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Authentic and False Images of Jesus in Artworks

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Christ in a Landscape
(Image by Musee des beaux-arts de Montreal)
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Painter and architect Rod Borghese and I conceived a triptych consisting of three images of Jesus based on the painting Christ in a Landscape by 16th-century Dutch Renaissance artist Jan Swart van Groningen. One of the images is Van Groningen's original painting. Two others in the triptych are images that Rod Borghese altered from the original.

Which is the most authentic representation of Jesus?

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The first altered image (left) in which Jesus is holding a Torah scroll is clearly an authentic depiction. Jesus loved the Torah and surely held the scroll often in his lifetime during synagogue Sabbath services, as stated in the Gospels (Luke 4:16). And almost all of Jesus' teachings can be traced to the Torah, as Rabbi Shmuley Boteach has detailed in his book Kosher Jesus. The second altered image of Jesus (center), in which he holds both a Torah scroll and a crucifix, has a degree of authenticity. The Torah scroll signals Jesus' identification as a Jew, while the crucifix is symbolic of Christianity, which evolved as a separate religion after Jesus' crucifixion, based on the belief that he was the Messiah prophesized in the Torah. Interestingly, though, neither Christianity nor the crucifix as a devotional object existed in Jesus' lifetime.

Van Groningen's original painting (right), in which Jesus is holding a crucifix, is the least authentic in its contents. This painting, like the trove of other Renaissance paintings cited in my book, Jesus Uncensored: Restoring the Authentic Jew, pictures Jesus as Christian at a time when Christianity did not exist. In the absence of any Jewish content to reflect Jesus' Jewish identity at the time in his life shown in the painting, the Crucifix cannot be seen as symbolic. In fact, Jesus would likely be horrified by the image of him displaying a crucifix. The only crucifix he ever held was the one he was nailed to in the brutal process of his crucifixion. The strong message of the original image (right) -- a false one -- is that Jesus was a Christian, a point further punctuated by him holding a Christian bible (which also didn't exist at the time). If it were the Torah it would be in the form of a scroll, as it is in the two altered paintings. Bound bibles didn't exist until the fifth century and hardcover-bound books with rounded spines did not appear until the 15th century.

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The triptych, with its altered images that put Judaism back in the picture, exposes the identity theft of Jesus in artworks, and starkly illustrates the falsification of biblical history in Van Groningen's original image. The same falsification would be dramatically revealed if altered images of other Renaissance paintings of Jesus, his family, and followers were available and placed alongside the originals.

Fortunately, some are now available as part of the art exhibit in development, "Putting Judaism Back in the Picture: Toward Healing the Christian/ Jewish Divide." The original paintings drove Christianity and Judaism apart. The new renditions draw them back together by including the two sides of the Jesus story. Other artworks in the exhibit will integrate Christian and Jewish themes in a variety of innovative creations.

Note: Artist/architect Rod Borghese lives and works in Ottawa, Canada. He is a distant descendant of the Renaissance Borghese banking family that accumulated a vast collection of Medieval and Renaissance artworks.


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Bernard Starr, PhD, is a psychologist and Professor Emeritus at CUNY (Brooklyn College). His latest book is "Jesus, Jews, And Anti-Semitism In Art:How Renaissance Art Erased Jesus' Jewish Identity & How Today's Artists Are Restoring (more...)

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