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“The historic rift between Christianity and Judaism will not be healed until Jews look at Jesus and see a faithful Jew and Christians look at an orthodox Jew and see Jesus.” – Bernard Starr
Artists have been accused of many things before, but Dr. Bernard Starr’s charge tops them all: “Artists invented the Christian Jesus.”
Starr posits that European artists were so influential in their time that they helped in creating the popular and lasting image of Jesus. This is the good news. The bad news (according to Starr) is that they were wrong – even maliciously and intentionally wrong.
It’s easy to prove Jan Van Eyck’s Rolin Madonna was historically inaccurate. Proving malicious intent is a lot harder.
Starr observes that Bartolome Esteban Murillo’s (17th century) “The Baptism of Christ” depicts a clear “Christian conversion” with John the Baptist holding a crucifix, highly unlikely. What most may see as a religious reference or portent, Starr claims is a deliberate invention to rewrite the history of Christ while erasing the Jewish background.
Contemporizing, owing, identifying or retelling – whatever you call it, artists have been refashioning Bible stories in their own garb and culture forever. Starr finds Renaissance artists particularly odious in their efforts. Paintings with Jesus drip ostentatious jewels, lace and Western fashion. Even the humble nativity is marbled floored and pillared. Palaces and cathedrals soar in the distance – all utterly foreign to Jewish culture. Offense shows through Starr’s book “Jesus Uncensored,” such as in its 10th Chapter title, “The Ethnic Cleansing of Judaism in Medieval and Renaissance Art.”
Starr doesn’t accept the traditional art historian’s explanation for all the extra-biblical details a bit. He claims that “contemporizing” may be typical of Renaissance style, but it became an “unexamined response” that closed the book on the story.
Art “misrepresentations and falsifications,” Starr titles them. Specifically he charges the church and its artists, theologians and historians with erasing Jewish identity, at times deliberately. This “gross misunderstanding” unleashed a series of disastrous consequences, which he believes underpins historic anti-Semitism.
Some artist’s work easily give Starr’s argument validity. One of the worst, Albrecht Durer’s 16th century “Jesus Among the Doctors,” could be a prototype. Based on Luke 2:41-52, Jesus is a delicate youth here, luminously blonde and sweet. Jews surrounding him are almost raving caricatures of cruelty and vulgarity with dirty, loutish looks.
Five hundred years later, and there is still no mistaking Durer’s hostility. Horrific and crude, it reeks with anti-Semitism. There is something of an explanation I could offer but no excuses. Durer was heavily influenced by the reformer Martin Luther, even turning out etchings for his religious campaigns. Toward the end of Luther’s life he suddenly and irrationally turned on the Jews with accusation and threats. Sadly many of his followers (and illustrators) went there with him.
Starr laments that presenting Jesus as a “Renaissance Christian” with no Jewish identity created an illusion that “Jesus and Jews were not only of different ethnicities and religions but that they were in opposition or conflict.” Exploring further, his book hosts a tour of medieval and Renaissance Christian art, which he claims establishes a platform for anti-Semitism.
In an interview with Dr. Michael Brown, Starr mentions that no other famous personage such as Homer or Caesar is placed in inauthentic situations or surrounded by alien symbolism as Jesus commonly was.
Redressing the wounds wrought by medieval art is an unlikely occupation for Starr, who worked as a professor of psychology and a gerontologist among other things. But Starr is also a thoughtful Jewish man who pondered why so many Christians hated Jews. After researching church history and intensely studying the New Testament, he came up with several theories, a plan and even a book.
“Jesus Uncensored: Restoring the Authentic Jew” was published after Starr quizzed Christians and Jews with this: “Do you know that Jesus was Jewish?” Many readily agreed but Starr found they actually meant Jesus was Jewish “before he was Christian.” Others thought Jesus was born a Christian or launched a new religion in his lifetime. Starr claims Jews are even more likely to deny Jesus was a true Jew, censoring his message and creating their own gentilized version.
An exchange from Starr’s article, “Why Have Art Historians Been Silent About the
Falsification of Biblical History in Artworks?”:
“Of course, he was Jewish,” said Jane, a young woman educated in Catholic schools.
“And did he remain Jewish throughout his life?” I asked her.
“Oh, no, he became a Christian.”
“When did that happen?” I asked.
“When he was baptized by John the Baptist,” she said. “It says so in the Gospels.”
Five centuries ago church art helped to educate as well as inspire worship. Most people were illiterate, and religious art must have influenced them greatly. Starr claims that anti-Semitism grew partially through Westernized Bible paintings and because people couldn’t access the Bible to find the truth. These created “a rift between Jesus and Jews” that wedged Christianity and Judaism yet further apart.
Just as today, it’s unlikely Renaissance artists thought much about historical accuracy. Still Starr feels those omissions built “pernicious falsifications of biblical history,” leaving divisive consequences that stand today.
Now Starr is launching out into the deep. Not content with his books and articles on the subject, he’s mounting a public art campaign to correct art distortions with repainted classics or new works.
“Putting Judaism Back in the Picture: Toward Healing the Christian/Jewish Divide” intends to tell two sides of the Jesus story: “Jesus the faithful Jew and Jesus whose life and teachings inspired a new religion.”
Canadian painter Rod Borghese has jumpstarted the effort with a number of works. So far he’s repatriated Renaissance paintings by “repainting” them exactly but with tallits, tefillin and Jewish paraphernalia thrown in.
I can’t honestly say it’s too impressive with the exception of “The Mystical Radiant Jesus Says Behold the Nail.”
Although it also looks like a Photoshop over the original image, it works aesthetically. A strong image with the glowing, transparent robes and graffiti-like effects. Six other artists are showing on the site JewishJesusArt.com and they are seeking others.
But enough fussing over details. Starr requests that artists submit artworks that restore Jesus’ Jewish identity, and who knows what he may come up with yet? He reminds us of Chagall’s crucifixion paintings and a host of other Jewish artists who made excellent and compelling art about Jesus.
Interest in the subject must be high, with his articles spread across the Internet. He leaves few in peace about this, even petitioning the Association of Art Historians (UK). Starr hopes they respond to his challenge that art historians “have failed to acknowledge the falsification of biblical history in the massive numbers of Medieval and Renaissance artworks.”
Starr challenges Jews and Christians to read the New Testament, although he never claims to believe in Christ himself and has obvious issues with the Pauline Epistles. He assures us we will find insights such as who really killed Jesus and proof that Christ was a practicing Jew.
In his zeal to end anti-Semitism through the Bible and art, Starr thinks big, almost impossibly big. Could this effort help heal the great 2,000-year divide between Christians and Jews?
He quotes a recent statement on reconciliation and mutual respect by Pope Francis with hope: “We have discovered that the Jewish people are still, for us, the holy root from which Jesus originated. … It’s a contradiction for a Christian to be anti-Semitic.”
Enter the art exhibition “Putting Judaism Back in the Picture: Toward Healing the Christian/Jewish Divide,” or contact Dr. Starr here.