Jesus and the Jews have had something of a complicated relationship.
In “Behold The Man: Jesus in Israeli Art,” a new exhibit at the Israel Museum, curator Amitai Mendelsohn examines that complex iconography up close, through the prism of Jewish and Israeli art.
It’s a process he began 10 years ago, when he first laid eyes on an unusual painting by Reuven Rubin, the famed Israeli artist and pioneer.
At the time, Mendelsohn was working on an exhibit about Rubin, “Prophets and Visionaries: Reuven Rubin’s Early Years: 1914-23,” and stumbled upon one of Rubin’s earliest self-portraits, in which he mimics aspects of a Jesus figure, as he, the subject, stares down at his bloodied hands.
“Rubin was attracted to Jesus, and that intrigued me,” he said. “Now I know how many Jewish artists dealt with the figure of Jesus.”
The exhibit features 150 works by some 40 artists, showing the evolving attitudes of Jewish, Zionist and Israeli artists toward Jesus.
There are the classic works that place Christian-inspired images in classically Zionist settings, in which Jesus becomes a metaphor for the rebirth of the Jewish people in the Promised Land, and more contemporary, 20th- and 21st-century Israeli artists, who saw Jesus as a more familiar symbol of personal and universal suffering.
The show, which opened in December, brings together works from the museum’s collections and from private and public collections in Israel, as well as several pieces borrowed from the National Museum in Warsaw and Centre Pompidou in Paris. The exhibit is open until April 22, 2017.
It’s a collection of works that Mendelsohn, who has been a curator at the Israel Museum for 20 years, has thought about for much of that time.
“For me, the art history process starts when I see something as part of my daily museum activity,” he said. “It’s a question of how religion and art connect.”
In order to tackle the many works dealing with Jesus, Mendelsohn divided the exhibit into sections, looking at Jesus deployed as a problematic figure in Jewish history, Jesus as the enemy, as a symbol of anti-Semitism, and as someone who had a “huge effect on Jewish existence,” he said.
The exhibit begins with “Jesus Preaching in Capernaum,” the last, unfinished piece from 1879 by Maurycy Gottlieb, the Polish artist who died at just 23, and is perhaps best known for his famed Yom Kippur painting. This work resembles that piece, with a similar composition, as it is set in a synagogue, albeit in Kfar Nahum or Capernaum, the northern Galilean town where Jesus famously preached.
Featuring Jesus in the center with a mix of congregants listening to him, Gottlieb looked at Jesus as a Jew, and as a possible bridge between Christians and Jews, perhaps harkening to what could happen in his native Poland.
“It sets a tone for the show,” said Mendelsohn. “Here was Jesus, and he had a moral, universal, humanistic message.”
It’s a message that echoes the thoughts of German-Jewish philosopher Moses Mendelsohn — whom the curator is not related to — who saw Jesus as a moral Jew, as a prophet, perhaps one of the greatest Jews, but not as God.
“It takes Jesus back to the Jews,” said Mendelsohn.
To the right of Gottlieb’s work is “In the Shadow of the Cross,” a massive piece by Polish painter Samuel Hirszenberg, who worked a generation later. Taking a far darker, more sinister look, the Zionist painter created a difficult image of a wandering Jew, barely dressed, wandering among corpses in a cemetery.
It hung in the original Bezalel art school building in Jerusalem for many years, portraying the emergence of the Zionist movement, said Mendelsohn, and the early pioneers’ escape from Europe and anti-Semitism.
The third wall of the first section is completed with Chagall’s “Yellow Crucifixion” from 1942, depicting a Jew with the halo of a Christian saint, wearing phylacteries.
“Many don’t know that Chagall was attracted to and obsessed by Jesus as a figure of Jewish pain and suffering,” said Mendelsohn.
So was Rubin, apparently. One section of the exhibit is devoted to several of his paintings, beginning with that early self-portrait that looks quite different from his other works, noted Mendelsohn.
“When I looked at this, I thought it was a strange Rubin,” he said. “It was all about his agony. Rubin was very interested in the story of Jesus.”
It was painted during Rubin’s early period when he spent some time in New York after 10 years in Romania and a year before that in pre-state Palestine.
That piece is followed by others from Rubin, including one of an old, religious Jew sitting on a bench with a resurrected Jesus, and others featuring a Madonna, lolling on what looks like the shore of the Galilee, with a baby that could be the baby Jesus reborn in the land of the Jews.
“It’s resurrection of the birth of the baby, all about new beginnings,” said Mendelsohn.
A painting by Moshe Castel, who was born in Ottoman-era Palestine to a religious family, was discovered recently in a locked cupboard of the Moshe Castel Museum of Art in Ma’ale Adumim. It was painted after the artist’s newborn baby and wife died following childbirth.
The painter, who lived in Safed, secluded himself in a monastery and painted the dark, sad self-portrait that mimics other art of Jesus as the long-suffering, misunderstood prophet.
As the exhibit moves into more modern times, there are different sides of Jesus portrayed as well. Yigal Tumarkin, an immigrant from Germany whose father wasn’t Jewish, looks at the crucifixion in his rough, sharp-edged sculpture made from salvaged goods found in Bedouin camps, as he interpreted the tensions in Israeli society and prototypes of Christian art.
Moshe Gershuni’s exhibited works focus primarily on the blood of the crucifixion, perhaps creating a new testament between him and the Israeli public after he came out of the closet as gay, conjectured Mendelsohn.
There are photographs of performance art by multimedia artist Motti Mizrachi, who is disabled, and walked down the Via Dolorosa in 1973 with a cross on his back. Another set of photographs juxtapose a newspaper photograph of a dead Palestinian man being carried during the First Intifada, with the famed paintings of the disciples carrying the crucified Jesus.
The exhibit ends with the now-famous photo by Nes Adi, “Untitled (Last Supper),” a staged photo of Israeli soldiers eating a mess-hall dinner that echoes the “Last Supper” painting by Leonardo da Vinci.
Then there is the video installation by sculptor and installation artist Sigalit Landau, who filmed a series at the Dead Sea, including a piece depicting her floating on a whole watermelon. It conjures images of Mary with Jesus, as Landau’s hands are stretched to the sides, evoking the cross.
“Israelis are funny about Jesus,” said Mendelsohn. “But when we scrape the surface, we realize that there is a lot of Christian imagery all around us, even if we’re unaware of it.”
“Behold The Man: Jesus in Israeli Art,” Israel Museum, open until April 22, 2017.