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Public art, private prejudice

Two works of Christian art predating the Holocaust raise questions about whether they intentionally contributed to anti-Semitism.

By Lucie Lehmann-BarclayContributor to The Christian Science Monitor / January 7, 2005



NEW YORK AND BOSTON

At first glance, a 20th-century mural and a 12th-century altar cross have little in common. But the controversy each has provoked reaches back into old Christian dogma itself, casting light on the role such art may have played in fomenting anti-Jewish feeling.

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The issues mirror those being debated over the Ten Commandments - whether the US Constitution's First Amendment permits or prohibits the commandments from being displayed in public places such as courthouses - that will be taken up by the US Supreme Court in March.

The Boston Public Library, site of the mural "Triumph of Religion," and New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art, which acquired the cross as part of its medieval art collection, have approached their stewardship of these objects very differently. The decisions made offer a case study in dealing with controversial religious art.

At issue is whether a public institution should display religious (in this case Christian) artwork that may malign or offend people of another faith.

This question gathers intensity in light of the Holocaust. People today are far more conscious of the creeping effects of intolerance. Societies are also far more pluralistic than they were when John Singer Sargent began his mural or an unknown craftsman carved the ivory cross.

Two works, one doctrine

Begun in 1890 and left unfinished in 1919, Sargent's mural series in the library's Special Collections Hall incorporates a tradition that depicts Christianity as ascendant over Judaism. Though a casual visitor is likely to miss the significance of these images, one panel shows a vanquished Judaism - personified by the female figure of "Synagogue," a blindfolded old woman with a broken staff and her crown falling off - a common image in European Christian art.

The panel caused a storm of protest from the Jewish community when it was unveiled in 1919; a vandal even threw ink on it. Three years later, the Massachusetts State Legislature passed a law to remove it, but the state's attorney general eventually declared the act unconstitutional.

Sargent, dismayed, never completed the final panel of the Sermon on the Mount, which art historian Sally Promey says would have shown the "Triumph of Religion" as culminating in the ethical content of the sermon, thereby rendering the old Church/Synagogue imagery obsolete. As for the charges of anti-Semitism, Sargent told a Jewish publication, "My intent was not to harm anyone."

At Sargent's death, the state Supreme Court granted the unpaid commission to the library rather than to Sargent's estate. The money was to have paid for maintenance of the murals, but over the intervening decades they deteriorated and were largely lost to public memory.

Until two years ago, that is, when the Boston Public Library (BPL) decided to restore the Sargent murals as part of an extensive building renovation. The Special Collections Hall was reopened to the public in October.

BPL president Bernie Margolis, who is Jewish, views the restoration as a means of confronting the anti-Semitism issue publicly. He was supported in this by a board of trustees that includes author and historian James Carroll, whose book "Constantine's Sword: The Church and the Jews, a History" may be the definitive study of relations between the Roman Catholic Church and the Jews.

Mr. Carroll has challenged the church to remove from its teaching the doctrine of "supersessionism" that perceives Judaism as having been rendered obsolete by Christianity.

This doctrine has been symbolized in almost two millenniums of Christian art - such as the Sargent panel - by the female figures of "Ecclesia" (Church) and "Synagoga" (Synagogue), with Church portrayed as triumphant and Synagogue depicted as progressively turned away from the figure of Christ - as bent, blindfolded, decrepit, or with the Torah scrolls upside down.

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