Friday, February 19, 2010

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

Highlighting a rare instance of artistic collaboration between Christians and Jews in the Middle Ages, Uneasy Communion: Jews, Christians, and the Altarpieces of Medieval Spain, on view at the Museum of Biblical Art in New York City from February 19 through May 30, 2010, explores the coexistence of these two groups in 14th- and 15th-century Spain and provides a nuanced picture of interfaith relationships and dialogue during this period. Over 30 panel paintings, manuscripts, ceramic tiles and Jewish ceremonial objects from this period will be on display in this groundbreaking exhibit.

Curated by Dr. Vivian B. Mann, Director of the Masters Program in Jewish Art at the Graduate School of the Jewish Theological Seminary, Uneasy Communion is a fascinating study on how retablos (large multi-paneled altarpieces) and related artwork produced during the 14th- and 15th centuries belie commonly held assumptions that Jews were not artists during the Middle Ages; that most medieval depictions of Jews were negative stereotypes; and that Jews lived apart from Christians, an unknown "Other." Instead, these works attest to the intimate knowledge Christians and Jews had of one another in the small towns and cities of medieval Spain. They also document the growing conflicts between the Church and the Jewish community and hint at the cataclysm to come in the Expulsion of the Jews in 1492.

"This exhibit intends to fill a gap in the scholarship of Jewish-Christian coexistence in medieval Spain, which to date has not used the art of the period as a source of valuable information," said Dr. Mann. "Art created by both Christian and Jewish artists, though, offers valuable glimpses into both the understanding of the Other and the ever-present conflict."

"Uneasy Communion provides the museum-goer with a rare opportunity to look at a unique moment in the artistic and social milieu of late medieval Spain," said Paul Tabor, MOBIA's Director of Exhibitions. "Paintings from multi-panel altarpieces as well as Latin and Hebrew manuscripts from major collections in Europe and the United States demonstrate the cooperative relationship between Christian and Jewish artists, some working in the same atelier, producing art for the Church and the Jewish community."

Uneasy Communion explores the last two centuries of Jewish life in Spain from the vantage point of religious art and demonstrates the cooperative relationships that existed between Christians and Jews who worked either independently or together to create art for both the Church and the Jewish community. Their co-existence, or convivencia, is defined as the mutual interpenetration and creative influence that existed alongside mutual friction, rivalry, and suspicion. Religious art was not created solely by members of the faith community it was intended to serve. Jewish and Christian artists worked together in ateliers producing both altarpieces as well as Latin and Hebrew manuscripts. Jews and conversos (Jews who had converted to Christianity) were painters and framers of these altarpieces, while Christians illuminated the pages of Hebrew manuscripts.

MOBIA examines this exciting moment of artistic collaboration by providing a glimpse into the lives of these communities which lived side by side. As a result, the exhibit also unveils the darker side of this co-existence, exposing the constant tension between acceptance and prejudice, between cooperation and conflict.

Uneasy Communion features a complete retablo along with 15 panels on loan from renowned national and international institutions, including the Museo de Zaragoza, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, and The Hispanic Society of America. These works depict scenes of the early life of Jesus or episodes from the lives of saints. In the panel Christ Among the Doctors (early 15th century) Jewish worshippers are seated along the walls of a contemporary synagogue; such as the one recently discovered in Lorca (Murcia).

Also on view is the panel Interrogation of a Jew (1485-87) an example of a scene from Christian history which the artist peopled with his Jewish contemporaries. The scene is staged just inside an arcuated gate that marked many of the entrances to Jewish quarters or juderías. Judas, the Jewish witness in the foreground, is bearded and wears a cloak in accord with governmental dress regulations.

Maimonides' Guide to the Perplexed (1348), will also be on view. The Guide is a manuscript of vital importance in showing that inter-religious ateliers, or workshops, produced works of art and manuscripts for both Christians and Jews. Ferrer Bassa (d. 1348), the chief artist of the workshop, used the same figure styles and decorative motifs in both Christian and Jewish works. In mixed ateliers, the influence of both Christian and Jewish models can be seen in a miniature of the Maimonides' manuscript that is based on a Byzantine composition of four evangelist symbols.

Located near Lincoln Center at 1865 Broadway at 61st Street, MOBIA presents critically acclaimed art exhibitions while offering an array of affordable arts enrichment programs to visitors of all ages. MOBIA celebrates and interprets art related to the Bible and its cultural legacy in Jewish and Christian traditions through exhibitions, education and scholarship. Admission to MOBIA's exhibitions is free for members and children under 12 and pay-what-you-wish for adults, with a suggested admission of $7.