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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.

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"We believe that the library should be a place for discussion - even for wrong ideas," Mr. Margolis says.

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The library also produced educational materials and last fall conducted a series of public discussions on the Sargent murals.

During one forum, panelist Philip Cunningham, executive director of Boston College's Center for Christian-Jewish Learning, spoke of supersessionism as "replacement theology."

Pointing to the consequences of such teaching, panelist Adam Strom, of the educational program Facing History and Ourselves, said that the public today is in a better position since the Holocaust to judge the harm engendered by anti-Semitism than was the public in Sargent's day.

Inscriptions in ivory

The cross became a lightning rod of controversy for two reasons. First, the curator who acquired it in 1963 hid the fact that it was inscribed with derogatory references to Judaism and may have contributed to a pogrom against Jews at England's St. Edmundsbury cathedral in 1190. These facts would have been of great interest to the many Jewish supporters of the Met, not to mention its trustees. Second, the museum has chosen to play down the cross's anti-Semitic inscriptions in its display at the Cloisters, the Metropolitan Museum's medieval branch in Fort Tryon Park.

Of 100 inscriptions carved on the cross (quite a feat since it is only about two-feet tall) relating to Old Testament prophecy of the Messiah and its New Testament fulfillment, only two refer specifically to Judaism. One translates: "The Jews laughed at the pain of God dying," and the other: "Synagogue has collapsed with great foolish effort."

The cross's notoriety surfaced in the book "King of the Confessors," a page-turner on the intrigues at the Met by Thomas Hoving. Mr. Hoving, later director of the Met until 1977, was at the time of the purchase a curatorial assistant pushing for acquisition of the cross on its artistic merits.

"If one were to choose a single work of art," he wrote, "that would most perfectly typify the art, the history, and the theology of the late Romanesque period in England, one could do little better than to select the Cloister's Cross."

A revised edition of "King of the Confessors" was published in 2001 as an e-book. At this time, Hoving granted an online interview. The Forbes interview, which is headed "The Cross of Shame," refers to "fiery anti-Semitic invective" and quotes Hoving as saying the inscriptions are "almost entirely anti-Jewish" and contains a reference to Jews sacrificing Christian children - propaganda that was widely disseminated in medieval times. In an e-mail to this reporter, Hoving says that he was misquoted and that there is no such inscription on the cross. He also chooses to use the term "anti-Jewish," to avoid confusion with 20th-century anti-Semitism.

Hoving's book provoked a furor at the Met whose effects are still being felt: No one contacted at the Cloisters would agree to be interviewed about either Hoving or "King of the Confessors."

'Never instigated a social reaction'

The Met's official word is found in "The Cloister's Cross," by Charles Little, the current director of the Met's medieval department, and Elizabeth Parker, a professor of art at Fordham University in New York.

The book, in photographs and detailed descriptions, places the cross within both the Christian liturgical traditions in England at that time, as well as Continental artistic traditions.

The Met's book portrays the cross as intended to clarify Christian tradition or to convert the Jew to Christianity. Absent is any suggestion that the cross might have provoked anti-Jewish acts in antiquity, as Hoving asserts. Similarly, the Met's audio guide refers to the anti-Semitism of the times without making it an issue.