Some 60 years ago the artist John Bunting reflected on the statue of the Virgin Mary and the infant Jesus by the Jewish sculptor Jacob Epstein, which had recently been installed above the entrance to the Convent of the Holy Child on Cavendish Square in London (Fig. 1). In his article, Bunting had enquired, ‘How can a man who is not a Christian… produce a Christian work of art?’ ((John Bunting, ”Reflections of Epstein’s Madonna,” Liturgical Arts 23, (1955): 43.)) It was a remark that echoed the concerns of contemporary art critics, cultural commentators and church authorities, who were responding to the emergence of Epstein’s sculptures, many of which had been commissioned for Christian buildings, with consternation and, in some instances, outright hostility. ((The most trenchant opposition to Epstein’s work had been voiced by the Anglican priest Fr Vaughan. Writing in the Evening Standard in 1908, he had been uncompromising in his assault: ‘As a Christian citizen in a Christian city, I claim the right to say that I object most emphatically to such indecent and inartistic statutory being thrust upon my view…’ See Juliet Steyn, ”Jacob Epstein: ’The Artist Who Desires to Épater’,” Third Text 19, no. 6 (2005): 665.)) Such responses were not novel reactions to the artistic endeavours of non-believers. In the 15th century the Italian early Renaissance master, Fra Angelico, had articulated a similar cautionary note: ‘To paint the things of Christ one must live with Christ.’ ((George A. Cevasco, ”Epstein’s Religious Art,” Studies: An Irish Quarterly Review 47, no. 186 (1958): 178.)) And in contemporary Christian thought, echoes of this attitude are heard in neo-orthodox suspicion of the notion of the universal logos, which underpins a liberal theological engagement with the arts. ((James L Fredericks, ”A Universal Religious Experience? Comparative Theology as an Alternative to a Theology of Religions,” Horizons 22, no. 1 (1995): 72.))
It is Epstein’s co-religionists, though, that present the most pressing questions to the church about the theological value of non-Christian artistic sources. However, before addressing the question of whether Jews might produce Christian art, it must be acknowledged that the category of Jewish art is a highly contested one. The painters and sculptors we shall examine generally expressed an ambivalent relationship with the Jewish religious tradition and frequently resisted being labelled as a Jewish artist. ((Anthony Julius, Idolizing Pictures: Idolatry, Iconoclasm, and Jewish Art, Walter Neurath Memorial Lectures (New York, N.Y.: Thames & Hudson, 2001), 41-54. For analysis of the problematic issue of defining Jewish art, see Kalman P Bland, The Artless Jew: Medieval and Modern Affirmations and Denials of the Visual (Princeton University Press, 2001), 13-47; Vivian B Mann and Eliezer Diamond, Jewish Texts on the Visual Arts (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000); Aaron Rosen, Imagining Jewish Art : Encounters with the Masters in Chagall, Guston, and Kitaj (London: Legenda, 2009), 1-12.)) Jewish religious identity has been understood and owned in a wide variety of ways by artists who by convention are understood to be Jewish. Few Jewish artists have been observant adherents and most will have drawn on a cultural and historical, rather than narrowly religious, inheritance. RB Kitaj, for example, who was reared in a secular Jewish family, spoke of his fascination with ‘Jews rather than Judaism,’ and by the history of anti-Semitism rather than a ‘faith I never knew.’ ((Marco Livingstone, R. B. Kitaj (Oxford: Phaidon, 1985), 29.)) Some Jewish artists, such as Rothko, were unwilling to link their professional identity to Jewishness ((Andrea Pappas, ”Invisible Points of Departure: Reading Rothko’s Christological Imagery,” American Jewish History 92, no. 4 (2007): 417.)) but drew with ease on Christian and Pagan sources in an effort to access archetypal motifs that speak of the human predicament. Others, such as Chagall, maintained a strong connection with Jewish life but explored the permeable border between Christianity and Judaism in pursuit of a universalist spirituality. The resolute resistance to christianisation of their works, found in Lassansky or Bak, can be contrasted with the attitude of other Jewish artists who were willing to create objects for Christian devotional purposes. The work of Jacob Epstein (as we have seen) and Arnold Daghani, provide good examples of such accommodation. ((Daghani’s series of pen and wash images, Stations of the Cross, were displayed within Guildford Cathedral during Lent in 2014. SeeAndrew Bishop, The Way of the Cross: Prayers and Meditations on Arnold Daghani’s Stations of the Cross (Guildford: Guildford Cathedral, 2014).)) And, more unusually, Ernst Fuchs converted to Christianity later in life. So the different ways in which Judaism has been inhabited by Jewish artists demonstrates that Christians do not encounter a uniform understanding of religious identity when they contemplate Jewish presentations of Christian themes.
Aware of this complexity, the art critic Harold Rosenberg famously remarked that ‘while Jews produce art, they don’t produce Jewish art.’ ((Harold Rosenberg, ”Is There a Jewish Art?,” Commentary, (1966).)) Yet, Bunting’s query remains as to whether Jewish artists can produce Christian art, understood as works that convey a message that is consonant with a Christian understanding of God and which is instructive for the ministry of the church. For many Jewish artists, ironically following a history of persecution by Christians, have contributed to an aesthetic repertoire that draws extensively on Christian iconography.
In what follows I seek to revisit this question by examining the ways in which Jewish artists have made reference to the central symbol of the Christian faith, the crucifixion, and consider the ethical and theological horizons they open up for the church. The cross of Christ has of course been at the heart of Christian visual culture since figurative depictions of God were deemed acceptable after the iconoclastic controversy of the 8th century. However, given its place as a symbol of oppression within Judaism, and in particular its integration with the swastika during the years of Nazi power, its widespread adoption within a Jewish artistic vocabulary is remarkable. Yet Jews have repeatedly incorporated this sacred Christian symbol in their art, using a variety of approaches. These include direct figurative presentations, allusions to aspects of Christ’s passion, other than his death, and through abstract methods that attempt to mediate elements of meaning, rather than the physical events, of Jesus’ suffering. The resulting work is especially challenging and unsettling for it portrays suffering that is not leavened, in any straightforward way, by the hope of redemption and it confronts the church with questions about its persecution of the European Jewry. Nonetheless, important theological themes emerge in such art about what has been called the ‘malign unholy tremendum of the Jews.’ ((Arthur Cohen, ”In Our Terrible Age – the Tremendum of the Jews,” Concilium 175, (1984): 11-16.)) The images also open up conversations about the anguish associated with the creative process and the question of God’s presence in an evil world. Their religious dimension warrants attention from the church and suggests that, in some sense at least, such art might be considered as Christian. In exploring this assertion, I shall focus mainly on works created in the period during and after the Holocaust. This will involve discussion of how the resulting christological imagery has been freighted with meaning connected with collective suffering, personal grief and divine abandonment.
The Jewish Passion
The most conspicuous theme that confronts Christians as they view Jewish presentations of the crucifixion is the martyrdom of the Jewish people in their darkest hour. ((SeeCatherine Quehl-Engel, ”Modern Jewish Art and the Crucifixion: A Study in Appropriation,” Soundings 80, no. 1 (1997): 134.)) This is typically conveyed by presenting Jesus as a Jew, either in his biblical setting or, more commonly, remodelled as an imaginative icon upon which contemporary Jewish concerns could be laid. ((Daphna Arbel, ””Ben-Yosef Is a Jewish Son”: Jewish Portrayals of Jesus – Dialectic Reclamation of Preservation and Transformation,” in Jesus in Twentieth-Century Literature, Art, and Movies ed. Paul C. Burns(London: Continuum, 2007), 139.)) The crucifixion in Jewish art is therefore loaded with both historically specific and universally applicable symbolic meaning. ((Samantha Baskind and Larry Silver, Jewish Art: A Modern History (London: Reaktion Books, 2011), 163-201.))
Examples of such complex iconography abound in the paintings of Marc Chagall who was to depict the subject of the crucifixion over a hundred times in paintings and sketches. The vast majority of his works date from the period after 1938, when Nazi persecution against the Jews dramatically intensified, but he was to continue to portray the subject well after the ending of the war. For Chagall, Christ had ‘always symbolized the true type of the Jewish martyr.’ ((SeeZiva Amishai-Maisels, Depiction and Interpretation: The Influence of the Holocaust on the Visual Arts (Pergamon, 1993), 185.)) For Christian viewers, Chagall’s crucifixion images present Christ in an unfamiliar guise, frequently surrounded by scenes of Jewish suffering but typically presenting the face of Jesus without pain. It is as if the anguish traditionally associated with the saviour of Christianity has been transferred to his people, the Jews. In Chagall’s 1944 painting, The Crucified (Fig. 2), the connection between the suffering of Jesus and that of the Jewish people is made explicit as an inhabitant of an east European shtetl is pinned to a cross. Perhaps his most austere and striking crucifixion scene is Apocalypse in Lilac, Capriccio (Fig. 3), painted at the end of the Second World War. The tone of terror and discord in the work is registered through his uncharacteristic use of a restrained palette that combines a pallid mauve wash with dense black ink. It is an image of trauma and grief, the Nazi with the serpentine tail seeking to remove the ladder that would allow Christ’s deposition from the cross and all around fearsome references to the conflagration of the European Jewry. ((Art Ben Uri Gallery : the London Jewish Museum of, Apocalypse: Unveiling a Lost Masterpiece by Marc Chagall [Exhibition Catalogue] (London: Ben Uri Gallery : the London Jewish Museum of Art, 2010).)) Chagall’s crucifixion images were designed to indict the church and arouse its empathy but, alas, during the Holocaust the church remained largely silent. ((Arbel, 139.))
Emmanuel Levy’s 1942 image, Crucifixion (Fig. 4), shows the crucified Jesus as an orthodox Jew. He is adorned with ritual items associated with religious observance, and the German word for Jew is nailed to the top of the cross. Jesus is crucified amidst graves marked with the cross but which undoubtedly belonging to fellow Jews. This harrowing vision represents Levy’s protest against the atrocity of the Holocaust and is a direct reproach to Christianity. ((Nathaniel Hepburn, Gallery Mascalls, and Gallery Ben Uri Art, Cross Purposes: Shock and Contemplation in Images of the Crucifixion (London: Ben Uri Gallery, the Jewish Museum of Art, 2010), 34-35.)) And this motif has continued to be explored by Jewish artists decades after the Holocaust. Kitaj interwove the image of the cross and references to Jewish suffering. His provocatively titled Passion series (1985-6) brought concentration camp chimneys alongside the cross, as a symbol of the Jewish Passion (Fig. 5) ((Baskind and Silver, 176-179.)) and in so doing condemned Christian believers for their failure to rescue the people from whom their saviour was born. Similarly Mauricio Lassansky, in his Nazi Drawings includes feeble bishops as representatives of an impotent church that stood by rather than helped Jewish targets of Hitler’s vicious oppression (Fig. 6). ((Ziva Amishai-Maisels, ”‘Faith, Ethics and the Holocaust’: Christological Symbolism of the Holocaust,” Holocaust and Genocide Studies 3, no. 4 (1988): 476-477.))
In such works, themes of victimhood, abandonment and pain were brought to the fore, as the cross became a means to convey the tragedy and senseless suffering of the Jewish people. ((See,Paul C. Burns, Jesus in Twentieth-Century Literature, Art, and Movies (New York: Continuum, 2007), 144. Emmanuel Levinas, the Jewish philosopher, called the event the ‘Passion of Passions.’Melissa Raphael, Judaism and the Visual Image : A Jewish Theology of Art (London: Continuum, 2009), 137.)) In this sense the crucifixion became an antagonistic symbol, de-christianised and used as a point of political, rather than theological, focus. ((Julius refers to these works as ‘secular crucifixions.’ SeeHepburn et al., 34-35.)) This art uncomfortably reminds Christians of the sorrow of a people that is unquestionably related, in however complex a way, to the doctrines and practices of their own faith. ((The complicity of the church in the Holocaust stems from the doctrine of supersessionism, the teaching of contempt and Christian anti-Semitism and may even be traced back into the Gospels themselves. SeeRichard Francis Crane, ”Jacques Maritain, the Mystery of Israel, and the Holocaust,” The Catholic Historical Review 95, no. 1 (2009): 43. See alsoAlice L Eckardt, ”Post-Holocaust Theology: A Journey out of the Kingdom of Night,” Holocaust and Genocide Studies 1, no. 2 (1986).)) In these works the paradox of the church’s relationship with its Jewish inheritance is exposed. For although Christians have no relationship with God except by becoming entangled with God’s covenantal partner, Israel, the history of oppression and maltreatment visited by the church on the Jewish people betrays a rejection of Christianity’s origins. ((This tradition is sometimes referred to as Adversus Judaeos (literally ‘against the Jews’). The term was the title of a number of sermons preached by the early Church Father, John Chrysostom, but has been applied to the long line of anti-Semitic rhetoric in the history of the Christian church. SeeAnthony Julius, Transgressions: The Offences of Art (London: Thames and Hudson, 2002), 82.))
Today, Jewish visual christologies may contribute to the process the church is slowly moving through as it re-examines its doctrine and practice in relation to its Jewish roots. A number of Christian theologians have underlined the imperative the church faces in acknowledging its contribution to the atrocities experienced by the Jews and in bringing fresh emphasis to the Jewishness of Jesus. ((See, for example, Gregory Baum, Council of Christians, and Jews, Christian Theology after Auschwitz (Council of Christians and Jews, 1976); Gergory Baum, ”The Holocaust and Political Theology,” Concilium 175, (1984); Edward Kessler, An Introduction to Jewish-Christian Relations (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 124-133; Franklin H Littell, ”The Holocaust and the Christians,” J. Church & St. 41, (1999); Johann-Baptist Metz, ”Facing the Jews – Christian Theology after Auschwitz,” Concilium 175, (1984).)) The theological question of suffering is especially important here. For Jewish crucifixion scenes chasten those parts of the Christian tradition that have tended to sanitise or valorise suffering because of faith in the redemptive act of Christ’s death. In contemplating works by Chagall, Levy, Lassinsky and others, the horror and uselessness of suffering is underlined. ((Steven T Katz, ”Ideology, State Power, and Mass Murder/Genocide,” in Lessons and Legacies: The Meaning of the Holocaust in a Changing World, ed. Peter Hayes(Evanston, Illinois: Northwestern University Press, 1991).)) Suffering, we are reminded, diminishes the person as well as the image of God in whom that person is created. At the same time, in recognising the pain of others, most specifically the anguish of the Jewish people, such works offer a sobering rejoinder to a form of Christian spirituality that has emphasised self-absorption and personal salvation. ((Eckardt, ”Post-Holocaust Theology: A Journey out of the Kingdom of Night,” 238.)) Here the penetrating critique of interiority developed by Emmanuel Levinas comes to mind. He rejected the interior journey in favour of an encounter with God through ethical engagement with the other. ((Paul Rigby, ”Levinas and Christian Mysticism after Auschwitz,” Theological Studies 72, no. 2 (2011): 310. See alsoNigel Zimmermann, Levinas and Theology, Philosophy and Theology (London ; New York: Bloomsbury, 2013), 69.)) Perhaps Jewish crucifixion scenes offer such a jolt to their viewers, directing Christians towards the radical exteriority Levinas called for?
From within the Christian tradition Jürgen Moltmann has offered a sustained theological response to the question of suffering, which has been profoundly influenced by his own experience as a German prisoner of war and his subsequent engagement with Jewish thought. As Brintnall has pointed out, it is a perspective that is consistent with the spirit of those Jewish artists that adopted christological imagery during and immediately after the Holocaust. ((Kent L Brintnall, ”Regarding the Pain of Christ: Susan Sontag at the Foot of the Cross,” Discourse 27, no. 1 (2006): 138.)) Moltmann has interpreted the cross as an expression of God’s vulnerability and his willingness to align himself fully with the suffering of humanity. ((John T Pawlikowski, ”Christology after the Holocaust,” Theology Digest 47, no. 1 (2000): 6-7. It should be noted that Moltmann was strongly influenced by Jewish theologians, particularly Martin Buber and Eugene Borrowitz. Nonetheless, Moltmann’s project has been subject to criticism from some Jewish writers. SeeA Roy Eckardt, ”Jürgen Moltmann, the Jewish People, and the Holocaust,” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 44, no. 4 (1976).)) This is a soteriology of solidarity whereby suffering is taken into the heart of divinity. In developing this theme, Moltmann draws on rabbinical theology. He also acknowledges Martin Buber’s oft-cited conclusion that history demonstrates the unredeemed nature of the world, whilst maintaining that a wounded God continues to be present in the ongoing suffering of humanity. ((Jürgen Moltmann, The Crucified God: The Cross of Christ as the Foundation and Criticism of Christian Theology, New preface by Richard Bauckham. ed. (London: SCM, 2001).))
It follows then that the pain Jewish artists have presented to the church requires, in response, a radical metanoia with regard to its attitude towards Judaism ((Anne Murphy, ”Contemporary Theologies of the Cross, Part 2,” The Way 28, no. 3 (2008): 258.)) and a broadening of its theological horizon from an ecclesial focus on Easter jubilation. Such a rebalancing places greater emphasis in Christian thought on what is still to be unfolded through Christ’s redemptive work in establishing the kingdom of God. Thus in affirming a faith in the Jewish Jesus, Christians declare openness to a messianic future that is yet to come. Significantly this eschatological dimension to the Christian faith presents an important point of contact with Judaism, for it renders Christians and Jews as ‘partners in waiting.’ ((Jurgen Moltmann, ”Israel’s No: Jews and Jesus in an Unredeemed World,” Christian Century 107, no. 32 (1990). This sense of longing for the Messiah still to come is present in Barnett Newman deliberations on his Stations of the Cross: ‘We are still waiting for the Messiah who will bring meaning.’Jean-Francois Lyotard, ”Newman: The Instant,” The Lyotard Reader, (1989): 248.)) Christological imagery in Jewish art may, then, help Christians understand that they can form their own identity only as partners with their Jewish cousins. ((Byron L Sherwin, ”Who Do You Say That I Am? (Mark 8: 29): A New Jewish View of Jesus,” Journal of ecumenical studies 31, no. 3-4 (1994): 260.))
The crucified artist
In addition to depicting the crucifixion as a symbol for collective Jewish suffering, a number of artists also used the image of the suffering Jesus in a more personal and individual way. Many of Chagall’s best-known passion scenes conflate the artist with the crucified Christ. Works such as The Painter Crucified, The Painter and Christ (Fig. 7), Descent from the Cross, The Soul of the City and Self-Portrait with Clock (Fig. 8) all incorporate autobiographical references and articulate the artist’s affinity with the suffering Jesus. ((At the age of just 25 Chagall had identified himself with the suffering Christ in his first crucifixion painting, the Cubist study Golgotha or Dedicated to Christ. In sketches for this work he had placed his name above the dying Jesus and in the finished painting he had further signaled a personal connection to the suffering of Christ through the inclusion of his parents as onlookers at the foot of the cross.)) Whilst several of these paintings were created during the early 1940s, the image of Jesus on the cross as a focus for self-understanding and, more generally, of the ineradicable sorrow that lies at the heart of the human condition, was to become more common after the war. ((Chagall is unusual amongst Jewish artists in that he fused universalist as well as autobiographical themes in this painting describing the figure of Joseph as ‘my father and everybody’s father.’Ziva Amishai-Maisels, ”Chagall’s’ Dedicated to Christ’: Sources and Meanings,” Jewish Art 21, (1995): 74.)) This trend in Jewish visual art reflected a development seen in the work of Israeli writers who also began to disclose their identification with the anguish of Jesus in the decades after the Holocaust. ((Neta Stahl, Other and Brother: Jesus in the 20th-Century Jewish Literary Landscape (Oxford University Press, 2013), 85.))
Like Chagall, the American artist Abraham Rattner, used the crucifixion motif as a means to express his own trauma. He adopted the suffering of Christ as a means to convey his mourning over the Holocaust and his experiences of anti-Semitism (Fig. 9). Rattner said of his ‘violent Christs,’ that ‘it is myself that is on the cross, though I am attempting to express a universal theme – man’s inhumanity to man… the Crucifixion is me because I’ve suffered so much.’ ((Matthew Baigell, Jewish Art in America: An Introduction (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2007), 79.)) Yet his luminous and mournful paintings are multivalent in meaning for they sometimes portray Jesus in an ambiguous way as numbered amongst those who bring about his death. ((Amishai-Maisels, ”‘Faith, Ethics and the Holocaust’: Christological Symbolism of the Holocaust,” 465. This aspect of Rattner’s crucifixion scenes is explored further in the next section.)) Similarly, the British artist David Bomberg recounted his own shameful experience of prejudice and discrimination. In his melancholic painting Hear O Israel (Fig. 10), painted towards the end of his life, he articulates his sense of neglect and alienation by adapting El Greco’s Christ Carrying the Cross. ((Julius, Idolizing Pictures: Idolatry, Iconoclasm, and Jewish Art, 54-55.))
The utilisation of the passion of Jesus as a framework for surfacing personal destitution and emotional alienation was to also to find intense expression in the work of the American abstract painter Barnett Newman. ((Barnett Newman and Lawrence Alloway, The Stations of the Cross: Lema Sabachthani (Soloman R. Guggenheim Museum, 1966), 9; Barnett Newman, Selected Writings and Interviews, ed. John P O’Neill (University of California Press, 1992), 76.)) Indeed, the radical autonomy that underpinned his whole artistic project was to be stated in christological terms: ‘Instead of making cathedrals out of Christ, man or ‘life,’ we are making [them] out of ourselves, out of our own feelings.’ ((Baigell, 88.)) For Newman, these were feelings of existential anguish that drew him to identify with the cry of abandonment uttered by the dying Jesus. ((Lisa Saltzman, ”Barnett Newman’s Passion,” in The Passion Story : From Visual Representation to Social Drama, ed. Marcia A. Kupfer(University Park, Pa.: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2008), 212. St Matthew records Jesus as uttering the Aramaic words Lema Sabachthani (Why have You forsaken me?) as he died on the cross (Mt 27.46).)) ‘I’d always been disturbed by those last words,’ Newman was to state. ‘[T]hey gave Jesus the touch of being very much the son of man – not divine. Because as I see it, that cry – ‘Why has thou forsaken me?’ – that was the cry of a man, of everyman who is unable to understand what is being done to him.’ ((Matthew Baigell, ”Newman’s the Stations of the Cross: Lema Sabachthani, a Jewish Take,” Art Criticism 19, no. 1 (2004): 54.)) This connection with Christ’s passion and death led Newman to title a series of works, begun in 1958, The Stations of the Cross: Lema Sabachthani (Fig. 11). The works represent a monumental, yet profoundly aniconic, painterly project, which asks unanswerable questions about the human suffering and the loss of God. ((Barnett Newman, ”The Sublime Is Now,” in Barnett Newman: Selected Writings and Interviews, ed. John P. O’Neill(Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990), 173. See alsoMark Godfrey, ”Barnett Newman’s Stations and the Memory of the Holocaust,” October 108, (2004).)) The scarcely inhabited canvases, whose vast bare spaces are scored with vertical strips and irregular bands of mainly black paint, convey the starkness of loss and emptiness. They provide an eloquent journey through the field of human alienation.
As with the suffering of the Jewish people as a whole, the distress of the individual crucified Jewish artist, presents a challenge to the church that can only be met with sensitivity, humility and penitence. Yet by focusing on the identity of the artist with the crucified Christ, such works may prompt fresh reflection on the cross as a symbol of God’s presence in the midst of evil, suffering and death. These works drive followers of Jesus Christ back to the gospel narratives of Jesus’ torment and his experience of estrangement from God. This is seen in the sculptures of Jacob Epstein. They convey the eternal suffering of Christ by alluding to, rather than directly representing, the crucifixion. So there is anguish in the eyes of Jesus as a boy as he discerns his fate (Fig. 12) and lament and lingering pain remains as the burden of the ascended Christ, who continues to display his wounds (Fig. 13). ((Marina S Hayman, ”Christ in the Works of Two Jewish Artists: When Art Is Interreligious Dialogue,” Studies in Christian-Jewish Relations 4, no. 1 (2011): 8-9.)) The vision of the ongoing suffering of Christ, which Epstein and other Jewish artists have offered, may helpfully point Christians to pain and grief as the deepest point of contact between humanity and God. This might be seen as the ‘divine participation in the negativities of creaturely existence’ that Tillich spoke of. ((A James Reimer, ”Jesus Christ, the Man for Others: The Suffering God in the Thought of Paul Tillich and Dietrich Bonhoeffer,” Laval théologique et philosophique 62, no. 3 (2006): 508.))
From within the Jewish tradition Raphael suggests that Holocaust images may act as ‘petitionary prayers’ and as sites of ‘devout beholding.’ ((Raphael, 130-136.)) Jewish crucifixion scenes, regarded in this way, may then become part of a ‘religious act of… attention to the suffering other, which is born of the will to justice, truth and, above all, love.’ ((ibid., 119.)) Christians may find it helpful to reflect on Jewish art in this way, seeing these works as ‘secular rosaries’ that can assist in the sacred call to God from the darkness of human isolation. Viewing Jewish depictions of the suffering Jesus, in a manner that is sensitive to the hinterland of anguish that led to their production, may then help Christians to restore lament to its rightful place in the church’s liturgy and theology. ((Henry L Novello, ”Jesus’ Cry of Lament: Towards a True Apophaticism,” Irish Theological Quarterly 78, no. 1 (2013): 39.)) For in their experience of alienation and forsakenness, could it be that Jewish artists may be able to uniquely express something of the sheer horror of the cross in its dissolution of ‘all ordinary notions of form, beauty and proportion?’ ((Ben Quash, ”A Christian Crucifixion: Is the Cross a Symbol for Universal Human Experience?,” in Cross Purposes: Shock and Contemplation in Images of the Crucifixion, ed. Nathaniel Hepburn(London: Ben Uri Gallery, the Jewish Museum of Art, 2010).)) This is not a neatly packaged doctrine. It suggests, rather, that the crucifixion could be regarded as a sublime expression of that which is unrepresentable. This may be one of the ways in which Jewish artists can present a form of Christian art.
In borrowing christological imagery to represent personal anguish, Jewish artists are ploughing the depths of human dereliction. Rilke’s words put this plainly: ‘Surely all art is the result of one’s having been in danger, of having gone through an experience all the way to the end, where no one can go any further.’ The cross in Jewish art is suggestive of such danger and termination. It points viewers to discontinuity, rupture and failure, to that darkness where we have come to the end of our know-how. ((Murphy, ”Contemporary Theologies of the Cross, Part 2,” 254. See alsoSusan Shapiro, ”Hearing the Testimony of Radical Negation,” Concilium 175, (1984).)) The church, for its part, is called by these artists to see Jesus in such abasement, recognising that he has become a victim of forces of evil in the world and, indeed, would have gone to the gas chambers with his fellow Jews had he lived on earth at that time and place. ((Franklin Hamlin Littell, The Crucifixion of the Jews (Mercer University Press, 1986), 131.)) Yet, the Christian tradition holds a sense of the revelatory power of negation and human devastation and will affirm that through the trauma expressed in the works we have explored here, the heart of faith may yet still draw out fragments of God’s fragile presence. For if the deepest cry of loneliness is God crying in humanity ((Katherine A Snyder, ”A Post-Holocaust Theology of Suffering and Spiritual Grieving: Staying Attached to God in Loss,” Journal of Pastoral Counseling 43, (2008): 76.)) this may be heard as much in the Jewish artist and their angst as in any other part of creation.
The death of God in Jewish art
Having examined the theological significance of Jewish persecution and the anguish of individual artists through the lens of visual christologies, it remains to consider a still darker dimension of Jewish art. This concerns not so much the abandonment of the Jewish people by the Christian church as the abandonment of humanity by God himself. In connection with his Passion series, Kitaj was to write: ‘These… paintings are the closest I’ve come to the subject of the Shoah which of course I can’t because I wasn’t there, nor was God.’ ((Baskind and Silver, 179, note 38, my emphasis.)) This desolate theme emerges in a number of Jewish artworks that reference the suffering and death of Jesus. It frames understandings of the futility of Jesus’ crucifixion, the sense of God’s rejection or loss and, indeed, the complete absence of any form of divine presence.
It has often been remarked that the Jesus portrayed in Jewish art was not the Messiah of Christian theology, for the artists concerned would not have regarded the crucifixion as redemptive. ((See, for example, Rosen, 20; Burns, 144; Matthew Hoffman, From Rebel to Rabbi : Reclaiming Jesus and the Making of Modern Jewish Culture (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 2007), 246.)) In this reading, Jesus is not the Son of God but the one who witnesses, and suffers with, his fellow Jews. ((Newman, 189-190.)) Jesus is portrayed therefore as a Jewish martyr, a human embodiment of travail and a representative of those who experience persecution and sorrow rather than a divine saviour. Thus in Chagall’s well known presentations, Jesus dies but does not save. In the White Crucifixion (Fig. 14), the chaos of the world swirls around the central, almost serene, image of Jesus. And, as we have already seen in Chagall’s crucifixion scenes, Jesus is generally depicted as dying but not suffering, reversing the orthodox Christian understanding that emphasises his suffering as he triumphs over death. ((Ziva Amishai-Maisels, ”Chagall’s” White Crucifixion”,” Art Institute of Chicago Museum Studies, (1991): 151.)) In other paintings by Chagall a destabilised ladder is included, dooming Christ to remain on the cross and thus calling in to doubt the redemptive purposes of the crucifixion. ((Rosen, 28. For a detailed examination of the symbolism of the ladder in Chagall’s paintings, seeCornelia Süssman and Irving Süssman, ”Marc Chagall, Painter of the Crucified,” The Bridge 1, (1955): 96-99.)) In some of Rattner’s works, such as Design for the Memory and Among Those Who Stood There (Fig. 15), Jesus is strangely shown as standing amongst those who brought about his downfall, suggesting that he is a symbol, not just of suffering, but of God’s abandonment of his people. ((Amishai-Maisels, ”‘Faith, Ethics and the Holocaust’: Christological Symbolism of the Holocaust,” 465.))
Many would have gone further and seen in the image of the dying Jesus the loss of hope in any kind of divine presence or assistance in the face of human suffering. The defaced Torah scroll amidst the terrifying world of vapid gases in Chagall’s Yellow Crucifixion (Fig. 16), for example, has been interpreted as a symbol of a broken covenantal relationship as God retreats from humanity. ((Glenn Sujo and Museum Imperial War, Legacies of Silence: The Visual Arts and Holocaust Memory (London: Philip Wilson Publishers, 2001), 24-26.)) Newman too, referring to the words he had used as the subtitle for his series of 14 paintings, The Stations of the Cross, stated that ‘the outcry of Jesus… has no answer… [it is] the unanswerable question of human suffering.’ This was, for the artist, ultimately an expression of ‘… the tragic metaphysical problem of being alone.’ ((These quotations are taken, in order, fromNewman and Alloway, 9; Newman, Selected Writings and Interviews, 76. The spiritual emptiness of the world was concern that haunted Newman all his life as he followed a path of profoundly apophatic enquiry, seeking in his artistic enterprise a ‘fullness from emptiness.’ SeeMark C. Taylor, Disfiguring: Art, Architecture, Religion, Religion and Postmodernism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992), 90.))
The exploitation of crucifixion imagery in Jewish art can certainly be seen to disrupt traditional understandings of the salvific import of the cross. Yet, for Christians, the abandonment of Jesus at Golgotha, the reality of his death and, prior to that, his agony as he faced execution, are at the heart of salvation history. The New Testament suggests that Jesus had to struggle with the apparent negativity of death alongside his Spirit-filled experience and his understanding of his calling as the Son of God. ((Although Jesus used the term ‘the Son of Man’ and saw himself as uniquely related to God the Father, he did not claim to be the Messiah. SeeRichard Harries, After the Evil: Christianity and Judaism in the Shadow of the Holocaust (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003), 190.)) This aloneness is conveyed in images that express the absoluteness and finality of his death. Following the stark representation of Jesus’ mortality that had been created with such shattering realism by Mantegna, Holbein and Manet, ((In works by Mantegna, The Dead Christ (1480-90), Hans Holbein the Younger, Body of Christ in the Tomb (1522), and Édouard Manet, Dead Christ with Angels (1864), the stark lifeless reality of Jesus’ corpse is shown in an unsentimental, even pitiless, way. In Julius’ words, ‘Manet tore away the mask that had been placed by Christianity on human suffering. The belief that pain and death have redemptive value… is the lie of lies.’Julius, Transgressions: The Offences of Art, 76.)) Jewish artists, without faith in the resurrection, have presented the sheer desolation of God’s death. In addition to the works we have reviewed, other examples include the brightly lit and highly charged photorealism of the pieta scene by Adi Nes (Fig. 17), ((Sharon and Gal Aronson-Lehavi, Nissim, ”Wholly Unholy: Religious Iconography in Israeli Art and Performance,” Performance Research 13, no. 3 (2008): 158.)) Mark Rothko’s disembodied presentations of Jesus (Fig. 19), along with his entombment images, ((Pappas, ”Invisible Points of Departure: Reading Rothko’s Christological Imagery,” 412-417; George Pattison, Art, Modernity and Faith : Restoring the Image (London: SCM, 1998), 2; Baigell, Jewish Art in America: An Introduction, 84-88; George Pattison, Crucifixions and Resurrections of the Image: Christian Reflections on Art and Modernity (London: SCM Press, 2009), 24-36. Note here might also be made of the evocation of christological imagery in the layout 14-sided layout of the Rothko Chapel in Houston, USA. The late abstract works, which fill the space, may be suggestive of the numinous but the empty expanses of Rothko’s canvases can equally be taken to signal the loneliness of a world devoid of God. SeePeter Stanford, ”Grace under Pressure,” Sunday Times, 28th September 2008.)) and Seymour Lipton’s headless cruciform statue, Pioneer (Fig. 18). ((Baigell, Jewish Art in America: An Introduction, 91.)) These paintings and sculptures present an innocent Jew who just dies, isolated and abandoned and with no certainty of resurrection. Such portrayals of a forsaken Jesus, without hope or help, may meaningfully underscore the fullness with which Jesus experienced death and prevent an overly hasty embrace of resurrection glory. These artworks may then provide one of the most intense and compelling visions of what Moltmann referred to as death in (rather than of) God. Perhaps the strange peacefulness of Jesus in many Jewish crucifixion scenes may, paradoxically, be seen as the act of Christ soaking up the unbridled violence of the world. ((Andrew Bowden, ”Homage to Chagall the Theologian,” Theology 89, no. 728 (1986): 119.)) For the mystery of Christ’s death in Christian theology is understood in Christian theology as God’s kenotic act of annihilating his eternity, so that through his complete participation in death the evil at loose within creation may be taken into God.
Drawing extensively on biblical imagery, including the crucifixion, the work of the Holocaust survivor Samuel Bak raises profound questions about existence of God in the midst of atrocious evil. As a ‘God-fearing atheist’ Bak depicted in his paintings an ‘estrangement bordering on complete abandonment.’ ((Samuel Bak, ”What, How and When: On My Art and Myself,” in Representing the Irreparable: The Shoah, the Bible, and the Art of Samuel Bak, ed. Danna Nolan and Phillips Fewell, Gary A.(Boston, Mass: Pucker Art Publications, 2008), 6.)) His figurative surrealism provides a vivid description of the rupture of Jewish identity and the tortuous search for a theodicy that might grant meaning in the wake of such suffering. Amongst Bak’s later works are a series of paintings re-presenting the infamous photograph of a young boy held at gunpoint by a Nazi soldier in the Warsaw Ghetto (Fig. 20). Time and again Bak renders the image as a crucifixion scene, showing the boy with stigmata in his raised hands, being nailed to a cross, or sometimes carrying a cross (Figs. 21). This is art that disquiets and may, once again, afflict the conscience of Christian viewers, as it asks where God was in the Holocaust. Bak describes himself as ‘living in doubt before artistic and biblical images,’ ((Danna Nolan Fewell, Gary Allen Phillips, and Yvonne Sherwood, Representing the Irreparable: The Shoah, the Bible, and the Art of Samuel Bak (Boston, Mass.: Pucker Art Publications, 2008), xiii.)) and seeks to disrupt conventional readings of the crucifixion. Indeed, his work has been compared with the poetry of Paul Celan as both artists question God’s responsibility for suffering and his absence from them. ((Kimerbly Socha, ”Outside the Reign of Logic, Outside the Reach of God: Hester Panim in the Surreal Art of Paul Celan and Samuel God,” War, Literature & the Arts: An International Journal of the Humanities 22, no. 1 (2010): 78.))
The Jewish experience of abandonment by God, which in their different ways, Chagall, Bak, Newman and others have rendered through art, resonates with a central theme in the theology of the cross in Christian thought. This stresses the connection between the death of Jesus and the suffering of the Godhead and can be traced back to Luther’s notion of the ‘crucified God.’ ((Steven D Paulson, ”Luther on the Hidden God,” Word and World 19, (1999).Benjamin D Crowe, ”Nietzsche, the Cross, and the Nature of God,” The Heythrop Journal 48, no. 2 (2007): 254. Luther’s theologia crucis provides a foundation for the modern notion of God hiding in suffering, which has become increasingly popular in post-war theology. However, it should be acknowledged that Luther’s virulent anti-Semitism make him a problematic resource for Christian’s to draw on in their engagements with Jewish art.)) Since Nietzsche, the notion of the ‘death of God’ has reverberated through European civilisation as a cipher for his non-existence. However, post-Holocaust theologians have responded by equating the essence of God’s reality with his suffering. Bonhoeffer saw God’s weakness and powerlessness as ‘the only way in which he is with us and helps us,’ ((This statement comes from Bonhoeffer’s letter to Eberhard Bethge written on 16th July 1944,Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Eberhard Bethge, Letters and Papers from Prison, Enlarged edition. ed. (London: SCM Press, 1971), 360. Bonohoeffer was profoundly influenced by the atrocities taking place at the hands of the Nazis and was deeply conscious of the plight of the Jews, it is not strictly accurate to label him as a post-Holocaust theologian. And given his supercessionist views, his thought has had an ambiguous place in Jewish circles.)) and Moltmann, who, as we have already seen, espoused a theology of vulnerability, pointed to God being ‘in the dying of the Son.’ ((Crowe, ”Nietzsche, the Cross, and the Nature of God,” 254.)) Similarly, Fiddes has suggested that ‘the mode of God’s presence in a suffering world can only properly be understood as suffering and death,’ proposing that it is only in the suffering Jesus that we are able to discern the nature of an absent God. ((Paul S Fiddes, The Creative Suffering of God (Clarendon Press Oxford, 1988), 176.)) These perspectives, each of which suggests that the presence of God may be seen most acutely through God’s forsakenness, provide a helpful theological framework for Christians to view the strand of existential desolation that is present in Jewish crucifixion scenes. Using George Pattison’s term, I suggest that Jewish christological art may be seen by Christians as momento mori dei, means by which the absence of God may be rendered as a form of presence. These images are, then, perhaps, a form of Christian art, a way of seeing ‘a pathos that is inseparable from the one who died embodied.’ ((Pattison, Crucifixions and Resurrections of the Image: Christian Reflections on Art and Modernity, 34.))
The question of whether Jews can create Christian art defies a simple answer. However, I have sought to show in this paper that many Jewish artists have produced art that is of immense value to Christians and which draws out theological and ethical concerns that Christian artists have not always been able to do. The responses to Jacob Epstein’s work, with which we started, are illuminating. For four years after Bunting’s dismissive assessment of Epstein’s contribution to the church, Cottie Burland was to conclude that the sculptor had, in fact, produced art of great prophetic value to the church:
Somehow this man got at us, and if that is not the function of prophet, what is? One of the strangest things about the art of Jacob Epstein was that, as a Jew, he could give us such a magnificent statement of Christian faith… This Jewish prophet indeed had things to tell us Christians. ((Cottie Burland, ”Sir Jacob Epstein – a Retrospective Comment,” in Common Ground (Winter 1959).))
In engaging with Jewish crucifixion scenes the church must cross an aesthetic border that is not straightforward to negotiate. However, I have suggested that it is worthwhile journey to take. For, in addition to Epstein, other Jewish artists have much to tell to Christians. Hayman’s observation that Chagall had changed the meaning of the cross to help both Christians and Jews see it in a different way ((Hayman, ”Christ in the Works of Two Jewish Artists: When Art Is Interreligious Dialogue,” 11.)) applies equally well to the spectrum of Jewish artists who adopted this motif. The art that is encountered is never straightforward and is often disturbing for it has confronted the pain of experience, the responsibility of the church and the darkness of divinity. For Christians, who have inherited an artistic tradition within which Christ’s passion and death has been a medium for devotion and worship, the lack of spiritual resolution in these works can be disconcerting. The adoption of the crucifixion motif by Jewish artists provides a radical challenge to the notion of God’s saving action in history and the doctrine of the redemptive value of the cross. ((Jason A Mahn, ”What Are Churches For? Toward an Ecclesiology of the Cross after Christendom1,” Dialog 51, no. 1 (2012): 16 )) Nonetheless, Christians who engage with such work may do so mindful of an important perspective in theological aesthetics, which holds that images and image making can mediate important spiritual messages even where they disturb and agitate. ((For an exploration of the relationship between modern art and Christian belief, seePattison, Art, Modernity and Faith : Restoring the Image.)) So, as I have attempted to demonstrate, such depictions may also be constructive in contributing to Christian self-understanding.
The Jewish thinker Franz Rosenzweig’s remark that art’s Janus face both aggravates suffering and yet also helps people to bear it, also seems especially appropriate as we consider the portrayal of Jesus in Jewish art. This view is especially helpful here because Rosenzweig’s constructive engagement with Christianity was mediated through an understanding of the visual image. Indeed, according to Batnitzky, he was able to articulate a stronger case for the metaphysical value of artistic presentations of the crucifixion than his contemporary, the Christian theologian, Paul Tillich. His words are a good place to conclude for they offer a sensitive summary of the paradox we have encountered in Jewish art in the wake of the Holocaust as it is encountered by Christians:
Art teaches man to overcome without forgetting. For man is not to forget; he is to remember everything in his very members. He is to bear sorrows, and to be consoled. God consoles him together with all those who are in need of consolation. The tears of the mourner will be wiped from his face as ‘from ever face.’ [But] until the great renovation of all things, they will gleam in his eyes. Till then, his consolation is to be disconsolate. ((Leora Faye Batnitzky, Idolatry and Representation: The Philosophy of Franz Rosenzweig Reconsidered (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2000), 151.))
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