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Christian cultures across the centuries have invoked Judaism in order to debate, represent, and contain the dangers presented by the sensual nature of art. By engaging Judaism, both real and imagined, they explored and expanded the perils and possibilities for Christian representation of the material world.
The thirteen essays in Judaism and Christian Art reveal that Christian art has always defined itself through the figures of Judaism that it produces. From its beginnings, Christianity confronted a host of questions about visual representation. Should Christians make art, or does attention to the beautiful works of human hands constitute a misplaced emphasis on the things of this world or, worse, a form of idolatry ("Thou shalt make no graven image")? And if art is allowed, upon what styles, motifs, and symbols should it draw? Christian artists, theologians, and philosophers answered these questions and many others by thinking about and representing the relationship of Christianity to Judaism. This volume is the first dedicated to the long history, from the catacombs to colonialism but with special emphasis on the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, of the ways in which Christian art deployed cohorts of "Jews"—more figurative than real—in order to conquer, defend, and explore its own territory.
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Herbert L. Kessler is Professor of the History of Art at the Johns Hopkins University and author of Spiritual Seeing: Picturing God's Invisibility in Medieval Art, also published by the University of Pennsylvania Press. David Nirenberg is Deborah R. and Edgar D. Jannotta Professor in the Committee on Social Thought and Department of History at the University of Chicago. He is author of Communities of Violence: Persecution of Minorities in the Middle Ages and Anti-Judaism: The Western Tradition.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
What does Judaism have to do with Christian art? Until recently, "nothing" seemed an unproblematic answer. Indeed, through much of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries there were many who would have added that Judaism had nothing to do with art tout court, whether Christian or any other sort. This was, of course, the position of many committed antisemites such as the composer Richard Wagner (1813-1883), who famously insisted—in his essay "Jewry in Music" (1850)—that Jews had never, could never, contribute to true art. But plenty of Jews, from the most religious to the most assimilated, would themselves have agreed (although for different reasons) that Judaism and art, especially visual art, were originally and essentially at odds. The German convert Heinrich Heine (1797-1856) put it well, summarizing and subscribing to his teacher Hegel's views of the ancient Israelites: "In what a dreadful opposition they must have stood to colorful Egypt, the Temples of Joy of Astarte in Phoenicia, lovely, fragrant, Babylon, and finally to Greece, the flourishing home of art."
Today such an answer is untenable. Unlike Kant, Hegel, and other founding fathers of art history and criticism, we no longer assume that the history of Judaism's relationship to art began or ended with its negation ("Thou shalt make no graven image"). We now treat aniconism—the supposed Jewish hostility to images—not as the essential Jewish attitude toward art, but as one potential among many, and understand that potential as itself an ever-changing product of a long history of interactions with other cultures and religions. In the third century, for example, those interactions produced the synagogue at Dura Europos, whose floor-to-ceiling wall paintings of scriptural narrative have entered most text books in the history of art. The present generation seems far more interested in the other potentials—that is, in the many histories of Jewish engagements with images—than in aniconism. The result is a plethora of books, journals, exhibits, and even museums dedicated to "Jewish art," a harvest whose bounty suggests that the topic is becoming a field, even if no one quite knows where its boundaries are.
But this book is about "Christian," not "Jewish" art, as its title makes clear. What does Judaism have to do with specifically Christian art? Here, too, recent generations have posed questions previously left unasked. We now know a great deal, for example, about the formal devices, iconographies, stereotypes, and caricatures developed by Christian artists of different times and places in order to depict Jews and Judaism. And with this knowledge has come a new awareness of how the representation of Jews and Judaism in Christian media—whether in the decorative programs of churches, manuscript illumination, liturgical theater, poetry, popular song, or sermon—helped to shape Christian perceptions of Judaism, and thereby transformed the possibilities of existence for Jews in Christendom.
The contributors to this volume all share the conviction that these questions of "Judaism in Christian art" need to be pursued in a more radical direction. They are not merely "minority" questions, relevant only to issues of Jewish-Christian relations, but are also critical questions about the nature of Christianity and of art. Given God's prohibitions on the worship of created things, can art ever be "Christian"? If so, what should that art look like, and how should it be looked at by Christians? These are some of the most basic questions about art that Christians learned to pose through figures of Judaism. To put our central claim bluntly: in all the Christian cultures explored in this book, from those of early Christianity to those of modern Europe, art defined and legitimated itself by rearticulating and representing its relationship to "Judaism," and thereby discovered the conditions of possibility for its own existence.
The articles that follow, albeit dedicated to different places, times, and genres of art, each demonstrate this point within its appropriate context. But it is also worth remembering that key aspects of these basic questions already existed in the earliest Christian communities. Those communities produced no art (or at least none that survives), but the importance of the texts they produced—those of the New Testament—for the future of art cannot be overestimated. For those texts are marked by the conviction—common to many strands of Hellenistic philosophy as well as of Judaism—that humanity's appetites for the beauty of things in this world are a powerful force drawing it away from divine truth, and orienting its attention to the works of man rather than the love of God.
The Gospel of Matthew's explanation of the visual danger is quite typical of these early Christian worries about aesthetics: "The eye is the lamp of the body. So if your eye is sound, your whole body will be full of light; but if your eye is not sound, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light in you is darkness, how great the darkness!" (Matt. 6:22-23). One of that gospel's goals is to teach its readers how to make their eye sound: to teach it how to see through the outer, "fleshy" appearance of things, persons, texts, and into their "spiritual" interior. To that end, it often represents the error of preferring apparent to inner beauty, flesh to spirit, the life of this world to the life of the next, through figures of Judaism: "Alas for you, scribes, and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs that look handsome on the outside, but inside are full of the bones of the dead and every kind of corruption" (23:25-32).
The earliest Christian authors treated these aesthetic, epistemological, and ontological problems as "Jewish questions" because of the context in which they were writing. Living before what scholars today call the "parting of the ways" between Judaism and Christianity, many of them stood within both the "old Israel" and the "new," even as they sought to delineate dependences and differences between the two. If all Israel was instructed by the same prophetic tradition, why had only a fraction recognized and embraced Jesus as its messiah? What were the ongoing obligations of that reborn fraction to the traditions from which it sprang? And what of the gentile followers of Jesus? What was their proper relationship to the "old Israel" into which their savior had chosen to be born? It was in order to answer these and similar questions that the earliest followers of Jesus began to map the history of Israel, God's chosen people, onto the history of aesthetics.
St. Paul, himself both Pharisee and apostle to the gentiles, felt the pressure of these questions most acutely, and the influence of his writings transmitted his answers to the many future communities we call Christian. Given our subject, it is worth remembering that his most extended treatment of the relationship between the followers of the old covenant with Israel and the new—the Epistle to the Romans—begins as a comparative history of aesthetics. The gentiles, Paul explains in chapter 1, chose to worship created things rather than deduce from those things the existence of the true God ("Ever since the creation of the world his invisible nature, namely his eternal power and deity, has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made," Rom 1:18-20). To the Israelites, however, God gave the law, which was designed to teach them humanity's powerlessness to save itself by its own works from the "law of sin which dwells in [its] members"; and to announce the coming gift of God's love, the messiah who would redeem humanity from this impasse.
But when that redeemer came, most of Israel rejected him. It did so, according to Paul, because of its own errors of perception and cognition. It saw only the outside of God's gifts—their literal, carnal, and ceremonial significance—rather than their inner or spiritual meaning. It understood only the letter of God's scripture, only the humanity of God's son. "To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the spirit is life and peace" (8:6). Because of this slavery to the flesh and to its senses, the bulk of Israel was cut off from God's vine, making room for the in-grafting of the gentiles. Outcast Israel did retain the honor of having received the promise ("As regards the gospel they are enemies of God for your sake; but as regards election they are beloved for the sake of their forefathers," 11:28). She was not condemned forever. At the end of time "all Israel will be saved," and her reconciliation will bring "life for the dead" (Rom. 11). But in the meantime, the Israelites who reject Jesus have yet another aesthetic role to play. They are "vessels of wrath made for destruction, in order to make known the riches of his glory for the vessels of mercy" (9:22-23). Their "blind eyes" and bent backs serve as a lesson to gentile Christians (like those among the Romans and the Galatians), a warning not to repeat their ocular error of seeing only the letter of the law, the outer flesh rather than the inner spirit. Already here, in this text from the first generation after the death of Jesus, the Jews are becoming media, exemplary artifacts through which God's teachings about vision becomes visible and the Christian eye learns how to see.
Unlike these New Testament texts, all surviving Christian art postdates the "parting of the ways." Its producers live in a world—beginning in the third and fourth centuries of the Common Era—in which the differences between "old Israel" and "new" are more sharply defined, with the "new" politically and demographically in the ascendant. Questions of Judaism no longer exert the same pressure upon Christians that they had upon the apostolic communities. But as early Christianity, with its critical discourse of "flesh" and "spirit," expanded into the material culture of the Greco-Roman world and adopted some of the representational practices of that world, the pressure from questions of art grows all the greater. What is the proper use of artifacts in Christian worship? Did attention to the beautiful works of human hands constitute a misplaced emphasis on the things of this world, or worse, a form of idolatry? Does the decoration of churches and devotional objects orient the eye toward darkness or toward light? And if decoration is allowed, what styles, motifs, and symbols should it draw upon? Are those of ancient Israel permitted? And what of those, vastly more numerous and prestigious, from the gentile cultures of the ancient world?
In part because early Christians had addressed aesthetic questions in terms of Judaism, later Christians did so as well. And from the beginning, we see answers to these questions proffered in the works of art themselves. When—to turn once more to Dura Europos—the painters of the Christian chapel avoid picturing Christ on the focal wall, even while introducing him in the narratives on the sides, they betray a sensitivity to issues posed by the Second Commandment similar to (and presumably in dialogue with) that of the Jews in their nearby synagogue. And when Roman Christians adorned the walls of catacombs with exempla from Hebrew Scripture, they were appropriating examples of Jewish salvation not only in order to supplant them with more esteemed pictures of Christian eschatological belief, but also to assert a new lineage, and a new place in salvation history, for Roman culture.
Since works of art have an a priori commitment to the legitimacy of their own existence, texts may provide more extreme formulations of the problem. The late fourth-century debate between St. Jerome and Nepotian over the decoration of churches provides a famous example. Nepotian invokes God's approval of the precious objects in Jerusalem's Temple to justify Christian decoration. Jerome attacks precisely that point in his counterargument: "And let no one allege against me the wealth of the temple of Judea, its tables, its lamps ... and the rest of its golden vessels." Those things of the Temple were, according to Jerome, "figures typifying things still in the future." But for Christians, who live in that future, "the Law is spiritual." If Christians "keep to the letter" in this, they must keep it in everything and adopt the Jewish rituals: "Rejecting the superstition of the Jews, we must also reject the gold; or approving the gold, we must approve the Jews as well. For we must either accept them with the gold or condemn them with it." St. Paul had condemned gentile Christians who adopted Israelite practices of circumcision as "Judaizers" (Gal. 2:14). St. Jerome tries to extend the condemnation to include decorators of churches.
We can see from this one example that invocations of Judaism could justify diametrically opposed positions toward Christian art. Where Nepotian stressed the ongoing value of the Hebrew prophets' literal example in order to approve of art and decoration, Jerome rejected it by insisting on the complete supersession of the letter by the spirit, casting any residual literalism as "Judaizing." But of course the example is not exhaustive: there were countless other positions available, as many as there were ways of thinking about the relationship between the "Old Testament" and the "New." It is precisely because early Christian questions about that relationship were so multiple, and so important to Christian understanding of the relationship between God and the material world, that Jews and Judaism came to stand at the center of Christian thinking about the dangers of aesthetics and the possibilities for art.
With a topic as vast as this, it would be vain to aim for comprehensive coverage, but the essays collected here span a millennium and a half of Christian culture. We begin (Chapter 1) with Jaś Elsner's study of fourth-century reliefs of the Israelites crossing the Red Sea on fourth-century Christian sarcophagi—"Pharaoh's Army Got Drownded"—in order to discover how Christian art created a distinctive space for itself within Roman culture by representing its descent from Israel. And we finish (Chapter 12) deep in nineteenth-century French colonial territory, with Ralph Ubl's reading of Eugène Delacroix's paintings of "A Jewish Wedding in Morocco" as a defense of the materiality of paint and the medium of painting.
The sheer chronological range of the essays' subjects should make clear that the importance of our topic is not limited to any particular period, or even to what we would consider religious art. On the contrary, we hope that the cumulative impact of the chapters in this volume demonstrates that centuries of thinking about art in terms of Judaism have made Judaism a critical figure for modern as well as premodern aesthetics in the West, and for secular as well as sacred. It is for this reason that the volume concludes with an essay—David Nirenberg's "The Judaism of Christian Art"—that uses the figure of the Jew to retrace the history of Western aesthetics, from the ancient world until the present.
That said, a number of the essays in this volume focus on the timespan from 1000 to 1650, the periods called by art historians the "Middle Ages" and the "Renaissance." Collectively, these essays seek to explain how Christian theology and Christian art fashioned the Jews into—to quote Herbert Kessler's "Shaded with Dust" (Chapter 3)—"the cohort of the 'eye of the body' on the battlefield of Christian art, continuously engaged in combat with the Christian troops of the 'eye of the heart.'" And they seek to demonstrate some of the ways in which Christian art deployed these "Jewish" cohorts, in order to conquer, defend, and explore its own territory.
Kessler's "Shaded with Dust" is a lapidary history of this d...
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