Sign up now to receive our regular news briefs.

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.


  • 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. Comments written in all caps will be deleted.

Current day month ye@r *


  • Arts and Culture Features Jerry Seinfeld to Make Comedy Debut in Israel

    Jerry Seinfeld to Make Comedy Debut in Israel – Famed Jewish-American comedian and actor Jerry Seinfeld is slated to make his comedic debut in Israel later this year. Seinfeld, who was born in Brooklyn to Jewish parents from the Ukraine and Syria, will perform in Tel Aviv’s Mitvtachim Menorah Arena on Dec. 19 as part of a world tour. The comedian is most known for his enormously popular NBC sitcom Seinfeld, which ran from 1989-1998 and is widely considered one of the greatest TV series of all time. […]

    Read more →
  • Features Food American Kids Taste Israeli Food, Offer Tidbits About the Country (VIDEO)

    American Kids Taste Israeli Food, Offer Tidbits About the Country (VIDEO)

    A new video circulating online shows eight American children reacting — mostly positively — to their first taste of Israeli eggplant salad/dip, known in Hebrew as “salat hatzilim” and in other parts of the Levant as baba ganoush. The clip, by, features U.S. youngsters given a plate with schnitzel, slices of pita, hummus and baba ganoush. “If someone had a name like that, they’d be so sad,” one boy said, mispronouncing it as “ba-ga-doosh.” A few of the kids were able to identify correctly the elements on the plate […]

    Read more →
  • Blogs Features Pioneers/Philanthropists ‘Start-Up Nation’ Israel to Host Forbes Magazine Young Entrepreneurs Summit

    ‘Start-Up Nation’ Israel to Host Forbes Magazine Young Entrepreneurs Summit – Forbes magazine announced Tuesday that it will host its Under 30 EMEA (Europe, Middle East and Africa) Summit in Israel for the first time in April 2016. The conference is expected to bring together some 600 young entrepreneurs, with 200 from Europe, 200 from the U.S., and 200 from Israel. The summit has been hosted in Philadelphia for the past two years. It will include presentations, speeches, a pitch competition, and cultural immersion opportunities in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. […]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture Beliefs and concepts What’s That Huge White Bridal Dress Floating Over the Tower of David?

    What’s That Huge White Bridal Dress Floating Over the Tower of David? –  “What’s that huge white bridal dress floating over the Tower of David?” That’s what visitors to Jerusalem’s Old City asked last week. The wedding gown, created by leading Israeli artist Motti Mizrachi, is part of the 2nd Jerusalem Biennale for Contemporary Jewish Art, an event that blew into town as the Sukkot holiday got underway. Mizrachi, who lives and works in Tel Aviv, created the dress that floats majestically over the Tower of David, the main exhibition site […]

    Read more →
  • Features Opinion The Top 10 Places to Visit in Israel

    The Top 10 Places to Visit in Israel

    Israel is a holiday destination on many travelers’ bucket lists. No matter the style of holiday you are after, Israel has the answer. Whether you prefer to relax by the beach, hike up mountains in the desert, visit religious and historical sites, eat your way through the country or just enjoy some retail therapy, your journey through Israel will be one to remember. While there are obviously so many things to see and do, here is a list of 10 of […]

    Read more →
  • Pioneers/Philanthropists US & Canada Jewish American Fashion Mogul Ralph Lauren to Step Down as CEO

    Jewish American Fashion Mogul Ralph Lauren to Step Down as CEO – Jewish American fashion mogul Ralph Lauren announced his plan to step down as chief executive officer of the renowned fashion brand. The head of Gap Inc’s Old Navy brand will take over the position. The 75-year-old Lauren, who founded Ralph Lauren Corp. in 1967, will continue to serve as executive chairman and will continue leading the fashion house’s design team, according to a statement by the company. After the announcement, Ralph Lauren shares rose 3.79 percent while Gap shares […]

    Read more →
  • Featured Sports US & Canada Jewish Boxer Dustin ‘White Tiger’ Fleischer Scores Fourth Knockout Victory

    Jewish Boxer Dustin ‘White Tiger’ Fleischer Scores Fourth Knockout Victory

    Jewish boxer Dustin Fleischer, who said his quest is to become the first world champion descended from a Holocaust survivor, stayed unbeaten with a first-round knockout. Fleischer, nicknamed “The White Tiger,” moved to 4-0 with the defeat of Ira Frank on Saturday night in Beach Haven, New Jersey, near his home, he reported after the fight on his Facebook page. The 26-year-old welterweight has won all his bouts by knockout. Read full story at JTA.

    Read more →
  • Featured Israel Pioneers/Philanthropists Meet Israel’s Santa Claus, the Trustee Tasked With Handing Out Leona Helmsley’s Billions (INTERVIEW)

    Meet Israel’s Santa Claus, the Trustee Tasked With Handing Out Leona Helmsley’s Billions (INTERVIEW)

    Renowned New York attorney Sandor (Sandy) Frankel, one of four trustees of the Leona M. and Harry B. Helmsley Charitable Trust, was in Israel earlier this month to look at additional philanthropic options and to observe the progress of those endeavors already funded – to the tune of multi-millions. Frankel, who recently joined the prestigious Park Avenue law firm Otterbourg P.C., met with Israeli politicians and other bigwigs to get a sense from them about which projects in the country […]

    Read more →