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...

  • Arts and Culture Middle East Hamas Commander Reportedly Urges Hezbollah to Join Forces Against Israel

    Hamas Commander Reportedly Urges Hezbollah to Join Forces Against Israel

    JNS.org – Five months after Israeli forces tried to assassinate Hamas military commander Mohammed Deif in Gaza, Deif appears to have signed a letter that the terrorist group claims he wrote in hiding. The letter, addressed to Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah, expressed Deif’s condolences for the death of Hezbollah terrorists during Sunday’s reported Israeli airstrike in Syria. Deif is said to have survived multiple assassination attempts, but he has not been seen in public for years. According to the Hezbollah-linked Al-Manar [...]

    Read more →
  • Jewish Identity Theater Shlomo Carlebach Musical Has the Soul to Heal Frayed Race Relations

    Shlomo Carlebach Musical Has the Soul to Heal Frayed Race Relations

    JNS.org – The cracks that had been simply painted over for so long began to show in Ferguson, Mo., in November 2014, but in truth they had begun to open wide much earlier—on Saturday, July 13, 2013. That is when a jury in Sanford, Fla., acquitted George Zimmerman of culpability for the death of a 17-year-old black man, Trayvon Martin. The cracks receded from view over time, as other news obscured them. Then came the evening of Aug. 9, 2014, [...]

    Read more →
  • Theater US & Canada ‘Homeland’ Season Finale Stirs Controversy After Comparing Menachem Begin to Taliban Leader

    ‘Homeland’ Season Finale Stirs Controversy After Comparing Menachem Begin to Taliban Leader

    A controversial scene in the season finale of Homeland sparked outrage by comparing former Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin to a fictional Taliban leader, the UK’s Daily Mail reported. In the season 4 finale episode, which aired on Dec. 21, CIA black ops director Dar Adal, played by F. Murray Abraham, justifies a deal he made with a Taliban leader by referencing Begin. He makes the remarks in a conversation with former CIA director Saul Berenson, a Jewish character played by Mandy [...]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture Spirituality/Tradition Placing Matisyahu Back Within a Life of Observance

    Placing Matisyahu Back Within a Life of Observance

    Shining Light on Fiction During the North Korea-Sony saga, we learned two important lessons. The first is that there are two sides to this story, and neither of them are correct because ultimately we should have neither inappropriate movies nor dictators. The second is that we cannot remain entirely fixed on the religious world, but we also must see beyond the external, secular view of reality. It’s important to ground our Torah-based thoughts into real-life activism. To view our act [...]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture Blogs Nine Decades of Moses at the Movies

    Nine Decades of Moses at the Movies

    JNS.org – Hollywood has had its share of big-budget biblical flops, but until now, the Exodus narrative has not been among them. Studios have brought Moses to the big screen sparingly, but in ways that defined the image and character of Moses for each generation of audiences. The first biblical epic In 1923, director Cecil B. DeMille left it to the American public to decide the subject of his next movie for Paramount. DeMille received a letter from a mechanic [...]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture Blogs Exodus on Screen (REVIEW)

    Exodus on Screen (REVIEW)

    JNS.org – The story of the Exodus from Egypt is a tale as old as time itself, to borrow a turn of phrase. It’s retold every Passover, both at the seder table and whenever “The Ten Commandments” is aired on television. But the latest adaptation—Ridley Scott’s epic film, “Exodus: Gods and Kings”—fails to meet expectations. Scott’s “Exodus” alters the source material to service the story and ground the tale, but the attempt to reinvent the biblical narrative becomes laughable. Moses [...]

    Read more →
  • Jewish Identity Lifestyle ‘Jewish Food Movement’ Comes of Age

    ‘Jewish Food Movement’ Comes of Age

    JNS.org - In December 2007, leaders of the Hazon nonprofit drafted seven-year goals for what they coined as the “Jewish Food Movement,” which has since been characterized by the increased prioritization of healthy eating, sustainable agriculture, and food-related activism in the Jewish community. What do the next seven years hold in store? “One thing I would like to see happen in the next seven years is [regarding] the issue of sugar, soda, and obesity, [seeing] what would it be like to rally the [...]

    Read more →
  • Blogs Education Seeds of ‘Start-Up Nation’ Cultivated by Israel Sci-Tech Schools

    Seeds of ‘Start-Up Nation’ Cultivated by Israel Sci-Tech Schools

    JNS.org – Forget the dioramas. How about working on an Israeli Air Force drone? That’s exactly the kind of beyond-their-years access enjoyed by students at the Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) industrial vocational high school run by Israel Sci-Tech Schools, the largest education network in the Jewish state. More than 300 students (250 on the high school level and 68 at a two-year vocational academy) get hands-on training in the disciplines of aviation mechanics, electricity and energy control, and unmanned air [...]

    Read more →



Sign up now to receive our regular news briefs.