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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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Asked whether the Met has "underplayed" anti-Semitism connected to the cross, Mr. Little says, "We simply didn't feel it was an issue. No work of medieval art - that we know of - has ever instigated a social reaction against any group."

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Although the cross's history is something of a mystery, that uncertainty did not prevent the Cathedral of St. Edmundsbury from commissioning a copy for the church's own use in the present day.

"The majority of English art historians do not attribute the cross to the [cathedral]," Little says, but they have "adopted" it as "something to be held and ... for teaching."

The Very Rev. James Atwell, dean of the cathedral, in his presentation speech said, "The cross is not anti-Jewish; it is however, an expression of both the theological strengths and weaknesses of its own age." But his recognition of the issue of supersessionism was apparent as he continued, "There is room for contrition as well as pride as we contemplate our Christian history. We, too, have to develop our own theological understanding of the Jewish faith not only in the Bible, as a context for Christianity, but as a faith community in its own right and for today."

This attitude is a far cry from the exclusionary rhetoric that emanated from pulpits in medieval St. Edmundsbury or late 19th-century Boston. But Christians in the United States and other Western countries, who have long been in the majority, may not be aware of the symbols of intolerance in the art they view.

"It's a matter of projecting 'the other' onto other peoples," says Nancy Scott, an associate professor of fine arts at Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass. "The most potent example of anti-Semitic artistic expression is the 'horned' Moses which first surfaces in the medieval period, but is most famous in Michelangelo's Moses. This is a type based on a mistranslation of the word keren in Hebrew, which should be read as 'ray of light,' but was misconstrued as 'horns'.... The step to the devil is not far away."

Christelle Baskins, an associate professor of art at Tufts University in Medford, Mass., points out that these symbols become "naturalized - no one notices them."

But she also cautions against making a "laundry list [of anti-Semitic images]. Each must be considered in context," she says.

'We must name it'

While the St. Edmundsbury cross and the Sargent panel depict the same theme - the triumph of Christianity over Judaism - each was commissioned for a different purpose. One was to inspire private worship, the other to illuminate the path of Christianity. Both have, nonetheless, become public objects in public venues.

To the extent that such institutions can use controversial objects as teaching tools, they will invigorate a debate that is certain to gather steam as the Supreme Court hears arguments in the Ten Commandments case. Events in US history have shown that Americans can be deeply divided over church-state issues.

Author James Carroll says museums have an opportunity and an obligation.

"Anti-Semitism is not just religious," he says. "It goes to the absolute bone of our culture. Art reflects this long tradition. Wherever we find it, we must name it."

For more information

Center for Christian-Jewish Learning at Boston College.

Koenigsberger Kloisters
Links to European art libraries. Images from manuscript books, and references to Byzantine and Ottonian Ivories with possible connections to the Cloister's Cross.

Metropolitan Museum of Art
A website showing the Cloister's Cross.