Jerusalem Exhibition "Behold the Man": Jewish Artists Paint Jesus

Referred to in Jewish literature as “That Man”, so that they didn’t have to write out his name, or alternatively “Yeshu” (.י.ש.ו)- which stands for “May his name be forever erased and forgotten”, Jesus has been avoided in polite conversation among in Jewish communities for most of the last two millennia. Reviled as a traitor and heretic, and blamed for the bloody persecution and murder of Jews at the hands of the church for centuries, Yeshua was considered straight out dangerous.
However, there seems to be a correlation between the shift of the Jewish people returning to the land of Israel at the turn of the nineteenth century, and a gradual increase in willingness to reconsider the long, lost brother: Yeshua of Nazareth, Son of David, of the tribe of Judah. Just as the number of Jews returning to their homeland started with a trickle and escalated significantly as the decades went by, so we have seen increasingly open attitudes towards Yeshua among the Jewish people.
“When we came home, he too was brought back, legitimized,” Haim Be’er, novelist and professor of Hebrew literature explains. “In Europe, it was difficult to engage with Jesus because of the pogroms and the churches’ incitement, which cast the guilt for his murder onto the Jews. But once here, they decide to bring back the prodigal son. He’s taken down from the cross, wrapped in a tallit.”[1]
So much so, that today there is an art exhibition right in the Israel Museum itself, in Jerusalem, displaying works on the subject of Jesus, entitled “Behold the Man”. Clearly he no longer poses the same frightening threat that he used to, and all kinds of Jews, religious and secular, have been to see the exhibition.
What is interesting is that some of the artists, when wanting to portray ultimate suffering, found themselves drawn to the iconography of the cross. In many instances, no other symbols or references captured their sense of alienation, rejection, and trauma in the way that portraying the crucifixion could. Some express a sense of camaraderie and brotherhood with Yeshua, acknowledging him as a member of the tribe, and a fellow Israelite.

The Israel Museum introduces the exhibition with these words:
“From the 19th century until today, Jewish and Israeli artists have engaged with the figure of Jesus, addressing complex questions of collective and individual identity. This exhibition, the result of extensive scholarly research, presents multivalent, unexpected, and at times subversive artistic responses: European artists reclaimed Jesus as a Jew and portrayed him as a symbol of Jewish suffering, and Zionist artists used the resurrection as a metaphor for the rebirth of the Jewish homeland; some Israeli artists related to Jesus as a social rebel or misunderstood prophet, while others identified with his personal torment or his sacrifice for the sake of humanity, which they connected to more recent victims of intolerance and warfare.” [2]

Curated by Amitai Mendelsohn, the exhibition presents works by over ten artists, including Marc Chagall (his “White Crucifixion” pictured above) and Moshe Castel. Friend of the Castel family, Eli Raz, explained Moshe’s motivations in painting of Jesus on the cross back in 1948: “The catalyst for his occupation with the subject was his personal distress… It started with more than 27 paintings depicting the akeida [binding of Isaac], but apparently they were not adequate to express his pain. So he turned to this image, of the crucified Jesus.”[3]
Speaking of the curious love / hate relationship that Israel has with Jesus, and the reason for the exhibition, Mendelssohn told HaAretz newspaper, “On the one hand, this land is where the Christian story took place, and highly personal subjects can be conveyed through the image of Jesus… On the other hand, there is a type of recoil, which is also a blind spot among the majority of the Israeli public. The exhibition aims both to expose the blind spot and to show that among many artists, the approach to Jesus stems from very deep places.” [4]
It’s not only the visual arts that Yeshua in either. Haim Be’er points out that “There is hardly any important Hebrew-language writer into whose worldview Jesus hasn’t entered: from S.Y. Agnon to Yona Wallach to Amos Oz in his latest novel. The motifs are omnipresent in Hebrew literature – including in my work. Jesus is like part of the lining of a coat. When the coat flaps in the wind, a bit of the lining is revealed each time…. It’s like people who, after someone dies, discover that they have a stepbrother they didn’t know about. There is great joy when the lost brother is found. Suddenly the family becomes bigger.” [5]
The exhibition will be displayed until 16th April 2017.
[1] HaAretz, “How Jewish artists reclaimed Jesus as their own”, Shany Littman, Feb 24, 2017
[2] Israel Museum website

[3], [4], [5] HaAretz, “How Jewish artists reclaimed Jesus as their own”, Shany Littman, Feb 24, 2017

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