*[AMATAI MENDELSOHN, BEHOLD THE MAN: JESUS IN ISRAELI ART, MAGNES PRESS, JERUSALEM, 2017 – ISBN 978 965 278 465 0]
Shalom Radio UK – This month’s programme:
Behold the Man: Man of Sorrows and Zionist Messiah
(Song: Man of Sorrows: Man of Sorrows, what a name).
1 “Man of Sorrows,” what a name
For the Son of God who came
Ruined sinners to reclaim! Hallelujah! what a Saviour!
2 Bearing shame and scoffing rude, In my place condemned He stood; Sealed my pardon with His blood; Hallelujah! what a Saviour!
3 Guilty, vile, and helpless, we,
Spotless Lamb of God was He;
Full redemption—can it be? Hallelujah! what a Saviour!
4 Lifted up was He to die,
“It is finished!” was His cry;
Now in heaven exalted high;
Hallelujah! what a Saviour!
5 When He comes, our glorious King,
To His kingdom us to bring,
Then anew this song we’ll sing, Hallelujah! what a Saviour!
Part 3: Man of Sorrows and Zionist Messiah
Man of Sorrows – Suffering Jesus
In the continued development of our theme of Behold the Man, this programme focuses upon how Jewish and Israeli artists give expression to the Man of Sorrows and how this motif expresses the personality of the Zionist Messiah.
In the hymn “Man of Sorrows, what a man…” we are given the classic Christian interpretation of the rejection and crucifixion of Jesus, however, the Jewish and Israeli approach while using this image of Jesus as that man of sorrows, he becomes a symbol of Jewish suffering both individually and corporately. This will become apparent as we consider this portrayal by Jewish and Israeli artists.
Reuven Rubin (ראובן רובין, 1893 – 1974) was a Romanian-born Israeli painter and Israel’s first ambassador to Romania.
Rubin Zelicovici (later Reuven Rubin) came from a poor Romanian Jewish Chasidic family. In 1912, he left for Ottoman-ruled Palestine to study art at Bezalel Academy of Art and Design in Jerusalem. Finding himself at odds with the artistic views of the Academy’s teachers, he left for Paris, France in 1913 to pursue his studies at the École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts. At the outbreak of World War I, he was returned to Romania, where he spent the war years.
In 1923, Rubin emigrated to Mandate Palestine.
The history of Israeli art began at a very specific moment in the history of international art, at a time of Cezannian rebellion against the conventions of the past, a time typified by rapid stylistic changes. Thus Jewish national art had no fixed history, no canon to obey. Rubin began his career at a fortunate time.
He rejected the neo-classical style of the late 19th and early 20th century fully embracing the impressionistic style of painting and is sometimes referred to as the father of modern art.
In Palestine, Rubin became one of the founders of the new Eretz-Yisrael style. Recurring themes in his work were the biblical landscape, folklore and people, including Yemonite and Chasidic Jews as well as Arabs. Many of his paintings are sun-bathed depictions of Jerusalem and the Galilee.
Other Jewish painters together with Rubin depicted the country’s landscapes in the 1920s rebelled against Bezalel school’s style. They sought current styles in Europe that would help portray their own country’s landscape, in keeping with the spirit of the time. Rubin’s Cezannesque landscapes from the 1920s were defined as both modern and a naive, portraying the landscape and inhabitants of Israel in a sensitive fashion. His landscape paintings in particular paid special detail to a spiritual, translucent light.
Rubin might have been influenced by the work of Henri Rousseau whose style combined with Eastern nuances, as well as with the neo-Byzantine art to which Rubin had been exposed in his native Romania. In accordance with his integrative style, he signed his works with his first name in Hebrew and his surname in Roman letters. [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Reuven_Rubin].
In his early years he was still searching for an artistic voice and the influence of Eugene Delacroix, Paul de Chavannes a symbolist and together with Jewish artists such as Hirzenberg, Lilien and Schatz is apparent in his early work as a painter as well as the Romanian artist Lucian Grigoreseu (p 96, Beold the Man).
For the purpose of this programme we will focus upon the portrayal of Jesus and other related scenes of suffering involving Israelites and Jews.
Rubin’s painting – By the River of Babylon
By the River of Babylon is a complex allegorical portrayal of Jewish suffering in exile, as was the case of the depiction by Eduard Bendemann, E M Lilien in his illustration for the Lutheran Bible. Rubin would have been aware of these two works, but his painting makes a departure from most works on this subject.
An analysis of the picture by Rubin shows the group of human figures against the background of a massive rock and surrounded by water. This group of five people are gathered, with the centrepiece of a seated woman feeding an infant. Her breasts are bared and she gazes down at the infant with a sad expression. Of the five figures only one is fully clad and including the infant the four are completely naked. The standing image of a naked bearded man is clutched by an elderly man who is wearing a cloak. What may be the reason for this depiction of figures in the way that Rubin painted them?
An explanation of the figures is that each represents a stage in the cycle of life and has a symbolic meaning. Alongside the obvious biblical Jewish theme of those who look downcast due to their exile by the River of Babylon, the painting relates to Christian iconography. The core of the scene is the nursing mother with infant child from a traditional representation of Madonna and child. An example of this classic portrayal by Gerard David’s painting The Rest on the Flight into Egypt. The naked by with sling shot alludes to David, forefather of the messianic dynasty in Christianity as well as Judaism. “This is the most active figure in the picture: in the struggle for self-preservation, he takes destiny into his own hands” (p 97). Also the baby is a symbol of hope for the future and the rider on the camel points East to some place across the water, that is beyond the frame of the painting. The focusing upon the mother and infant is reminiscent of Gerard David’s The Rest on the Flight into Egypt. This may allude to the Jewish people’s enduring exile that began in Babylon millennia ago and the hoped return to their ancient homeland. We should note that the mother and child motif reoccurs in Rubin’s work in a number of paintings (p 97).
From 1919 Rubin’s paintings found its voice with a new expression that acquired a destructive religious overtone. He depicted prophets and ascetics as well as na intriguing preoccupation with the figure of Jesus (p 97).
He drew inspiration from such artists as El Greco, Schiele, Picasso (in his Blue Period), and particularly Ferdinand Holder who Rubin met in 1915.
Rubin’s Temptation in the Desert
Holder’s style influenced Rubin’s style
Rubin’s painting Temptation in the Desert which he did in 1921 is a key work. It is a complex painting of personal identification with the figure of Jesus (p 98). An analysis of the picture reveals five figures in various poses on the parched desert sand dunes at dawn. In the centre is an emaciated kneeling man with his upper torso naked clutching himself. A faint white halo can be seen surrounding the head of the figure. He is in profound concentration with eyes closed.
“The New Testament story of the temptation in the desert (or wilderness) relates that Jesus spent forty days in the desert, steadfastly affirming his faith when he was challenged in various ways by Satan (Matthew 4:1-11; Luke 4:1-13) – (p 99).
St. Anthony (ca. 251-356), viewed as the one who established Christian monasticism, was subjected to a long series of tortures by Satan. These included temptations of the flesh during his time as a hermit living in the desert. The story of St. Anthony inspired many European Masters to do portrayals of his temptations.
Rubin’s encounters with these paintings of the late nineteenth century during his studies in Paris, France, “…[W]hen the destructive femme fatale* became a prevalent literary and artistic motif, female temptresses and erotic imagery featured strongly in depictions of St. Anthony” (p 99).
*A femme fatale (French: [fam fatal]) is a stock character of a mysterious and seductive woman whose charms ensnare her lovers, often leading them into compromising, dangerous, and deadly situations. She is an archetype of literature and art. Her ability to entrance and hypnotise her victim with a spell was in the earliest stories seen as being literally supernatural; hence, the femme fatale today is still often described as having a power akin to an enchantress, seductress, vampire, witch, or demon, having power over men (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Help:IPA/French).
Returning to the Temptation in the Desert, Rubin comments, “That the figure in the middle is myself…it is I resisting temptation, continuing on my way of suffering in spite of the hands that reach out to grasp me…she [the woman] is trying to hold me back, but i am going on. I shall go on!” It is as if Rubin is telling the woman in the foreground o the painting, not to impede his artistic mission (p 101).
The fervent supplication of a self-sacrificing holy man, while around him sleep, and the idea of resisting earthly temptation come together in the Temptation in the Desert to identify Rubin with Jesus. On analysing this painting the viewer is presented with an depth of understanding that Romantics felt that their devotion to art entailed suffering and abstinence, joining their lot to Jesus, saints and other ascetics (p 101).
Rubin was profoundly influenced by his brother Baruch’s death, who died from an epidemic during WWI while they were living in Romania. While Baruch died through disease, Rubin regarded his death as a casualty of war. This led to a period of deep depression and Rubin recounts of his brother, that he was “closest to me in age and sympathy” (p 102). In this way Rubin fussed his brother and himself into a single figure who he directly linked to the figure of Jesus.
Rubin joins the ranks of his contemporary artists such as Max Beckman and the sculptor Jacob Epstein, who both depicted Jesus in the context of the horrors of the WWI as an indictment of human evil and in humanity.
The Suffering Jesus
Jewish writers, poets and artists have a clear insight and understanding of the suffering Jesus, however, there is much more to the person and work of Jesus that needs to be grasped. Thomas F. Torrance in his book, Atonement, the Person and Work of Christ, explains,
Jesus is firstly, a Prophet, i.e. [the foretelling of the] Word made flesh, the advocate, corresponds to the incarnation or goel aspect of redemption.
Jesus is secondly, Priest, i.e. this corresponds to the cultic-forensic or kipper aspect of redemption.
Jesus is thirdly, King, this corresponds to Christus Victor, Christ the victor, or the padah aspect of redemption, salvation through the mighty act of God (p 59).
To make sense of this we need to explore the meaning of the three Hebrew theological terms, goel, kipper, and padah.
Goel [Prophet/Go-Between-G_D] (stress on the nature of the redeemer), indicate that Jesus is a Kinsman-redeemer. By his incarnation and becoming a human being, he fully identifies with our humanity, and as Son of God. As if that was not enough, he establishes a New Covenant by laying down his life in atoning sacrifice.
He became the Kipper (expiatory and substitutionary) covering for sin by the shedding of his life blood on the cruel Roman execution stake (cross) or to use Jewish Biblical terminology he was hanged on the Cursed Tree. This fulfils the Day of Atonement sacrifices, with the death of the sacrificial goat’s blood that is sprinkled upon the altar and the scape goat (akidah), that carries away the sin of the people of God into the wilderness and dies outside the camp. Jesus was crucified outside the city walls of Jerusalem.
He was hanged on the Cursed Tree
Padah (the dramatic act), this signifies that this act of redemption is accomplished by the Mighty hand of God. It is a sheer act of grace setting free not only Israel, but all humanity. This was accomplished by Jesus obedience unto death, that he freely did because of God’s great love for all (p 48-51).
In the Hagaddah (The Telling of the Passover Story) Jewish people every year hold a Seder Meal at which the story of Israels’ redemption from the land of Egypt is retold. How did this deliverance take place? A Padah: It was wrought through a dramatic act the Mighty hand of G_D, and with signs and wonders and his judgment upon Pharaoh and all of Egypt, because of their refusal to let the Israelites leave the land of bondage!
Falling into a Trap
We, as the reader and listener, must beware least we fall into the trap of reducing Jesus into a mere symbol of Jewish, Black, Hispanic, Native American Indians (First Nation), Asian, Kurdish, Gypsy, Armenian, Arab, Rohingya people, and human suffering in general, with whom we can identify. We need to stress that he is much more than an exemplar, role model or symbol of a Man of Sorrows.
Artists, beginning with Vincent van Gogh and Paul Gauguin onwards have used the image of the Suffering Jesus as a symbol and motif of their own personal suffering; Marc Chagall as a symbol of Jewish persecution and suffering and Reuven Rubin exemplifies an artist that identifies with the Suffering Jesus, seeing him as a symbol of his own personal suffering as in the painting the Temptation in the Desert.
It is not my intention to diminish the profundity of Rubin’s work in which he depicts Jesus, but I am motivated by a strong desire to show the fuller implication of the person and work of the Suffering Jesus.
Reuven Rubin like other European Jewish artists was struck by the appalling circumstances that faced the Jews of Eastern Europe at the turn of the 19th century and early 20th century.
“After returning to Romania in early 1922, on the eve of his move to Palestine, Rubin began to associate Jesus with the Jewish plight in the Diaspora and with Zionism. That year he produced three important paintings while living in Bucharest: The Encounter (Jesus and the Jew), Jesus and the Last Apostle and the Madonna of the Vagabonds. The Encounter is one of the most fascinating and enigmatic of Rubin’s early works” (p 103).
To comprehend what Rubin wishes to portray to his viewers in the painting The Encounter, we need to explore the identity of the elderly Jewish man, with head bowed, sitting at one end of the bench? Encountering Jesus, he evokes the legendary figure of *the Wandering Jew, sometimes referred to as Ashver.
*The Wandering Jew is a mythical immortal man whose legend began to spread in Europe in the 13th century. The original legend concerns a Jew who taunted Jesus on the way to the Crucifixion and was then cursed to walk the earth until the Second Coming. The exact nature of the wanderer’s indiscretion varies in different versions of the tale, as do aspects of his character; sometimes he is said to be a shoemaker, other tradesman, while sometimes he is the doorman at Pontius Pilate‘s estate.[https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wandering_Jew].
Not only was this pitiful character depicted in Christian literature and art, but also some Jewish artist have portrayed him such as Maurycy Gottlieb, Samuel Hirszenberg, E.M. Lilien, and Marc Chagall.
Ashver is generally depicted as being constantly on the move. This is the cardinal feature of his punishment, haunted by the crucified figure of Jesus, reminding him of his sin of taunting Jesus during his Passion. If however, the old man in Rubin’s picture is the Wandering Jew, then it takes on a different meaning departing from the norm.
The frontal position of the seated figure on the bench, recalls Holder’s pictures of misery that he depicts, as well as poverty stricken figures of Jews in Rubin’s earlier works. Richard I. Cohen suggests that he painting represents a finale in an exhausted truce in which there are no victors. Carmela Rubin describes the painting as an encounter between two people, each fixed in his own world. This suffering isolated Jew represents the plight of Eastern European Jewry, representing Rubin’s protest against their dire situation. This led him to embrace Zionism and immigration to the Land of Israel in 1923 and he saw this as the solution to their plight (p 103).
In 1929 the Yiddish poet Itzik Manger, from Czernowitz, Romania where Rubin had lived published his first collection of poems (1922-1929). A important poem fitting for our theme of Man of Sorrows and Zionist Messiah. The poem is titled: “The Ballad of the Crucified and Verminous Man”: (p 104).
“This poem describes how a rejected, louse-ridden Jewish vagabond tells the crucified Jesus why his suffering is greater than Christ’s. In the end Jesus admits that the Jews’s pain in holier, and the wretched Jews, heartened by Jesus’ solidarity, makes his way to the village in search of bread and wine. The poem displays Manger’s characteristic wit, but also shares his indignation shared by Jewish thinkers and artists of the time, at the way Jesus’ name is invoked against the Jews. The admission by “the Crucified” indicts the Church for distorting his message in order to justify persecution and anti-Semitism…[I]t is interesting to think that Rubin might have been familiar with it. In any event, Manger’s poem reflects an engagement with the figure of Jesus that was characteristic of his generation of Yiddish poets and that was part of the Zeitgeist [from German: meaning ‘the general intellectual, moral, and cultural climate of an era’] in Jewish cultural centres such as Czernowitz” (p 104).
We must take note of the reason for Manger’s anger at the Church and the way that he portrays it in his poem. For the Church was all to often guilty of persecuting the Jews and of being one of the main sources of Christian anti-Semitism and hatred of them. Jesus’ message to Israel and all humanity is a message of universal love and forgiveness and that is God’s intention. Any deviation from that theme is a betrayal of the Man of Sorrows.
Returning to Rubin’s painting The Encounter, another interpretation may be offered. The painting contains an important detail that may be glossed over, namely the two trees:
The tree next to the figure of the straight backed seated Jesus is supported by a stick that grows up ward, while the tree next to the drooping Jew has its branches growing downwards.
What may the significance of these two images mean? An important example of the contrast of the Jew in the Diaspora being in exile, while the image of the fertile growth of the tree is associated with the upright Jew of Zionism. As we saw in E.M. Lilien’s image on his postcard of the Fifth Zionist Congress, shows on the left hand side an elderly bearded Jew with bowed head, seated among rolls of barbed wire, with his head leaning on his walking stick. At the right in contrast the image of a Jewish pioneer plowing a field in the direction of the rising sun. We should also note that there are stalks of wheat that symbolise the fruitfulness of the Land of Israel (p 104).
Rubin in his painting The Encounter, he may well have used similar imagery to that of E.M. Lilien, that the Zionist movement that sought to bring Jews back to life, an Jesus resurrected after his suffering on the cross, evidenced by the stigmata on his hands.
It would appear that Rubin had altered the relationship of the Jew and Jesus as portrayed in Manger’s poem. The figure of Jesus who encounters the miserable old Jew who is desperate to have his pain acknowledged in none other than Jesus who here symbolises the regenerated Jew destined to take his place and thereby heal the suffering of the Diaspora! (p 105).
We should be aware of the shift in Jewish perception of the Man of Sorrows, who is being transformed from one whose suffering is a symbols of Jewish suffering, to one of hope and healing. The significance of the return from exile in the Diaspora to the Land of Israel opened the way for a fresh appraisal of the person and work of Jesus.
In our next programme, Part B: we will continue to look at the work of Reuven Rubin and how this relates to the theme of the Zionist Messiah. The work of other Jewish and Israeli artist will also be considered.
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