Behold the Man: Jesus in Israeli Art

At the Israel Museum, Jerusalem, December 2016 – April 2017 an exhibition was staged called: Behold the Man: Jesus in Israeli Art.

To quote from the foreword of the companion book – “For two millennia, the figure of Jesus has been such a fundamental part of Western culture – in the visual arts, in literature, and in music – that it is almost impossible to relate to cultural history without citing the story of his life and death. The progenitor of what become the world’s largest religion was a Jew who lived during the Second Temple period and was put to death by the Roman rulers of Judea. Jesus came to Jerusalem to preach the Kingdom of Heaven, and it was in Jerusalem that he was crucified, so that over the years the Via Dolorosa, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, and other sites in the Holy City have become a world focus of Christian pilgrimage.”

You may recall the programme that I produced called The Different Faces of Jesus that I posted on Shalom Radio UK in November 8 2016.

In the programme I dealt with the exhibition of Chagall: Love, War, and Exile that the Curator Susan Tumarkin Goodman did , Senior Curator Emerita, and together with Bella Meyer, granddaughter of Marc Chagall produced, explored with NYC-ARTS! See it here:


About 20 of the paintings done by Chagall in the show depict Jesus

This new show Behold The Man: Jesus in Israel Art by Amitai Mendelsohn has a far broader scope and is equally challenging to its viewers, all the more as it was on display for 4 months at the Israel Museum, Jerusalem.
Behold the Man: Jesus in Israeli Art approaches the figure of Jesus and related Christian themes from a different perspective, entering the complex realm of the relationship between Judaism and Christianity to examine for the first time  the significance of Jesus through European Jewish and Israeli art.”

Part 1. 

In this first section by way of introduction I will deal with the changing attitude of post-Enlightenment/ Haskalah European Jews and how their willingness to embrace the portrayal of Jesus in Painting and sculpture:

The work of some 40 artists dating from the late 19th century to the present time are considered. The is powerful symbolic imagery played by such subjects as the crucifixion and resurrection, sometimes reflecting the personal perspective of the artist and other times that of a collective national identity.

The inspiration behind this exhibition in Jesusalem is based upon the doctoral research of Amitai Mendelsohn, Senior Curator of the Museum’s David Orgler Department of Israeli Art.
Christians come to the depiction of Jesus in European art through the lens of their shared faith and history, and Israeli Jews bring a different perspective to their view of Jesus. Rather than him being viewed as their Saviour and Lord, alas he has all too often been viewed as the one who has caused their suffering and death. A collective punishment visited upon them by Christians who blamed them for rejecting him and causing his death by crucifixion.
All the more surprising and refreshing is this exhibition of an Israeli Jewish view of Jesus, despite all that Jews have suffered at the hands of Christians, they are able to look at Jesus through Jewish eyes. The viewer will be delighted and given a window into the outlook of Jews who dare to look at Jesus for themselves.
“In the 19th century a change in attitude affected a small but significant number of European Jewry towards Jesus, this included thinkers, writers, and eventually artists began to draw attention of the historical Jesus and sought to reclaim him. This approach aimed at reconciliation and at enhancing the position of Judaism in the Christian world – but at the same time it underscored the injustice of anti-Semitism ” (p 15).

Christians must beware of falling into the trap of thinking that they can separate anti-Zionism from anti-Semitism. Many Jewish and Christian leaders alike realise that the modern phenomena of anti-Zionism is just anti-Semitism repackaged. While Israel is not without fault in the ongoing Arab-Israeli conflict and while it is perfectly valid to criticise Israel for its violation of the human rights of Palestinians, it is quite another thing to seek to delegitimise Israel’s right to exist.


Jesus came to serve as a symbol for suffering of the Jewish people, which reached its darkest hour during the Holocaust.

Jewish artists been influenced by iconography of the surrounding cultures and this can be seen in the work of certain painters and sculptors of the 19th century. As the Jewish source of visual images is rather sparse due to the 2nd Commandment that forbids the making of graven images, Jewish artist naturally turned to Christian sources for inspiration and reference concerning the depiction of the person of Jesus. Though there is still a strong taboo for many Jews concerning the figure of Jesus, though his presence is there at a deep veiled level.
The figure of Jesus in Hebrew literature has flourished in recent years. Also in the visual arts, Ziva Amishai-Maisels has pursued the most important research into his presence in modern Jewish art.
A major fault line that influences and divides the Jewish and Christian visual rendering of the subject of Jesus is the fact that none of the Jewish interpretations believe in his divinity. Jesus who Christians worship as the God made flesh, the figure of supreme importance in Christian art, displays a fundamental tension between his divinity and humanity. At the Council of Chalcedon  in 451 Jesus was pronounced as “truly divine and truly human” – his human identity as the suffering Man of Sorrows exists alongside his identity as God almighty. It is this duality that informs the history of Christian visual art (p 17).
This belief in the two-fold identity from the 3rd century to the present continues to define Christian portrayals of Jesus. “While Israeli Jewish artists focus on the human figure of Jesus. For Israeli artists, identification withJesus’ humanity overcame their lack of belief in his divinity. The figure of Jesus – Other but also brother – touched them as a way to express a host of thoughts, experiences, emotions, and aspirations” (p 17).

The Jewish Jesus

Artistic portrayals of Jesus date back to the 3rd century of the common era (CE), and these became prevalent particularly after the Roman Empire adapted Christianity as its religion in the 4th century.

For Judaism the use of art was primarily for decorative purposes to intended to beautify texts and ritual paraphilia such as mezuzahs, the covers of torah scrolls, candelabras, etc., while for Christians artists images and portrayals of Jesus and the Saints, became and integral part of their religion. The incarnation of God in the person of Christ (Messiah), became incarnated in sculpture, painting, murals, mosaics and more recently in photographs as well. These portrayals exemplify what Paul calls “the image of the invisible God” (Colossians 1.15). And as a testimony of incarnation, art plays an important part depicting the word becoming flesh.

John of Damascus the great iconographer of the 8th century wrote:

“Because the one who by excellency of nature transcends all quantity and size and magnitude, who has his being in the form of God, has now, by taking upon himself the form of a slave, contracted himself into a quantity and size and has acquired a physical identity, do not hesitate any longer to draw pictures and to set forth, for all to see, him who has chosen to let himself be seen” (p 37).

Though there was great controversy and opposition to the portrayal of the image of Jesus by the iconoclastic controversy of the 8th-9th century, the icon ultimately prevailed. Once more the Protestant Reformation challenged the excessive devotion that the Catholic Church gave to the portrayal of the figure of Jesus and the Saints, including a vast array of depictions of the Virgin Mary and Modonna and Child.

The image of Christ on the Cross became the centre piece of the Western worlds Christian artistic expression together with many other aspects of the life and ministry of Jesus. This figure of Christ did not disappear from Modernist art, with Impressionist art being influenced by daily secular thinking, with many of its practitioners dealing with Christian themes and particularly the the figure of Christ.

As I previously said in The Different Faces of Jesus programme, Marc Chagall drew his portrayal of Jesus in his numerous painting of the crucified Christ, from his awareness of Russian icons that he had seen in during his formative years as well as other paintings of Jesus done by Gentile artist. While Chagall’s use of the figure of the crucifixion of Christ, became an image of Jewish persecution and suffering, it was Paul Gauguin saw Vincent van Gogh’s use of the Crucified Christ, as a paradigm of martyrdom, a man truly created in Jesus’ image (p 39). Gauguin himself was one of the first artists to apply religious themes to the depiction of his own personal situation. He cultivated the image of a suffering artist.

Numerous other European artist followed this trend of using Christ’s suffering as way of giving expression to their own rejection and suffering and that of others. “World War I provoked many European artists to portray Jesus as a victim of war, symbolising their vehement opposition to the slaughter and anguish it caused” (p 41).

In England the Jewish sculptor, Jacob Epstein frequently invoked Jesus as a symbol and protest against the war. Jesus has not lost his importance of bring to people’s awareness of the society’s failure and this saw evident from the contemporary sculptor Mark Wallinger whose figure of Jesus called Ecce Homo (Behold the Man) that was originally displayed on the 4th plinth on Trafalgar Square, London in 1999, demonstrating this point.

But how relevant is the image of Jesus to European Jewish and Israeli artist?

Jewish artist continue to display considerable interest in the figure of Jesus inspiring their work in a number of ways. “The European Jewish artist’ engagement with Jesus had a number of motivations:

The struggle for cultural integration; the need to combat entrenched religious ant-Semitism; the desire to present the Christian Saviour as an exceptional human being of Jewish origin, who did not set out to create a new religion; the introduction of a particularly pointed symbol of Jewish suffering; and the wish to show that the universal values had their roots in Judaism” (p 45).

The Haskalah (Enlightenment) movement specific goal of its depiction of Jesus was one of the elements to help Judaism of the European Enlightenment was to help modern Judaism to full integrate into a new European environment, modern, objective and enlightened (p 45). An example of a Russian Jewish sculptor, Mark (Mordechai) Antokolsky of Vilna born in 1843. His figures ranged from Jesus, John the Baptist to Socrates and Mephistopheles. He also depicted figures of Jewish artisans and other historical figures including the controversial Jewish philosopher Spinoza.

He became the first Jew to become a full member of the Imperial Academy of Arts and on two occasions he won the prestigious first prize at the Exposition Universalle in Paris in 1878 and 1900. His work Ivan the Terrible commissioned by Czar Alexander II for the Heritage collection in St Petersburg. He was not immune to anti-Semitic attack and suffered tension between his identity as a Jew and his desire to make his way as a Russian artist – especially in the field of sculpture, which until then was closed to Jews. The nationalist and anti-Semitic press called him an “insolent Yid,” unworthy to portray the heroes of Russian history and their Christian spirit, but his overwhelming success – in a period characterized by waves of anti-Semitism – overcame these attacks.

One of his most important pieces form our point of view is the sculpture Christ before the People’s Court made in 1873 (later copies were made by the artist). Jesus is portrayed as completely Jewish with skullcap and sidelocks, wearing a robe that suggests a prayer shawl. It was his desire to redress the injury done to the Jews by the church by portraying this Jewish Jesus. He believed in an ethical Jesus whose role model should inspire all (p 46).

Jesus “lived and died as a Jew for the truth and brotherhood, this is why I like to portray Jesus and a pure Jewish type and to represent him with a covered head (p 47). In a letter to a friend, he wrote, In the title… I mean also to refer to the present, I truly believe that if Christ would rise again and see how his ideas have been twisted and exploited by the Fathers of the Inquisition and others, he would rebel against them as he rebelled against the Pharisees and would agree to be crucified ten more times for his beliefs.”

He wrote to Stasov in 1873, while working on the sculpture, “Although Jews renounce and still renounce [Jesus], I solemnly believe that he was and died a Jew for truth and brotherhood. This is why I want to make of him a purely Jewish type… I imagine how Jews and Christians will rise against me. Jews will probably say, ‘How is it that you made Christ?’ and Christians will say, ‘What kind of Christ did he make?’ but I do not care for this” After he completed the sculpture , he wrote “I have finished ‘Christ’ yesterday… I myself am not able to evaluate my work because I expressed everything in my soul in this statue, and now I am tired and grow dull” (p 47).

Many praised the sculpture and acclaimed it as a masterpiece, while others criticized the sculpture when it was put on display in Paris in 1878. Vladimir Stastov’s anti-Semitic comments, “To these people, to imagine Christ as a Roman or an academic model was fine, but as a Jew – never!” (p 50).

A young Polish Jewish Artist, Mauryey Gottlieb (1856-1879) in his short life who died at the age of 23, made an outstanding contribution as a painter, he managed to create a remarkable body of work that united Polish Christian culture, the artist’s Jewish identity, and a universal message of reconciliation between the two religions. Jesus was the central character in two monumental and highly complex paintings that Gottlieb was still working on when he died: Christ before his Judges and Christ teaching in Capernaum. Both incorporate self-portraits, a further indication of how important these two ambitious works were to Gottlieb. They convey his personal, artistic, and political manifesto concerning Jesus the Jew and Jewish-Christian relations. Like his contemporaries, these paintings reflect the prevailing scholarly focus on the historical Jesus, which achieved artistic expression by such means as realistic depictions that were faithful to the period and the locale, an emphasis on Jesus’ humanity (p 50).

Gottlieb challenged the traditional Catholic iconography, and concentrated on the genre of history painting, depicting selected religious and literary themes in an academic orientalist style that he learned chiefly from his teacher Jan Matejko, the most important Polish artist of the time.


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