Uneasy Communion: Jews, Christians and the Altarpieces of Medieval Spain

Through May 30, 2010


Museum of Biblical Art

1865 Broadway at 61st Street, New York




In 1393, two years after the worst pogroms in Spanish history, the Jewish artist Abraham de Salinas accepted a commission to paint a New Testament-themed retablo, a work placed behind a church altar, for the cathedral of San Salvador. Another Jewish artist, the silversmith Bonaf?s Abenxueu (sometimes referred to as Bonaf?s Abenxueu), created the frame for the retablo. As Vivian B. Mann notes in her essay “Jews and Altarpieces in Medieval Spain,” part of the catalog for the current show at the Museum of Biblical Art, Saragossa, where the two artists lived, was one of two cities whose Jewish populations escaped the 1391 pogroms. But even if Abraham, Bonaf?s and their neighbors were safe, how could they be so callous as to accept commissions from representatives of the very church which had turned a blind eye on the massacre of their fellow Jews just one year after their aveilut had finished?

Mann does not explain how the two artists were able to sleep at night – it is beyond the scope of her essay – but she notes that Abraham de Salinas went on to paint two more retablos for another Saragossa church (San Felipe) and another retablo and an altarpiece for the church of La Puebla de Alborton. Mann’s point, and one of the great insights of “Uneasy Communion,” is that it was not unusual for Jewish artists living under the Crown of Aragon in the 14th and 15th centuries to work for churches. “That Abraham de Salinas was given the commissions just mentioned, including repeat commissions from the same churches, testifies both to the fact that he was esteemed as a painter, and that he was able to produce various Christological themes that satisfied his patrons,” writes Mann in the catalog.


Mann also argues that the MOBIA show takes advantage of an opportunity that historians of the Medieval period have missed. “None of the historians concerned with the nature of Jewish-Christian coexistence in the 14th and 15th centuries have analyzed the art of the period and the history of its production as a source for understanding relationships between Christians and Jews,” she writes, “or as evidence for knowledge of one another’s religion.”



Levi ben Isaac ben Caro. “Moreh Nevukhim” (Guide to the Perplexed) by Maimonides. Barcelona, 1348. Ink and gouache on vellum. 8 x 5 in. Det Kongelige Bibliotek, Copenhagen. Cod. Heb. XXXVII, fol. 114.


When that study is conducted, Mann suggests, not only does one find Jewish (and converso) artists working on Christian themes, but the reverse as well. Illuminations in Jewish manuscripts were often created by Christian artists, as was the case with a 1348 manuscript of Maimonides’ Moreh Nevukhim (Guide to the Perplexed). The Hebrew text was produced by the Jewish scribe Levi ben Isaac ben Caro, but the artist is identified as Ferrer Bassa (c. 1285 – 1348), a Christian. Bassa was chief artist of an atelier, or workshop, which was commissioned to create both Jewish and Christian art, including a 14th century altarpiece and a Byzantine depiction of the symbols of the four Evangelists.


These collaborations yield fascinating details like Talmudic references in a New Testament-themed retablo which depicts St. John as the Jewish high priest on Yom Kippur. John, inappropriately wearing both the priestly costumes at once (the white and the gold garments), stands in the Holy of Holies and addresses an angel. Five other figures stand outside the Holy of Holies (though there is no curtain separating them from John, and one of them holds a golden chain which is attached to John’s leg).


This is no doubt, according to Mann, that this a reference to the Talmud in tractate Yoma, which states that during a period where unworthy men were buying the position of high priest (and being killed for their sins on Yom Kippur when they entered the Holy of Holies), the priests used to tie a rope or a chain to the high priest’s ankle so that if need be, his corpse could be pulled out without anyone else having to enter the Holy of Holies. (I see that Ari Zivotofsky, of Bar-Ilan University, has argued convincingly on the Orthodox Union website in “What’s the Truth About the Kohen Gadol’s Rope?” that the Talmud does not in fact recount this story and that it does not make sense for a variety of reasons. The reference comes instead from the Zohar, Rabbi Zivotofsky claims.)


Miguel Jimenez and Martin Bernat. “Saint Helena Interrogating Judas.” 1485-87.

Oil on panel. 77 x 45 x 5 in. Museo de Zragoza, Saragossa.

According to Mann, the figures looking out the windows in the background represent Jewish women, who were not represented much in Spanish art before the late 14th century.


Wherever the reference comes from, Mann sees this as indication that Jews, who were very familiar with Jewish texts, had a hand in forming or conceptualizing the image. Mann does not wonder whether there is an anti-Christian reference in the suggestion that John was potentially unworthy of the high priesthood and that his corpse might have had to be extracted by being dragged out. That, in my mind, is the only criticism of an otherwise fascinating and creative exhibition. It gets confusing to keep track of which artists identified as Jews and which were conversos. Surely converted Jews had different pictorial motives than Jews who still practiced Judaism, and although “Uneasy Communion” charts new territory in identifying otherwise unknown relationships between Jewish and Christian artists and patrons, I was very curious about the nature of those relationships.


For example, Mann sees Jewish hands in Gon?al Peris’ c. 1420 altarpiece, because the Jewish “doctors” confronting Jesus in the image hold books with true Hebrew letters. Mann suggests that Peris may have been connected with the de Levi atelier. A 1403-11 altarpiece by Pere Serra, Guerau Gener and Llu?s Borrass? shows true Hebrew in the depiction of the Ten Commandments in “A Disputation between Moses and Saint Peter,” which Thomas F. Glick discusses in his catalog essay in reference to interfaith debates like that of Nachmanides and Paulo Christiani. Mann, who says the image is probably a debate between the converso Petrus Alfonsi before (when he was named Moses) and after his conversion, notes that the 1403 altarpiece shows true Hebrew on the tablets, but the scroll which should bear Latin letters is empty.


Miguel Jimenez and Martin Bernat. Altarpiece. “The Prophets Malachi, Daniel and Ezekiel.” 1485-87. Oil on panel. 25 x 60 in. Museo de Zaragoza, Saragossa.


“Saint Peter’s empty scroll indicates the artist’s ignorance of Latin, but that he was knowledgeable about Hebrew is shown by the Commandments inscribed on Moses’ tablets,” Mann writes. Never mind that the Hebrew inscription, though mostly correctly formed (some of the letters are inconsistent, and the tracking seems to indicate the artist could not anticipate the proper spacing), does not properly fill the two tablets. The commandments read from right to left across both tablets, so that the rightmost tablet gets commandments one, three, five, seven and nine, while the even-numbered commandments appear on the left tablet. Would an artist who knew Hebrew inscribe the letters as such?


The 1420 altarpiece is even worse. If one looks closely enough at the Hebrew inscriptions in the books held by the “doctors,” the Jewish elders, the letters are indeed properly formed, but the inscriptions are gibberish. Some of the vowels improperly appear above rather than below the letters, and the artist has represented just a handful of different letters. Unless the inscription is a Kabbalistic chant with which I am not familiar, the inscription contains true Hebraic letters, but cannot be said to be truly Hebraic.


Clearly, there is more work to be done in discovering ow much the artists actually knew of Jewish scripture and the Hebrew language. But the curators at the Museum of Biblical Art (and Mann in particular) deserve a lot of praise for this thought-provoking and very original exhibition.


Menachem Wecker, who blogs on faith and art for the Houston Chronicle at http://blogs.chron.com/iconia, welcomes comments at mwecker@gmail.com.  He lives in Washington, D.C.