Jewish Treasures from Medieval France

The Metropolitan Museum Cloisters in New York City has an exhibit “The Colmar Treasure: A Medieval Jewish Legacy” until January 12, 2020. See www.metmuseum.org/exhibitions/listings/2019/colmar-treasure-medieval-jewish-legacy.

The Jewish Week has a special report by Diane Cole, which you can read at jewishweek.timesofisrael.com/jewels-give-voice-to-a-lost-community/. In The Wall Street Journal, Susan Delson described Hidden Treasures from the Middle Ages with a reproduction of a page from a 14th century Jewish prayer book. The major collection of hidden jewels and coins was discovered in 1863. In addition, “research in the Colmar municipal library recently yielded another hidden treasure: fragments of Hebrew manuscripts that were later incorporated into the bindings of other books.” Several of these pages are among the pictures on the Cloisters’ website.

As we strive to promote understanding and harmony between Jews and their neighbors today, we appreciate the poignant reminders of the past and its burdens of persecution and suffering. May the principle of the Golden Rule be effective for a better future!

Rembrandt and Rubens

Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-1669), celebrated as painter, etcher and printmaker, died at the age of 63. He is commemorated in many places on this major anniversary of his death. Nina Siegal in the The New York Times essay, “The Relevance of Rembrandt 350 years later,” described the exhibitions. See also Russell Shorto’s essay, “Rembrandt in the Blood,” in the The New York Times Magazine.

Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640) traveled widely in Italy and Spain in his younger years and quite early attained an international reputation. His story was presented by J.S. Marcus, “The Ruben Phenomenon,” in the The Wall Street Journal. The Legion of Honor Museum in San Francisco offers an exhibit of young Rubens from April 6 – September 8, 2019; see https://legionofhonor.famsf.org/exhibitions/early-rubens.

Verrocchio, Master of Leonardo

Andrea del Verrocchio (1435-1488) had the distinction of teaching Leonardo da Vinci and other great Renaissance artists of Florence, Italy. “Verrocchio shone as a teacher, draftsman and sculptor – as well as architect and musician – but his talents reached their apotheosis in bronze casting…” (Brenda Cronin, “Teacher of the Old Masters,” wsj.com).

An exhibition opened on March 9th at the Palazzo Strozzi and the Bargello Museum in Florence; see www.palazzostrozzi.org/mostre/verrocchio-master-of-leonardo/?lang=en.  Some works will be exhibited in the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. from September 15, 2019; see www.nga.gov/exhibitions/2019/andrea-del-verrocchio-renaissance-florence.html.

Birds in Art

Phoenix Futon Cover Japan, Showa Period (1926-1989). Cotton, yuzen resist-dyed indigo. Purchase 1983 Thomas L. Raymond Bequest Fund 83.91. Part of the “Birding in Art” exhibit at the Newark Museum.

The Newark Museum has celebrated its treasures of Asian Art in many exhibits.  From March 13, 2019 until February 23, 2020, “Birding in Asian Art” continues this impressive tradition.

Detail of a miniature of an owl (Bubo) being attacked by three smaller birds. Image taken from f. 47 of Bestiary, with extracts from Giraldus Cambrensis on Irish birds. Written in Latin.

This exhibit reminds us of the long history in the Mediterranean world of drawing moral and spiritual lessons from the wonders of nature. In Greek the Physiologos, a “discourse on nature” of approximately the third century A.D., gathered earlier traditions into a synthesis that became popular in the Latin bestiaries of the eleventh century and later.

Detail of a miniature of a crocodile. Image taken from f. 24 of Bestiary (ff. 3-141), Lapidary (ff. 141v-149). Written in Latin and French.

The Book of God’s Word and the Book of Nature offered insights into the meaning of life for many generations of people who looked for ways to teach guiding principles in regard to faith and morality. The developments in East and West complement each other and may still have lessons for people of the modern world.

Detail of a miniature of Adam naming the animals, with a stag, a lion, a donkey, a rabbit and a man riding a camel. Image taken from f. 34v of Bestiary (ff. 3-141), Lapidary (ff. 141v-149). Written in Latin and French.

Superpowers of the Ancient Middle East

The land of Israel lay between the great kingdoms of Egypt and Assyria, which often entered into battle on the territory of small countries lying between them. The hope expressed in Isaiah the prophet challenges people of faith throughout the ages:

On that day Israel will be a third party with Egypt and Assyria, a blessing in the midst of the land, when the Lord of hosts blesses it: “Blessed be my people Egypt, and the work of my hands Assyria, and my inheritance, Israel.” (Isaiah 19:24-25)

Over the past two hundred years local people and archaeologists have made amazing discoveries related to the history of these lands. Last month, The New York Times reported on the discovery of a priest’s intact tomb from the period well before Abram’s visit recorded in Genesis 12:12-20 (click here to read the NYT article).

The British Museum in London possesses extraordinary works of art from the Assyrian and Babylonian periods as the context for the biblical record of the reigns of David and his dynasty in Jerusalem.

An exhibit in the British Museum until February 24, 2019 has the title “I am Ashurbanipal, king of the world, king of Assyria.” Richard Cork reviewed this exhibit in “A Conqueror with a Taste for Art” in The Wall Street Journal. 

Mantegna and Bellini

Giovanni Bellini, “The Agony in the Garden,” circa 1465

The National Gallery in London has an exhibit of 90 paintings by Andrea Mantegna (1431-1506) and Giovanni Bellini (circa 1435-1516). The former spent his early career in Padua, whereas the latter, son of the famous artist Jacopo Bellini, was raised in Venice. “However, when the former married Giovanni’s half-sister, Nicolosia, in 1453, the two painters entered into a close creative dialogue…[T]heir enduring artistic exchange indelibly marked their own art and that of their contemporaries.” (See Mary Tompkins Lewis, “Mantegna and Bellini’ Review: A Family Affair,” The Wall Street Journal, November 3, 2018). This essay and Laura Gaseoigne’s “Different strokes, different folks” in The Tablet (London) of October 18, 2018 reproduce the magnificent “Agony in the Garden” by each painter.

The critics point to Mantegna’s influence on Bellini, along with the unique features of each, but neither of the above-mentioned reports mentions the following points:

  • Mantegna has Jesus facing angels holding the Cross, and behind his back a vulture gazes down from a scrawny tree top.
  • Bellini shows Jesus being confronted by an angel holding the cup of suffering.
  • Neither artist depicts a garden of olive trees as described in the Gospel traditions.

For a reproduction of several paintings in this exhibition, see www.nationalgallery.org.uk/whats-on/exhibitions/mantegna-and-bellini.

Pre-Raphaelite Artist at the Tate in London

Sir Edward Burne-Jones (1833 -1898) joined the founding group called “the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood” and contributed in many ways the use of the Bible and ancient Mediterranean mythology to offer an elevated religious and moral tone to the Victorian scene. In the WSJ, J.S. Marcus presents “In London, Medieval Legends Through Modern Eyes” on the exhibition in London’s Tate Gallery.  His comment on Burne-Jones: “Self-taught and hardworking, and suffused with a spirituality inspired by the theologian John Henry Newman, he created a vast catalog of paintings, drawings, stained-glass windows, tapestries and furniture that typically relied on medieval and mythical themes and sources.” See the examples of his work on the Tate website at www.tate.org.uk/whats-on/tate-britain/exhibition/edward-burne-jones.

The Pregnant Virgin-Mother

Piero della Francesca (about 1415 – 1492) produced a number of significant paintings on the life of Jesus. His fresco Madonna del Parto (the Virgin shortly before she gave birth) was located in a chapel at Monterchi near Arrezo in Tuscany but in 1992 was moved to the Musco della Madonna del Parto nearby. The scene posits two angels who open curtains to a tent reminiscent of the Tabernacle in ancient Israel, to reveal Mary pointing to her womb. In his WSJ article, “On the Brink of the Saviors Arrival,” Willard Spiegelman describes the scene: “The curtain is going up on a world changing performance.” The Museum’s website gives a description in English with photographs of the town and the painting: www.madonnadelparto.it/la-madonna-del-parto-uk-2/ .

Pieter Bruegel

The 450th anniversary of Pieter Bruegel’s death is commemorated in the Vienna Kunsthistorisches Museum’s extraordinary exhibit, through January 13, 2018. Pieter Bruegel the Elder (1525/30-1569) was a prolific painter of scenes from the biblical and classical Greek world, along with detailed and whimsical scenes of urban life in his own time. In his WSJ article, “‘Bruegel’ Review: Enduring Fascination,” A.J. Goldmann points to “the newly unveiled online portal www.insidebruegel.net, [where] you can inspect 11 of the Vienna paintings—as well as infrared and X-ray images—in exceptionally crisp detail.” The museum’s Picture Gallery offers a great selection of Bruegel’s works, including a number of altarpieces, under “Netherlands 15th – 16th centuries” in the “Selected masterpieces” section.

Armenia and Its Religious Art

Armenia was the first nation to become Christian officially, when Armenia’s king was baptized by St. Gregory the Illuminator (240-332). Their territory covered the area later absorbed into Turkey, Russia and Iran, with Mt. Ararat as its spiritual high point. After the fall of the Soviet Union, Armenia north of Turkey became an independent nation.  Over the centuries the shadow of suffering has fallen heavily upon the Armenian people, culminating in genocide during War I.

In an essay, “Exploring the First Christian Nation,” in The Wall Street Journal, Edward Rothstein observed:

It is remarkable how deeply rooted our greatest art museums are in the religious realm. Artifacts reflecting profound faith- even those once used in the most sacred rituals- are at the foundation of these institutions. Removed from their origins in worship, these relics, illuminations, reliquaries and statues settled into an afterlife in our secular aesthetic temples, making it clear that for their creators (as for many viewers) the celebration of beauty is also a religious act.

The New York Times also has a report on this exhibit by Jason Farago with the title “Reverent Beauty: The Met’s Armenia Show Is One for the Ages.”

The exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum will continue until January 13, 2019.  See www.metmuseum.org/exhibitions/listings/2018/armenia.