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Midwest Jewish Studies Association - Shofar Book Reviews

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Judaism and Christian Art: Aesthetic Anxieties from the Catacombs to Colonialism, edited by Herbert L. Kessler and David Nirenberg.  Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2011.  442 pp.  $19.99.


The title might seem misleading. It could suggest the representation of Jews in Christian art, a subject explored by Ruth Mellinkoff and other scholars in iconographical studies of antisemitic imagery and representations of the Jewish bible. Or it might suggest the actual influence of Jewish art (or perhaps Jews) on Christian art. This topic, too, is well represented in art historical scholarship. The antisemite Josef Strzygowski was the first of a wide range of scholars to explore what he regarded as the deleterious influence of Jewish art on such works of late antiquity as the Ashburnham Pentateuch. At the other end of the spectrum are the far from antisemitic Kurt Weitzmann and Herbert Kessler (one of the editors of the present volume), who represent a strain of medieval scholarship that sees Jewish art as an important source of Christian medieval art.

This volume, however, means what its title says. It postulates that Christian art is founded on Christianity’s effort to distinguish itself from Judaism. Concepts of Judaism, not Judaism itself or Jewish art, are at stake here. In his learned introduction, David Nirenberg explores the role that concepts of Jewish perception came to play in Christianity’s definition of itself, and traces the path whereby Judaism became central to Christian understanding of aesthetics. A wide-ranging essay by the other editor, Herbert L. Kessler, although not billed as an introduction, acts as another one all the same. It traces the non-linear migration of Judaism in the eyes of Christianity from a parent religion whose images authorize Christian ones, to an idolatrous religion of images in the writings of Christian iconoclasts, to the notion of a religion without art. The idea persisted until recently, and one still occasionally encounters it.

The essays in this collection, with few exceptions, are fascinating and suggestive. The very first contribution, Jas Elsner’s masterly essay on the Red Sea sarcophagi, suggests the range of interpretation compatible with the editor’s program. It appears conventionally iconographical, arguing that Christianity’s appropriation of the Jewish narrative trope of the triumphant Red Sea crossing subverts Roman images of fleeing pagans. Yet the trope, in Elsner’s argument, does not merely illuminate a Christian attitude toward Judaism; it shows that to take the Jewish program into the heart of Christianity serves to adjudicate the complex lineage of Christianity from both Judaism and the Roman empire. Sara Lipton’s subtle essay on the “witnessing Jew” in the art of the twelfth century shows ways in which thinkers reacting to the ascetic ideals of the Cistercians made an interpretation of Jewish visuality and its limitations central to their understanding of witnessing and the role of the visual in salvation. Judaism was necessary to these disputations so that it could be overcome in order to establish Christianity. Thus it could play different, seemingly mutually exclusive roles. Other essays trace the challenge of “spiritual” to “carnal” seeing, think with the figure of Judaism about the materiality of art and whether and how material images can lead to communion with God, and show how the blood libel related to notions of Jewish materialism that were used to support Christian art. In the debate over Christian art, Jews acted as as sticks with which to beat their Christian opponents, who were “Judaized,” that is, accused of being like Jews: if an opponent favored images, he was materialistic like a Jew; if he opposed images, he was (again like a Jew) denying Christianity’s central article of faith: the incarnation.

A few of the essays break the pattern developed by these essays. An actual Jew who participated in the manuscript plays an important role in Marcia Kupfer’s treatment of the Alba Bible, and, while medieval and Renaissance art dominates the volume, two essays concern French painting of later periods. Interestingly, both of these subtle readings understand the Jewish component in terms of formal concerns about painting: in Poussin’s Penance, as the contribution by Richard Neer argues, the Hebrew grounds the painting through its flatness (as text) as well as its status as a figure for that which both grounds Christianity and is overcome by it, while Ralph Ubl’s essay shows how Eugène Delacroix’s Jewish Wedding grapples with painting’s material presence.           “The Judaism of Christian Art,” by Nirenberg, ranges widely from the distinction between appearance and reality in the Platonic forerunners of Christian visual thought to the Nazis. Its investigation of the central role accorded to the visual in the “Judaism”-Christianity polarity at the heart of definitions of Christianity more than justifies the scare quotes around “Judiasm.” The term is an empty signifier, its significance more structural than specific. Its slipperiness makes it easily replaceable by other terms, as is true as well of the Christian side of the pole. This important insight gives the structural notions developed on the model of on the Judaism-Christian polarity wider significance. Nirenberg shows how they seamlessly apply not only to Nazi ideas of degenerate vs. Aryan art, but to the “remystification” of art after the war, and come to underlie much of the discourse of minimalism and other modernist movements. The analysis ends the book on an expansive note.

The history of the role of Judaism in Christian art—and art theory—illuminates the history of Jewish so-called artlessness from its source in Christianity’s ambivalence about its own artfulness. The approach suggests further resources for the inter-cultural study of idolatry, images, and the importance of art for the two religions. Both of them arrived in the contemporary world armed with elaborate fantasies about one another, and the study of one of them alone cannot explain these interconnections. The importance of this volume is not, therefore, limited to scholars of Christian art. It belongs as well in the library of serious scholars of Jewish art.

Margaret Olin

Yale Divinity School