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The Ethnic Cleansing of Judaism in Medieval and Renaissance Art

March 7, 2013 1:18 am 23 comments

A Nordic depiction of the allegedly Jewish Mary Magdalene and Jesus

The New York Times recently reviewed an impressive new exhibit at the Frick Collection in New York City of the paintings of 15th century artist Piero della Francesco. The Frick exhibit is a rare opportunity for art lovers to see these seven paintings in one location in the United States. The Times article praised the beauty and charm of della Francesco’s artworks.

But what is not mentioned — and is never mentioned in art criticism — is that della Francesco’s paintings, typical of other Medieval and Renaissance artworks, are distortions and misrepresentations of biblical history. They fail to convey accurately who Jesus, his family, and community were: dedicated, orthodox practicing Jews. The two centerpieces of the Frick exhibit, Piero della Francesco’s altarpiece painting Virgin and Child Enthroned with Four Angels and the large polyptych Sant’Agostino altarpiece, like the bulk of Medieval and Renaissance paintings, transform working-class Galilean village Jews into fair-skinned, blond, Northern European latter-day Christians. They are depicted in palatial settings with latter-day Christian saints, angels and anachronistic artifacts, without a trace or hint of their Jewish identities.

In my new book, Jesus Uncensored: Restoring the Authentic Jew, I argue that these pervasive distortions established a powerful platform for anti-Semitism by feeding the illusion that Jesus was a Christian in contrast to the Jews — the others who “persecuted” him. Fact is that Jews were the sole body of Jesus’ followers, and they were all from the same Semitic tribe.

I first realized the power of these distortions when I viewed Mary Magdalene Encountering the Risen Jesus by famed Italian Renaissance artist Fra Angelico (1394-1455). The fair-skinned blonds, Jesus and Mary Magdalene, with halos in shimmering light seem almost comical as representation of first-century Jewish Semites. I wondered how typical this painting was of other Medieval and Renaissance paintings. To answer that question I did a walking tour of the Renaissance galleries of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. What I discovered was so consistent and shocking that a brief commentary became a major chapter.

In every gallery I was surrounded by paintings that featured a cast of characters and lavish settings that bore no resemblance to the world that Jesus and his followers inhabited. Every wall greeted me with blond, fair-skinned European figures; portraits of John the Baptist and other contemporaries and disciples of Jesus, all with classical Roman features, some carrying crosses and often embedded in anachronistic settings with latter-day Christian saints.

For example, in Neroccio de Landi’s 15th century Madonna and Child with Saints Jerome and Mary Magdalene, Jesus, Madonna, and Mary Magdalene are noticeably milk white. The presence of a Christian saint completes a picture alien to its original Jewish setting. Nearby, Madonna and Child with Saints Francis and Clare, by Cima da Conegliano (1459-1517), not only features the anachronism of saints, but also depicts the uncircumcised infant Jesus holding a crucifix. Jews and Christians in the first century hated the cross; it was a reminder of the crucifixion of untold numbers of Jews. In fact, the cross didn’t become a Christian symbol until the fourth century, when it was introduced by the Pagan Roman Emperor Constantine for his military banners. That’s why it is puzzling that in Bartolomé Esteban Murillo’s 17th century painting, The Baptism of Christ (Staatliche Museen in Berlin), John the Baptist is holding a large crucifix staff as he baptizes Jesus. The Gospels tell us clearly that John only baptized Jews to purify them so they could receive the teachings of the Torah and prepare for the coming of the Jewish Messiah. With exposure to this type of ubiquitous fictitious imagery over the centuries, is it any wonder that so many people — Christians and Jews — still cling to false beliefs that Jesus was either born Christian or converted to Christianity — and that he launched a new religion?

Compare the contents of these paintings with descriptions of Jesus by biblical scholars. Christian writer Jean Guitton, in his book, Great Heresies and Church Councils, makes it clear that:

Jesus did not mean to found a new religion. In his historical humanity, Jesus was a devout Israelite, practicing the law to the full, from circumcision to Pesach, paying the half-shekel for the Temple. Jerusalem, the capital of his nation, was the city he loved: Jesus wept over it. Jesus had spiritually realized the germinal aspiration of his people, which was to raise the God of Israel…

Here’s how Anglican priest Bruce Chilton describes Jesus in his book Rabbi Jesus: “It became clear to me that everything Jesus did was as a Jew, for Jews, and about Jews.” And former Catholic priest James Carroll, author of Constantine’s Sword, asks, “If Jesus were alive today, would he be one of those fervent black-hatted figures dovening [praying] at the Western Wall [the remnant of the Jerusalem Temple]?”

These remarks are echoed by scores of other Christian and Jewish commentators who have affirmed that Jesus was dedicated to Judaism throughout his life. That explains why the term Jew appears 202 times in the New Testament, with 82 of those citations in the Gospels; the word “Christian” never appears in the Gospels, which span the life and ministry of Jesus. How could it? There was no such thing as Christianity during the life of Jesus. But that’s not what Medieval and Renaissance artworks say.

Art historians gave me the facile explanation, “It was the Renaissance style to contemporize figures and settings.” But a close scrutiny reveals that the “style” argument doesn’t hold up. You will not see Aristotle, Homer, or Agamemnon holding a cross or kneeling in a church surrounded by Christian saints. But Jesus and his family appear exclusively as pure Christians. The “style” argument is also not reflected in Renaissance paintings that demonized Jews. Look at Albrecht Durrer’s 16th-century painting, Christ Among the Doctors. The fair-skinned, ethereal-looking, reddish-blond Jesus is portrayed in sharp contrast to the Jewish scholars, who are dark, menacing, and ugly — one looks almost sub-human.

The Christianization of art was also fueled by the nature of art as a business — a highly competitive business as noted by New York Times art critic Holland Cotter: “Painting in Renaissance Italy was no picnic. In artist-packed cities like Florence, competition for jobs was fierce.” To survive artists had to give patrons what they wanted — and that meant total Christianization of artworks. Any inclusion of Judaism, or suggestions that Jesus was a dedicated Jew, would surely run you out of business, if not deliver you to the Inquisition.

Regardless of the reason for the ethnic cleansing of Judaism from artworks, the cumulative effect of the distortions shaped and conditioned the way Christians throughout history — and even in modern times — have conceived of Christianity, Jesus, Jews, and Judaism. Images are powerful in shaping perceptions. And wherever Christians turned, in homes, palaces, churches, and at celebrations, they were confronted with an inauthentic Jesus. Jesus the Jew was vaporized.

We generally think of anti-Semitic art as explicit stereotypes of Jews (anti-Semitism by commission), as was represented in a 2012 exhibit, “The Jew in Anti-Semitic Art,” at the Wolfson Museum in Israel. The more than 600 pieces of art that were assembled over a 30-year period by 92-year-old Judaica dealer Peter Ehrenthal are mostly from the 19th and 20th centuries, when anti-Semitic posters and pamphlets, as well as other publications and objects, proliferated. But these works are transparent and often comical. Only the most rabid anti-Semites would take them seriously. For example, contrast the hideous caricature of French financier, vineyard owner, art collector, horse breeder and philanthropist Alphonse de Rothschild with an actual photograph of the elegant man.

As I’ve noted, this is anti-Semitism by commission. But anti-Semitism by omission can be even more potent. The ethnic cleansing of Judaism and the Christianization of Jesus in Medieval and Renaissance art established a classic setup for anti-Semitism: separate, exaggerate differences, and then demonize. This subliminal conditioning shaped Christian views of Jews and reinforced existing negative attitudes. Then the coup de grace label “Christ Killers” completed the persecution package. Looked at this way, Medieval and Renaissance art can be seen as providing an important missing link for understanding how anti-Semitism flourished throughout much of history.

Renaissance artists added the magnificent and powerful new dimensions of realism and naturalism to painting, in contrast to earlier artificialism and primitivism. Unfortunately, realism did not extend to representing figures as who they were in their real lives and in their actual settings. So, the next time you stroll through the Medieval and Renaissance galleries of a museum or view artworks from those periods in books and magazines, keep in mind the description of the real Jewish Jesus by Jean Guitton, Bruce Chilton, and James Carroll. It will be an entirely different experience!

Bernard Starr is a psychologist, college professor, and journalist. He is author of Jesus Uncensored: Restoring the Authentic Jew, which is available at Amazon (grayscale and color editions), Barnes and Noble, and other major outlets.



    jeusx went against the Rabbis
    and went against Shabbat.
    nothing more to know or say

    If paul were alive today he would surely say that ELVIS is divine and tell the world about his teachings through song much like in the TEMPLE.

    Take the metaphor
    “you aint nothin but a hound dog cryin’ all the time”

  • It is interesting that Byzantine iconography portrays Jesus, Mary, Joseph and their contemporaries as Mediterranean. At least that is somewhat closer to historical reality.

    • Bernard Starr

      There are also some Medieval and Renaissance paintings in which some figures have more a realistic physical appearance and darker skin tones. E.G. in my book ,Jesus Uncensored: Restoring the Authentic Jew,I cite Madonna and Child Enthroned with Saints Mary Magdalen and John the Baptist,by Renaissance artist Bugiardini Giuliano,in which John is dark skinned—but he is holding a crucifix staff. So even when physical appearance may be somewhat Semitic, the scenes are totally Christianized without any hint of a Jewish connection.

    • shoshana art historian

      it is also closer in time as well as distance to Jerusalem.

    • jerry hersch

      The beginnings of ‘Christian’ art date from the 1st century and were pretty much stylized by 500s/600s.
      At that time Christianity was still for the most part a mediterranian religion with outposts in the British Isles and western Germany.
      It was not until the 800s that the Byzantine monks Cyril and Methodius went out to convert the Slavic world.
      The schism of 1054 split the Christian world in two-Rome and Constantinople.The Constantinople/Byzantine church expznded its influence in the Balkans,the Eastern Mediterranian,and North African enclaves.It remained the “dark haired” church…save some Russo-Nordics.
      The Western Church in Rome expanded meanwhile into the “blond areas”.

      • jerry hersch

        Interestingly -Even after the fall of Constantinople/Istanbul to the Ottomans in 1453 and the resultant fracturing of the Eastern church into what eventually became ethno-national centric churches there was no appreciable change in the iconography.

      • Bernard Starr

        There was virtually no Christian art in the first century. During the first century the emerging Christianity was tied to Judaism and followd the prescription against images. Then under Roman persecution of Cristians the only Christian art that appered was hidden from public view in burial caves.Christian art didn’t make an appearanc until after the Council of Nicaea in the fourth century. I wrote about this extensively– with authoritaive citations– in my book “Jesus Uncensnored: Restoriing the Authentic Jew.”

        • My err Bernard meant second century..thanks for catching. Frescoes,some early churches and catacomb art-but before Nicea

          • The Dura-Europos Synagogue has been dated from this time and clearly shows that some Jews had moved to represent the human form.The ruins of a church in that vicinity also similarly dated-show Christian figures.

  • Julian Clovelly

    To be fair modern Christians such as retired Bishop of Newark, John Shelby Spong, are rigorous in pointing these problems of Christian symbolism out. Spong tells his readers, in his best selling works, that the imagery made him feel that Jesus must have been a long haired Swede.

    Unfortunately there is an even greater antisemitic element in the Virgin Birth doctrine. It is the assertion that Jesus did not have a Jewish father. Just occasionally even a medieval artict would break through the dogma with a painting representing Jesus in the arms of Joseph. The hidden text is sometimes “This is MY beloved son” – to a father the expression on Joseh’s face in these few paintings is unmistakeable – It is pride and joy in his own son as he holds him tenderly in his arms. Celibates just didn’t get the message of those actually heretical paintings

    If Catholicism could do the world one great favour, it would be to recognise that the Nativity story with its Virgin Birth is a myth – Many modern Protestants have long done that. Joseph the Jew and true father of Jesus should be restored to his rightful role in the story. What Church imagery has done to him is nothing less than cruelty, breaching the commandment to honour your father and your mother. Is it any wonder this faith has so often gone so wrong? The real Jesus – if there was one – would have held his father Joseph in the highest esteem, alongside his teenage mother – and as an infant rightly called him “daddy”.

  • shoshana art historian

    The author is undoubtedly right as far as the depictions of characters that are in origin jews go. However, he doesn’t recognize that this is not due to the artists imaginations. in the middle ages it was the rigueur to depict bible scenes in a contemporary setting. bible scenes were the only subjects and were always painted in commission. there existed no art pour l’art. there was no knowledge nor interest in the classics yet. so this tradition persisted during the renaissance. classical themes: homer aristotle and agamemnon, for example were not part of this tradition and were thus depicted in the new modern version i.e. not contemporized.
    the most important thing to know is that not the artists, but christian doctrine is responsible for the obliteration of judaism. for that is the core of christianity : replacing judaism.
    the new testament is supposed to replace the old testament. the old testament was kept only as “proof” of jesus being moshiach. it is seen as being full of allusions to jesus and the new testament and has totally been hijacked by christianity.
    that is the reason why everybody looks nordic.
    funny thing; these images are indeed so persisting that everyone who has seen jesus during a near death experience, always describes him having stepped out of the familiar paintings.

  • Levi Yitzhaq Garbose

    If he lived today, he would be a Chossid of The Lubavitcher Rebbe!

  • Luigi Rosolin

    The artist had been certainly incorrect, with the choice to resemble Jesus as European Nordic semblance, especially for Italian’, as most of us had darkest skin and black hair, like Jesus!
    I’m for north Italy with a few grey hairs now! I was blond, got from mother side, as my father had black stronger hairs.
    Still good to see the beautiful paint and be gracious as the majority of the artist had been from north where blonde hair is prevailing. We still descendant from Noah so we are all one, even before we all had the same creator witch in my faith will embrace all of us as children’s.

  • Well observed, but anyone who knows anything about ancient history knows that all the images of Christ and his merry men are bogus. Costume is wrong, ethnicity is wrong, etc etc. The propaganda that the art conveyed was to reinforce the existing social order of medieval Christendom, so this was why the images of Jesus and the rest mirrored the physical ideals of the European feudal elite. One can see a direct continuity which starts in Late Roman/Byzantine art through to Renaissance art, and ends in Victorian kitsch.

    Most importantly however, Starr somehow does not question the Christian myth at its core. Never mind the story of Jesus – this is a story, drafted long after the supposed events took place, and a complete fiction. If one was to trace the Christian belief back to the myth it stole its legends from (the myth of the Persian god Mithra, coined about 600 BC) then surely all ‘true’ Christian iconography should represent Achaemenid Persians, looking like Darius or Xerxes.

    Starr is also blinkered by his own delusions about Jewish ethnicity. The reality is that there is no Jewish ethnicity, just a hodge-podge of ethnic or social groups that for one reason or another either pioneered, developed or converted to Judaism between about 600 BC and 800 AD. In the east, many later converted to Islam. In the 1st century AD, when ‘Christ’ is supposed to have been among us, the ‘Holy Land’ would have been full of Greeks, wanna-be Hellenised Phoenicians, Arabs, Idumeans etc, a large proportion of whom (but by no means all) would have been Jews as well. And Galilee was not the rural bumpkin land of the Jesus myth, but was a trading nexus with thriving Hellenistic metropolises.

    I rest my case.

    • Bernard Starr

      My article was strictly about how Medieval and Renaissance artworks falsified biblical history and invented the Christian Jesus and omitted Jesus’ Jewish identity. Several of the other issues that you comment on I address in detail in my my book.

    • jerry hersch

      Good observations on the cosmopolitan nature of the the Galilee ..the same could be said of the burgeoning trase route of the eastern Mediterranean of the period and the trading points along the way.
      And yes,many diverse had individual who became Jews especially in the outer fringes on the Empire where Jews had taken root..I am not so sure about this in the area of the Galilee or Jerusalem.
      Also,slavery played a big part in introducing “exotics” around the globe.Slaves were sometimes traded as we would stamps and coins-the more unusual the higher value..blonds,redheads and African were worth the value of many “ordinary” slaves in trading..and so blond and African slaves ended up as far as China at an early peoiod.

  • and the “ethnic cleansing” (or historical revisionism) still goes on today, including this article – the author refers to “orthodox, practicing jews”, despite the fact that the term “orthodox” itself was a reaction to the reform movement, in the latter half of the nineteenth century. it is just as misleading as a nordic madonna.

    jews today are quite different from the jews of 2,000 years ago. the author’s argument about skin complexion pales (pun intended) next to differences in worship (we no longer sacrifice animals in the temple), and the entire bulk of rabbinic lore (which covers every aspect of jewish observance). jesus’ followers would consider locusts kosher, but not turkeys, and would never have heard of kitnios or gebrokst, or many other “orthodox” practices.

    jesus would not have worn a black hat, either.

  • Sarah Williams

    Interestingly, if you go into a Catholic church in Japan, the features of Jesus, Mary and Joseph are Asian.

  • This is a great article.
    I fully agree with the author.

  • Jerry Hersch

    The same can be said of modern depictions of Jesus and his contemporaries…from serious works to ‘comic books’ intended for the instruction of children.
    Even in churches and denominations that are beginning to finally recognize(rerecognize) their Jewish roots the depictions in their literature are ethnically biased.
    Were the first centuries of Christian art as biased-that was before Christianity had taken hold in the “blond” parts of Europe.
    Often we forget that Christain missionaries were penetrating Germany in the 5th and 6th Centuries..the Norse areas of Scandanavia at the end of the 900s-both converted often by the eastern flow of missionaries from monastic Ireland.Poland and Lithuania were not “officially” Christian nations until the 1200s.

  • Jesus like Moses are not historical. They are mythical super heroes.I like the jesusneverexisted website

    • Luigi Rosolin

      Moses also is a real, we can prove that philosophy had existed or not? The evidence of Jesus are more and stronger, you thing the Roman’s change calendar for not reason?
      Personally I had experience with vision and fact; I hope that you will be blessed in such way too.
      Another important point is the Old Testament that had point out to Him in clear way.
      The Judean community of the Republic of Venice had became believer of Jesus as the Christ, after been challenge by some converted and to prove they was wrong they accepted to study the scripture in regard. The conclusion turn out opposing to their initial thinking: They state at the end: the only reasonable result of our research-study is to accept Jesus Christ as the Messiah.( This in my not perfect words)

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