he’d visited here before.”
THE EXHIBITION incorporates an almost bewilderingly expansive array of Jesus-related portrayals and readings across numerous stylistic, genre and cultural divides. It is an enlightening and, aesthetically, richly rewarding experience.