Other prominent paintings on the betrothal theme display the same falsifications of biblical history: Giotto (1305); Pietro Perugino (1502; El Geco (1600); Giovanni di Pietro (c.1432); Bernardino di Mariotto (1478); Jan Van Dornick (1470 -1527); Robert_Campin (c.1375); Sano di Pietro (1448-1452); Vittore Carpaccio (1504-1508); Philippe de Champaigne (1644)--and more.
Why should we care about these misrepresentations? A contentious and often violent relationship between Christianity and Judaism began in the first century, as the emerging Christianity sought to establish itself as separate from its deep roots in Judaism. Remnants of that divide continue to reverberate today. And art (particularly paintings and stained glass windows) was a major vehicle in Medieval and Renaissance Europe for teaching the populace about Church doctrines and perceptions--ones that often embodied anti-Semitism.
But how could separation be achieved by fostering hate, demonization, and persecution of Jews if two of the most iconic figures in Christianity were dedicated practicing Jews, not the Christians devoid of Judaism as portrayed in art representations?
In the early years of Christianity, separation was a bumpy road, since the new religion was tied to Jewish prophesy and lineage. That's why after a unified church was established at the Council of Nicaea in 325 CE the vilification of Jews and Judaism was stepped up, reinforced by a charge that became an unquestioned mantra: "Christ killers."
Jews were then marginalized, persecuted, and frequently massacred. The Christianization of Jesus and Mary in artworks and other cultural depictions separated them from Judaism and widened the Christian-Jewish divide, enabling rampant anti-Semitism to infuse European societies through the Middle Ages and Renaissance periods. Further aiding the divide, the church banned individual ownership or reading of the New Testament or translations of the bible from Latin into native languages--a moot point since over ninety percent of the population was illiterate. Thus, for over a thousand years the populace would not encounter the Jewish Jesus and Mary of the Gospels.
Artworks, perhaps somewhat inadvertently, contributed to virulent anti-Semitism by picturing Jesus and Mary as Northern European Christians with no connection to the dark menacing "vile Jews," as they were represented in artworks.
But today we are in a new era of reconciliation led by Pope Francis. His bold pronouncement that "inside every Christian is a Jew" reaffirms the common foundation of Judaism and Christianity and seeks healing of ancient wounds and wrongs.
I wish that art historians, curators, and art critics would follow Pope Francis' lead and finally acknowledge the falsification of biblical history in artworks that denied the Jewish identities of Jesus and Mary.
In excruciatingly detailed commentaries on artworks by professionals in the field the glaring feature of identity theft is almost never noted. Doing so would take nothing away from the magnificence of these works and their contribution to the development and enhancement of art and culture. But it would contribute to a long-overdue participation in the reconciliation of Christianity and Judaism. It would affirm the two sides of the Jesus and Mary story: Jesus and Mary the dedicated Jews and Jesus and Mary whose lives inspired a new religion.
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