Art That’s ‘Too Jewish’

April 17, 2013 1:53 am 21 comments

John Everett Millais' 'Christ in the House of His Parents'.

An exhibit of Pre-Raphaelite art opened at Washington’s National Gallery of Art on Feb. 17th that will run through May 19th. This art genre was launched in 1848, when seven British artists led by William Holman Hunt, John Everett Millais and Dante Gabriel Rossetti, all associated with the Royal Academy of Art in London, formed a secret society called the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. According to a New York Times review of the exhibit, these artists “were repelled by the decadence of art and society, much of which they ascribed to the Industrial Revolution. They wanted to turn back the clock to purer, more thoroughly Christian times.”

One painting in the exhibit, Christ in the House of His Parents (1849-50), by John Everett Millais, features Jesus and his family. The setting is Joseph’s carpentry shop. Mary is seen comforting young Jesus, while Joseph examines a cut from a nail on Jesus’ palm (a symbol of the stigmata of the crucifixion). It appears to be a realistic portrait of a family at work. Why then did it incite public outrage? It was too Jewish was the critics’ accusation. They deplored the artist’s depiction of a “gawky” Jesus in an ordinary working-class setting.

When the painting was shown at a Royal Academy Exhibition in 1850 the publication Builder called it a “painful display of anatomical knowledge, and studious vulgarity of portraying the youthful Saviour as a red-headed Jew boy, and the sublime personage of the virgin a sore-heeled, ugly, every-day sempstress [seamstress]…”

No less notable, novelist Charles Dickens was equally distressed by the display of a “wry-necked boy in a nightgown who seems to have received a poke playing in an adjacent gutter.” In a scathing review, the London Times said that Millais’s “attempt to associate the Holy Family with the meanest details of a carpenter’s shop, with no conceivable omission of misery, of dirt, of even disease, all finished with loathsome minuteness, is disgusting.”

The crescendo of protest prompted Queen Victoria to have the painting delivered to Buckingham Palace for a private viewing. We don’t know what the monarch’s response was, but the widespread criticism conveyed the public’s reaction: What audacity for a painter to picture rural village working-class Jews as rural village working-class Jews!

Max Liebermann's 'The 12-Year-Old Jesus in the Temple with the Scholars'.

A similar incident occurred three decades later, in 1879, when German artist Max Liebermann painted The 12-Year-Old Jesus in the Temple with the Scholars. The image of Jesus debating the rabbis and scholars was inspired by the well-known account of the event in the Gospel of Luke (2:46-47). It was an unusual painting for Liebermann, a secular Jew who created few pieces of religious art. When the painting was displayed at an international art show in Munich that year it met a storm of protest. The public and the critics charged that the painting blasphemed Christianity. The Crown Prince of Bavaria voiced his protest, prompting a debate in the Bavarian Parliament.

What was the brouhaha about? Again, the artwork was too Jewish. Critics complained that Liebermann painted Jesus with dark hair, Semitic features, and worst or all, an “ethnic gesture” (see if you can identify an “ethnic gesture” in Liebermann’s sketch of the painting). One critic complained that Lieberman’s Jesus was “the ugliest, most impertinent Jewish boy imaginable.” Shocked by the public uproar, Liebermann reworked the painting, giving Jesus blond hair, softer features, more upscale clothing — and he eliminated any possible hint of an “ethnic gesture.”

In view of these efforts to recast Jesus as a Christian and erase his Jewish identity and lifelong commitment to Judaism, is it any wonder that classical Medieval and Renaissance artworks routinely omitted any Jewish connection for Jesus, his family, and community? In my walking tour of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art and examination of other classical artworks, I noted that virtually none showed even a hint of the image represented in the Gospels of a thoroughly Jewish Jesus immersed in Jewish life, teachings, and practices. At every turn I was confronted with a blond, fair-skinned, Northern European Jesus (and others in his family and followers). What’s more, they appear in anachronistic settings of latter-day Christian Saints and Christian artifacts, in palatial surroundings far removed from Jesus’ life in a rural Galilean village

This ethnic cleansing of Judaism in artworks must now be reexamined for its contribution to anti-Semitism by omission of Jesus’ Jewish identity. In setting Jesus apart from the others — the Jews — it established a false dichotomy that Jesus and Jews were of different ethnicities and religions. The distortions and falsification of biblical history not only led to the persecution of countless numbers of Jews but contributed to the great divide between Judaism and Christianity, which only now is on a path of reconciliation.

Bernard Starr, PhD is a psychologist, journalist, and professor emeritus at the City University of New York, Brooklyn College. He is the author of Jesus Uncensored: Restoring the Authentic Jew.

21 Comments

  • can you comment on paintings of JESUS with TEFILLIM — in MEDABA church and in Baltimore ???

    • Bernard Starr

      Please provide a link to those paintings. I’m not familiar with them. If they do show Jesus with tefillin they would stand in contrast to the vast bulk of classical painting that erase any hint of Judaism for Jesus or his family.

  • to mr Otero,

    Who said to Him ; “Thou art the Christ the Son of the living God”? Wasn’t that the Jew Peter? How can you say that my Lord Jesus did not know he was the Christ?

  • Keith Reitman

    “Yash-key”, to his buds.

  • Just for the record…there’s nothing Jewish about this scene.

    • Bernard Starr

      Good observation. The fact that there is nothing particuarly Jewish about the scene in the painting makes the outrage that it generated even more puzzling.My guess is that the furor was not not about it being Jewish but that it was not explicitly Christian–like the Medieval and Renaisance paintings that converted Jesus and his family into latter-day Christians without a trace of any connection to Judaism.It’s a subject that I cover in great detail in my book.

  • Excellent piece Dr. Starr…and observations about the “elevation” of Jesus OUT of his Jewish heritage (the foundatin upon which the Christian faith now stands, by the way) are dead on.

    E. Beal

  • I am a former German Jew and I like the article about the paintings by Max Lieberman.
    On thing I would be interested in, what was the Jewish name of Jesus?

  • It is interesting that Byzantine iconography portrays Jesus and his family as being of Mediterranean appearance, albeit in a highly stylised manner. This is much closer to the realities of history and ethnography than Northern European portrayals.

  • Jesus was a Jew he kept the 7th day Sabbath that was set up at creation week Gen 2. Jesus even kept the Sabbath in death.
    rose on the 1st day of the week an ascended to heaven after 40 days. I love the realism of the painting

  • After a lifetime attending Christian and Catholic services, I now make it a point to always say, “The Jew Jesus.” I think that the distinction from “Jesus Christ” is too easily dismissed. Jesus never knew that he was “the Christ” nor was he personally a Christian either. Making him one and the same may ultimately be helpful, a Jew.

Leave a Reply

Please note: comments may be published in the Algemeiner print edition.


Current day month ye@r *

More...

  • Jewish Identity Sports Cycling the Desert: New Israel Bike Trail Connects Mitzpe Ramon to Eilat

    Cycling the Desert: New Israel Bike Trail Connects Mitzpe Ramon to Eilat

    As the popularity of cycling continues to increase across the world, Israel is working to develop cycling trails that make the country’s spectacular desert accessible to cyclists. The southern segment of the Israel Bike Trail was inaugurated on Feb. 24 and offers for the first time a unique, uninterrupted 8-day cycling experience after six years of planning and development. The southern section of the Israel Bike Trail stretches over 300 kilometers in length and is divided into eight segments for mountain biking, [...]

    Read more →
  • Jewish Identity Theater Forthcoming Major Action Movies Inspired by Jewish Comic Artist Jack Kirby

    Forthcoming Major Action Movies Inspired by Jewish Comic Artist Jack Kirby

    JNS.org – With the recent Oscars in the rearview mirror, Hollywood’s attention now shifts to the rest of this year’s big-screen lineup. Two of the major action films coming up in 2015—Avengers: Age of Ultron, which hits theaters in May, and the third film in the Fantastic Four series, slated for an August release—have Jewish roots that the average moviegoer might be unaware of. As it turns out, it took a tough Jewish kid from New York City’s Lower East [...]

    Read more →
  • Book Reviews Jewish Identity When Torah Teaches Life and Life Teaches Torah (REVIEW)

    When Torah Teaches Life and Life Teaches Torah (REVIEW)

    JNS.org – Rabbi Gordon Tucker spent the first 20 years of his career teaching at the Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS) and the next 20 years as the rabbi of Temple Israel Center in White Plains, N.Y. I confess that when I heard about the order of those events, I thought that Tucker’s move from academia to the pulpit was strange. Firstly, I could not imagine anyone filling the place of my friend, Arnold Turetsky, who was such a talented [...]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture Blogs Oscars 2015: Reflecting on Love at First Sight

    Oscars 2015: Reflecting on Love at First Sight

    JNS.org – I’m in love, and have been for a long time. It’s a relationship filled with laughter, tears, intrigue, and surprise. It was love at first sight, back when I was a little girl—with an extra-terrestrial that longed to go home. From then on, that love has never wavered, and isn’t reserved for one, but for oh so many—Ferris Bueller, Annie Hall, Tootsie, Harry and Sally, Marty McFly, Atticus Finch, Danny Zuko, Yentl, that little dog Toto, Mrs. Doubtfire, [...]

    Read more →
  • Blogs Book Reviews Examining America’s First Foray into the Middle East (REVIEW)

    Examining America’s First Foray into the Middle East (REVIEW)

    At the turn of the 21st century through today, American involvement in Middle Eastern politics runs through the Central Intelligence Agency. In America’s Great Game: The CIA’s Secret Arabists and the Shaping of the Modern Middle East, historian Hugh Wilford shows this has always been the case. Wilford methodically traces the lives and work of the agency’s three most prominent officers in the Middle East: Kermit “Kim” Roosevelt was the grandson of president Theodore Roosevelt, and the first head of [...]

    Read more →
  • Relationships US & Canada Seniors at Los Angeles Jewish Home Give Witty Dating Advice Ahead of Valentine’s Day (VIDEO)

    Seniors at Los Angeles Jewish Home Give Witty Dating Advice Ahead of Valentine’s Day (VIDEO)

    Residents of the Los Angeles Jewish Home give dating advice to a young Jewish man in a comedic video posted Monday on YouTube just in time for Valentine’s Day. Jonathan, an associate at the Jewish home, quizzes the senior citizens on an array of topics including having sex on the first date, kissing a girl, who should pay for dinner and whether online dating is a good idea. When the 28-year-old asks a male resident named Lee about his experiences [...]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture Jewish History Kutsher’s Documentary an Amazing, and Tragic, Look at the Past (REVIEW)

    Kutsher’s Documentary an Amazing, and Tragic, Look at the Past (REVIEW)

    Anyone who spent time in the Jewish Catskills hotels – especially those like me, who returned for decades – must see the new documentary,”Welcome to Kutsher’s: The Last Catskills Resort.” Not only will the film transport you back to the glory days of your youth and thousands of memories, but it will also make you long for a world that is now lost forever. I returned to Kutsher’s one last time in the summer of 2009, but by then, the [...]

    Read more →
  • Education Jewish Identity Lifestyle Riding the Wave of Change in Part-Time Jewish Education

    Riding the Wave of Change in Part-Time Jewish Education

    JNS.org – Amid the numerous studies and analyses regarding Jewish American life, a simple fact remains: part-time Jewish education is the most popular vehicle for Jewish education in North America. Whenever and wherever parents choose Jewish education for their children, we have a communal responsibility to devote the necessary time and resources to deliver dynamic, effective learning experiences. The only way we can do this is by creating space for conversations and knowledge-sharing around innovative new education models. That also [...]

    Read more →



Sign up now to receive our regular news briefs.