Last week I viewed the new exhibit of Marc Chagall's paintings at New York's Jewish Museum (Chagall: Love, War and Exile).
In interviewing people of all faiths for my book, I found that Jews are typically put off by Christian images; and many will not allow the name Jesus to pass their lips. So I was curious about the young Hasid's view of the painting he was looking at. Was he expecting what the name Marc Chagall usually conjures up? Magical, allegorical and playful images of Jewish life. At first he hesitated when I asked him about the painting, but when I pressed he said "it's troubling" but would not elaborate.
The fact that Jesus was a committed practicing Jew is lost lost on most Jews. Not surprising in view of unspeakable acts of persecution for more than a thousand years, often in the name of Jesus, although Jesus had nothing to do with these acts and would have been horrified by them.
My brief encounter in the
For example, Apocalypse in Lilac (Capriccio) pictures a naked Jesus on the cross with a
Other paintings in the exhibit celebrate Chagall's early life in Russia, his romantic images of his love for his wife, Bella, paintings during his exile in New York during the war years, and his life in Paris after World War II. Lovers among the Lilacs (1930) is a tender erotic image of Chagall and Bella in a more peaceful moment before the war.
The Jewish Museum exhibit contributes significantly to countering the bulk of Medieval and Renaissance artworks about Jesus, his family and followers, which completely eliminated their Jewish identities and heritage. These paintings commonly depicted them as blond fair-skinned Northern Europeans immersed in anachronistic Christian settings, with saints, high church officials, and Christian artifacts. Art historians dismiss the omissions as the Renaissance style of contemporizing images. However, it's one thing to contemporize physical appearance and dress, even setting (palatial vs. crude village habitats), but quite another matter to steal identities and falsify biblical history. The "style" rationale is also given lie by the fact that Renaissance images of classical Greek figures and heroes, sometimes pictured in contemporary Renaissance attire and settings, are not also seen holding crucifixes (which did not exist as a Christian symbol until the fourth century) or kneeling in Christian prayer poses surrounded by Christian saints and church officials.
Walk through the Renaissance galleries of any major museum and you will be greeted at every turn with totally Christianized images of the Jewish Jesus and others in his community, without any acknowledgement of the distortions and omissions. To get a conversation going on this subject, perhaps it would be useful for museums to place Chagall's images, as well as those of several 19th-and 20th- century artists who created a small body of Jewish Jesus artworks, alongside some of the Medieval and Renaissance works.
While Chagall's powerful paintings restore Jesus's Jewish identity, they focus primarily on one theme: the common ground of suffering -- Jesus suffering on the cross signifying the suffering of Jews in horrendous persecutions. But there remains a need to show the Jewish Jesus in other contexts to counter the distortions in Medieval and Renaissance artworks, which have contributed to anti-Semitism by feeding the illusion that Jesus and Jews were of different religions and ethnicities. Toward correcting that, I've invited artists to submit revised renditions of Medieval and Renaissance artworks that put Judaism back in the picture, as well as other submissions that integrate Judaism and Christianity in the persona of Jesus, as in Chagall's paintings. I hope these new works will show the two sides of the Jesus story: Jesus the dedicated Jew and Jesus whose life and teachings inspired a new religion.