by Samuel D. Gruber
New exhibitions of medieval art are increasing rare in the United States, so it has been a pleasure to see view the series of exhibitions developed over the past five years at MOBIA, the Museum of Biblical Art in New York City, many of which have included medieval works, sometimes important and sometimes obscure, but usually chosen for a particular reason and often elucidated from a new point of view.
MOBIA seems about to continue and perhaps expand this tendency with a new exhibition, Uneasy Communion: Jews, Christians, and the Altarpieces of Medieval Spain that opens to the public this February 19th and runs through May 30. The exhibition is curated by Dr. Vivian B. Mann, curator emeritus at the Jewish Museum and now director of the graduate program in Jewish Art at the Jewish Theological Seminary. Almost twenty years ago Dr. Mann collaborated to present artistic aspects of Jewish, Christian and Muslim co-existence in medieval Spain in the ground-breaking Convivencia organized by the Jewish Museum. This new exhibition promises to present Christian-Jewish relations is a somewhat different light, and through the religious lens of altarpieces that reference and represent Jews in both Biblical and contemporary guise.
According to the publicity from MOBIA:
This exhibition discusses the last two centuries of medieval Spanish history in the Crown of Aragon (the Kingdom of Aragon, the Kingdom of Valencia, and the region of Catalonia) from the vantage point of religious art, and demonstrates the documented cooperative relationship that existed between Christians and Jews who worked either independently or together to create art both for the Church and the Jewish community. Religious art was not created solely by members of the faith community it was intended to serve, but its production in the multi-cultural society of late medieval Spain was more complicated. Jewish and Christian artists worked together in ateliers producing both retablos (large multi-paneled altarpieces) as well as Latin and Hebrew manuscripts. Jews and conversos (Jews who had converted to Christianity) were painters and framers of retablos, while Christians illuminated the pages of Hebrew manuscripts.
The exhibition tells not only the story of this fascinating moment of artistic collaboration, it also provides a glimpse into the lives of these communities which lived side by side. Images in some retablos reflect the hardships of Jewish life in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries: conversions, forced sermons, disputations, the Inquisition, and charges of host desecration and blood libel. Other extraordinary paintings project a messianic view of a future in which Jews would join with Christians in one faith.
I'm looking forward to this exhibition and expecting some surprises. One work that will be on view and is being used for publicity for the exhibition is an anonymous altarpiece of Christ Among the Doctors (click here for photo) from the early 15th century in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The painting, which has been cleaned and restored for this exhibition, represents the Jerusalem Temple as a contemporary Spanish synagogue. The "Doctors" include an assortment of Jews seated at their wooden prayer benches reading from (manuscript) prayer books.
A catalog is published to accompany the exhibition.