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.
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.
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.
"We believe that the library should be a place for discussion - even for wrong ideas," Mr. Margolis says.
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.
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 forbes.com 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."
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.
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."
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.
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."
Center for Christian-Jewish Learning at Boston College.
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.