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Art Exhibit Corrects History and Helps Repair Jewish/Christian Relations

August 21, 2013 9:21 am 12 comments

Rembrant's The Head of Christ and The Supper at Emmaus. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

Rembrandt and the Images of Jesus, a 2011-2012 exhibit curated by the Louvre, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and the Detroit Institute of Arts presented artworks, primarily by 17-century, Dutch artist Rembrandt van Rijn,which displayed images of Jesus that departed from typical Renaissance representations. When the exhibit opened at the Philadelphia Museum it was heralded by The New York Times as “a gutsy makeover of the most-depicted man in Western art. Jesus was, of course, Jewish. But few artists emphasized his ethnicity, or his humanity, as frankly and directly as Rembrandt did.” In making her point, Times critic Karen Rosenberg cited two of the most striking works in the exhibit: The Head of Christ and The Supper at Emmaus (see left).

Rather than painting an idealized Christian image of Jesus, common in Renaissance paintings, Rembrandt painted portraits that are realistic representations of Jesus. More remarkable, art historians generally believe that the model for The Head of Christ was a young Sephardic Jew. The Louvre Museum commentary describing the exhibit said: “For Rembrandt, working from a Jewish model would have been a means of returning to a historical truth, or portraying Jesus unadulterated, as the Jew that he was – a form of realism scoffing at tradition.”

That he used a Jewish model is not surprising, since Rembrandt lived in the Jewish quarter of Amsterdam, where he associated with many Jews; he also produced several masterpiece portraits of Jews, including Portrait of an Old JewPortrait of a Young Jew and The Jewish Bride.

Rembrandt’s human Jesus is a refreshing departure from the massive collection of Medieval and Renaissance images that Christianized the Jewish Jesus and erased any evidence of his Jewish identity or origins. These classical paintings, like the ones cited in a chapter in my book Jesus Uncensored: Restoring the Authentic Jew, typically picture Jesus,and his family and community, as blond fair-skinned Northern Europeans,  surrounded by Medieval and Renaissance saints, high church officials, and anachronistic Christian artifacts. Nowhere in these artworks is there a hint of any Jewish connection.

The curators of Rembrandt and the Face of Jesus should be applauded for their effort to counter and correct this falsification of biblical history.

Unlike the distortions common to classical artworks, these paintings are not loaded with anachronistic Christian content. In other words, Rembrandt’s paintings, drawings, etchings, and sketches – and other works in the exhibit – are mostly religion neutral. Religious identity of the figures and scenes is left to the viewer, with the emphasis – especially for Rembrandt – on authentic flesh-and-blood images.

That being said, Rembrandt’s life-like images, which display his fierce realism and brilliant use of light, detail and perspective, are hardly an antidote to the more traditional distortions that omit Jewish content. The same can be said for other works in the exhibit. The goal stated by the Louvre of “portraying Jesus unadulterated, as the Jew that he was” is not achieved.

That’s why to counter the historic distortions I’ve invited artists to submit new renditions of classical artworks that restore the Jewish in Jesus — and others in his family and community. This planned exhibit received an important boost when architect and painter Rod Borghese contacted me in response to one of my articles on the falsification of biblical history in classical artworks.

He offered to create new versions of the Christianized paintings. Interestingly, Rod Borghese is distantly related to the noble Italian Borghese banking family, art patrons who commissioned many of the Renaissance paintings of Jesus. The Borghese Gallery’s extensive collection housed in the Villa Borghese in Rome, Italy, is considered one the of world’s finest, with artworks by Bernini, Canova, Bronzino, Caravaggio, and Titian, just to name a few.

Rod’s first submission captures the theme of the exhibit with his rendition of Bartolomé Esteban Murillo’s seventeenth-century The Baptism of Christ:

In Murillo’s painting (left), John is holding a crucifix staff, which suggests a Christian conversion. But the fact is that Christianity did not exist at the time, and, according to the Gospels, John baptized only Jews – in order to purify them for the expected arrival of the Jewish Messiah. Consider, too, that the cross was a hated symbol in the time of Jesus and John, a reminder of the brutal crucifixion of tens of thousands or more Jews. The cross didn’t become a Christian symbol until the fourth century, when the Emperor Constantine introduced it as a battle symbol on his military shields and banners.

It has been well established that neither John nor Jesus intended to start a new religion. But that message has not gotten across to the general public, or it has been distorted over the years. That’s why I wasn’t entirely surprised that many of the people whom I interviewed for my book insisted that Jesus became a Christian when he was baptized by John the Baptist. In fact, the word “Christian” does not appear at all in the Gospels — and only three times in later parts of the New Testament, well after the crucifixion.

Rod Borghese’s rendition of Murillo’s painting (right) shows John wearing a Jewish prayer shawl and holding a Torah scroll, a symbol of Judaism that John may very well have held. He certainly never displayed a crucifix. Yet John holding a crucifix is an iconic Renaissance image that appears in painting after painting. Rod’s version also places the baptism in the Jordan River as described in the Gospel of Matthew (1:13-16). While it’s unlikely that a Torah scroll would be used for this occasion, it’s introduced as a symbol stating that the baptism is a Jewish event related to prophesy in the Torah.

Rod’s second submission is a rendition of Michael Pacher’s 15-century Engagement (some say marriage) of the Virgin:

Pacher (left) pictures the betrothal of a 13-year-old Jewish girl, Mary, to her Jewish carpenter fiancé, Joseph. The official is a high Christian church official, performing the ceremony in a Romanesque setting. Rod Borghese’s rendition (right) accurately restores a Jewish context that is historically appropriate.

Images are powerful in defining reality for the viewer. The pervasive Christianization of the Jewish Jesus in classical artworks fed the illusion that Jesus was of a different religion and ethnicity than the others – the Jews – when in fact they were all Semites of the same Jewish faith. To emphasize the false distinction, Jews were depicted in classical artworks as dark and menacing. See Peter Paul Reubens’ Tribute Money (1512) and Albrecht Durer’s 16-century paintingChrist Among the Doctors (Pharisees). By adding the charge of “Christ Killers” to this distorted and ugly imagery, church leaders sought to forge a final separation between Judaism and Christianity.

This exhibit does not suggest that new renditions of classical artworks are in any way better than the originals. Obviously, the Medieval and Renaissance painters were extraordinary artists; their artwork will stand forever as masterpieces. The primary intention is to address the omissions and misrepresentations of biblical history in the depictions and content of these events and people, which have had an enormous impact in dividing Christianity and Judaism.

For more information about the exhibit visit here.

Bernard Starr is a psychologist, college professor, and journalist. He is the author of Jesus Uncensored: Restoring the Authentic Jew. Website: click here.


  • Everything is Brahman. (ie:God)

  • Ein od Milvado…… G-d is One. There is Nothing Other than G-d !

  • Otto Waldmann in Sydney

    Yet, one may not ignore that known historic facts contain identifiable essential distinctions of the philosophical kind, conducive to irreconcilable tenets.

  • Wonderful article. Yes indeed Jesus was a Jew in every sense. I, a Roman Catholic, rue that the depictions of Jesus over the centuries have not emphasized this very important historical and I might add religious fact. Jesus came from the line of King David, of the house of Judah, one of the sons of Jacob (Israel) and grandson of Abraham. Without that connection to the ancient Jewish lineage and the covenant made by God with Abraham, the story of redemption, salvation and reconciliation with the God of Abraham- that we Catholics believe centers around Jesus – would make no sense. I so wish that the history of the Church with the Jewish people were different. But sadly it is not. But the future can be different from the past when we take a deep look at facts and truth.

  • Susan Rothschild Goldenberg

    I agree with you completely Jews and Christians share beliefs and need to look Aat commanalities like your way of thinking

    • Very true Susan. We need to build on our agreements and go from there. Hopefully taking a second look at the context of the 1st Century Galilee will go a long way to restoring our common beliefs.

  • I wrote an article about that exhibition :

    The Louvres minored, reduced the meaning of a “Jewish Jesus”.

  • One of the saddest things that have happened in history is the split that took place between the Jews who believed in Jesus and those who rejected him. Those who believed in him were called Christian later.
    But remember what he said: He did not come to create a new religion. He came to complement the mosaic teachings. Make it stricter. Not only don’t commit adultery but don’t even look at a woman with evil eye.” paraphrased.
    Jesus emphasized love of humanity, love of G-d, love of justice, and peace. Unfortunately … man is so evil and wants to be evil that those noble ideals have rarely been adhered to.

    • You are right on your explanation. Jesus belonged to a jewish sect very religious so he would never had created a new religion. And as a jew he would never had accepted to worship a human, a man, as in jewish religion it is forbidden to worship people, animals, etc..It is a monotheistic religion, the first one. Jews can or not consider him a prophet but never, never, worship him as a god. Consider him as a god comes from the romans when they changed their god to Jesus.
      Jesus Christ was not the name of this man if he was really a jew. It is a greek name. So, I doubt that he can answer people who pray for his help, where ever he can be…
      Anyhow, people have the option of their belives, and this is the most importante. The respect of the other.

  • Jesus Christ to most catholics ( mainly in the Philippines)are recognized as a Jew. Since we’ve been taught in grade schools that the Jews or Israelites were the chosen people of God. We decried the belief that the Jews were resposible for the death of was the Roman Empire. look they were no longer around, but the Jews are still here. To me being Christian is just another form of Judaism. Jesus will always be a Jew and God as the same time. Is this why a lot of Jews were persecuted? Jews and Christians are almost the same in the structure of love towards one another. Mohammed is a muslim. did he really teach that killing someone non-muslim is a tribute to God? NONSENSE !!

      Xtians have killed more JEWS then arabs ever hope to kill.Today you kill us through seducing innocent Jews dressing like rabbis making your churches like synagogues, lying and decieving Jews daily to this very hour. YOU HAVE NOTHING IN XTIANITY THATS CREDIBLE AND THATS WHY YOU NEED JEWS TO SUPPORT YOUR DOCTRINES.

      You go door to door in Jewish communities ATTEMPTING TO PERSUEDE JEWS TRYING TO GIVE THEM A GUILT TRIP TO ”LISTEN TO YOU FOR ONLY A MINUTE after all we support israel” You use trick descriptions and different words describing jesux.You talk to a Jew and use hebrew words so they would listen to you.


      THAT DEATH, THAT SPIRITUal death is worse to us then your inquisitions and tearing our limbs off during the crusades and your curses today that if a Jew doesnt accept your dead mangod we Jews go to hell.

      IF YOU ARE SO SURE jesux is good
      according to the 1st and 2nd commandment…
      I AM ‘ONE’
      I AM G-D

      somewhere, I dont know where but…

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