Uneasy Communion
Myth as history at the Museum of Biblical Art

THE POPULAR MYTH OF CONVIVENCIA—idyllic coexistence between Muslims, Christians and Jews from the Moslem invasion of 711 to the expulsions of 1492—appeals to the multicultural temper of the times. But the packaging of history is neater than the illumination of it. In its natural state, history resists the tidy labels and conceptual maneuvers designed to shape the past to what we moderns want to find there.

Uneasy Communion: Jews, Christians and the Altarpieces of Medieval Spain, at the Museum of Biblical Art (MOBIA), showcases artistic collaboration between Christians and Jews in the Crown of Aragon in the 14th and 15th centuries. Works on view are meant to counter specific popular beliefs: that Jews were not artists during the Middle Ages; that most images of Jews were negative stereotypes; and that Jews and Christians lived in isolation from each other.

Like a rhyme that does not quite come off, the project itself creates a certain unease. Celebrants of convivencia cherry-pick their way through thickets of contradictory anecdotes to the desired golden age of cross-cultural fraternity.  MOBIA grants broad-brush assent to this rosy construction. The sparse selection of artworks, extended by laminated digital reproductions—like diplomas on a doctor’s wall— serves primarily as pretext for the catalogue. The text, in turn, keeps only one eye on art. The other is fixed on identity politics.

First, the art.

In the Middle Ages, art still ranked among the crafts. Neither Jews nor Christians were autonomous artists in the sense we know them today. In the main, an artist was a skilled journeyman, kin to tailors, weavers, goldsmiths, potters, or cabinetmakers, among others. Spain’s tripartite population was bound, by necessity, to workaday collaboration in every artisanal and technological activity. Artisans working within the same specialty, with identical tools and formulas, were interchangeable. Multiethnic teams were employed in the same workshops producing altarpieces and illustrated manuscripts. Christian artists depicted Jewish subjects; Jewish artists applied their skills to Christian ones.

Anonymous, Christ Among the Doctors
Catalonian, early 15th C. Metropolitan Museum of Art

The exhibition’s titular interest lies in the details of synagogue interiors on altarpieces commemorating, in particular, New Testament temple narratives.  Here, the mantle of a Torah case spreads to include Mary, a tiny Jesus and Zachariah in pictorial embrace. There, a curved knife accompanies a small wine cup, a festive feature of Jewish circumcision. One lovely anonymous panel, Christ Among the Doctors, bears the coloristic refinement and spatial wit of Florentine models. A towheaded adolescent in a scarlet tunic stands atop the stairs of a medieval synagogue. The boy leans toward his parents with a give-me-another-minute gesture. Mary and Joseph, in medieval dress, implore him to come home while the assembled elders, all in fifteenth century headgear, study their texts.

The exhibition rightly points to these as signs of familiarity with Jewish custom. Jews and Christians were known to attend each other’s services to hear—and judge—sermons for polemical reasons, so degrees of acquaintance certainly existed. But do these images express the familiarity of a Christian, a Jew, or an artist “of converso stock”? The question goes to the heart of curatorial concern. In light of the anonymity of much surviving work, commentary cannot avoid leaning on “may have” and “might have” to suggest ethnicity where none is certified. (Inference from accurate Hebrew inscriptions on these panels only goes so far. Scribes and figural illustrators worked in tandem on the same piece.) The catalogue fills inevitable gaps by discussing known artists, such as Juan de Levi, who are not on show.

It is possible to make too much of pictorial acquaintance with Jewish ritual and verisimilitude in dress. Medievals were fond of depicting biblical scenes in contemporary terms. There is nothing specifically Spanish about the convention. A quick rummage through the art historical bin yields Sienese, Florentine, German, and Franco-Flemish examples of local color enlivening biblical narratives. Hans Holbein the Elder, a Bavarian, comes straight to mind. His late Gothic Presentation of Christ in the Temple presents the high priest in full vestments, down to the bells on his hem and a rope around his waist. Holbein’s related Circumcision of Christ sets the infant realistically in the priest’s lap while the trained mohel  kneels, knife in hand, to perform the brit milah. Medieval congregants crowd the drama. In sum, to claim any of the exhibited Aragonese panels as “remarkable” for accuracy in fifteenth century dress or setting overstates the case.

The pictorial uses of synagogue detail tell their own story. In an anonymous circumcision panel, the curved knife and ritual wine cup are noted as possible signs of Jewish authorship. Yet, the larger compositional movement points elsewhere. Mary hands her infant across an altar to Zachariah on the other side. The baby’s body, far sturdier than the required 8 days of age, largely obscures the Torah case atop the altar.  By contrast, the wine cup, doubly symbolic for Christians, is prominently placed. Where medieval Christians saw an assertion of belief—the exchange of one covenant for another—the exhibition seeks evidence of ethnic origin.

Then there is the catalogue. Three of its four chapters provide dispensation for that blend of grievance and chauvinism that is the hazard of the cultural studies movement.

It opens with an essay by Thomas Glick, eminent historian of medieval technology. The timbre of his contribution is askance of what might be expected from the author of Islamic and Christian Spain in the Early Middle Ages (1979). The dispassionate tenor of that earlier work shifts here into the engaged mode, a tad prickly toward Spain’s “dominant caste.”  When he states, for instance, that Spanish Jews came to reflect the “aggressive status competition” and “standard class divisions of the Christian world,” we feel a subtle gust of cultural romanticism. Perhaps untainted Jewry (“socially undifferentiated”) did approach that utopian ideal, the classless society. Still, Glick’s complaint strikes the ear as yet another variant of that changeling trope, the conquest of paradise. Each metamorphosis bespeaks, however sotto voce, resentment of the Christian imprint on Western civilization.

Miquel Jiménez and Martin Bernat
Altarpiece of the True Cross: St. Helena Interrogating Judas
Saragossa, 1485-87. Museo de Zaragoza

Marcus Burke, curator at The Hispanic Society of America, introduces a wholesale indictment of medieval Spain He points to the Crowns of Aragon and Castile as the breeding ground for contemporary anti-Semitism. He grouses over traditional connoisseurship’s failure to give ethnicity its due. He fires at the anti-semitic rhetoric of the Franco regime as “an article of faith” alongside “Roman Catholic theological anti-semitism.”

Burke writes as if decades of pro-Palestinian propaganda, transmitted by left-leaning, secular media and a politically correct academia play no role in current animus. An oddly anachronistic j’accuse, it assumes a stagnant continuity of collective attitudes, despite radically different conditions from one historical moment to another. (A posture that David Nirenberg’s Communities of Violence, a magisterial study of persecution of minorities in the Middle Ages, works to counter.) .

This comment by Vivian Mann, curator emerita of the Jewish Museum, displays a certain incoherence at the heart of Uneasy Communion:

The portrayals [of Jews] were reminders of the Christian doctrine that the Jews of any age were equivalent to those alive during the early centuries of the Church. Jews were witnesses to the truth of Christianity and were, therefore allowed to survive; still, they embodied the guilt of their ancestors.

Mann neglects to distinguish between popular habits of mind and Church doctrine. It would be helpful if she had specified which doctrine stipulates the conditional grounds on which Jews were “allowed” to keep their very lives. Article IV of the 1566 catechism of Trent (near enough in time to be relevant here), written for pastoral use, indicates deliberate institutional effort to counter vulgar stereotypes of Jews. It clearly states that any burden of guilt for the Crucifixion lies far heavier on the sins of Christians, who recognized the Christ, than on Jews who did not.

The exhibition closes with a terse epilogue posted on the wall announcing the expulsion of Jews from Spain in 1492, the Muslims in 1499. It adds mournfully: “ .  .  . the age of convivencia that marked the multicultural society of medieval Spain, and the creativity that it fostered, was over.”  MOBIA’s blurb forgets the tremendous burst of creativity yet to come in all the arts that was the glory of 16th century Spain. More seriously, the abbreviated fact-bite, isolated from frames of reference, leaves the impression that the expulsion was an abrupt. capricious act of Catholic bigotry.

Far from it. Mass deportation (of Christians in the 12th century) had been a tool of the caliphate of Córdoba. The expulsion of Jews in 1492 was the act of a fragile nation at a time of realistic fear of a powerful Islam and pragmatic mistrust of Islam’s former—and potentially future—allies. Bernard Lewis, in a 1968 discussion of Jewish support for the hegemonic Muslims, put it this way: “The Golden Age of equal rights was a myth, and belief in it was a result, more than a cause, of Jewish sympathy for Islam.”  Historian Américo Castro, who coined the term convivencia in the late 1940s, knew that accommodation was not communion.  “Each of the three peoples of the peninsula,” he wrote, “saw itself forced to live for eight centuries together with the other two at the same time as it passionately desired their extermination.”

In any exhibition, there is an element of arbitrariness to the limits set on the subject at hand. Nevertheless, the tilt of Uneasy Communion, with its concentration on genealogy and disregard for the all-encompassing stamp of Islam on the Christian setting, becomes stifling. I left MOBIA with just one thought: Teresa of Avila—granddaughter of Juan Sánchez who finessed his way to becoming a Christian gentleman—was “of converso stock.” Somehow, that let the air in.


Uneasy Communion: Jews, Christians, and the Altarpieces of Medieval Spain at the Museum of Biblical Art, 1865 Broadway, 212-408-1500.

This essay appeared first in First Things, June 10, 2010.

Copyright 2010 Maureen Mullarkey

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