US exhibit shows complex Christian-Jewish ties in medieval Spain

Published April 1, 2010

An exhibit in New York illuminates the complex relationship between Christians and Jews in medieval Spain and shows that producing art was often a cooperative, interfaith enterprise.

The exhibit, “Uneasy Communion: Jews, Christians, and the Altarpieces of
Medieval Spain,” at the Museum of Biblical Art, does not downplay the
tensions that existed in Spain and ultimately led to the expulsion of
the Jews from Spain in 1492.

At the end of the display of more than two dozen paintings, tiles and
other artefacts, visitors are reminded, in large script, that after
1492, the spirit of Jewish-Christian cooperation ended abruptly and

Art critics have said, however, that the display, helps correct an
oft-stated presumption that Jews did not produce art during the 14th and
15th centuries and that Jews and Christians had little interaction with
one another.

Rather, they say the exhibition proves that Spain was fertile ground for
interfaith cooperation and even dialogue, something they believe is
worth recalling during this period of the Jewish commemoration of
Passover and the Christian observance of Easter.

“There was a ferment, like the ferment of what happens today in the
contemporary U.S. – it’s the ferment that occurs when you have the
mixing of cultures,” Vivian Mann, the exhibition’s curator, told
Ecumenical News International in an interview.

A key theme for the exhibit is the idea of co-existence, or
“convivencia” in Spanish – the idea that mutual creativity by Christian
and Jewish artists occurred alongside what the exhibit call “mutual
friction, rivalry and suspicion.”

The exhibit notes that Christian and Jewish artists and artisans worked
side-by-side in artists’ workshops, or studios to produce religious
pieces for both Christian and Jewish places of worship. Christian
artisans illuminated Hebrew manuscripts. Meanwhile, Jews – both those
who retained their faith and those who converted to Christianity –
produced pieces for churches.

Dominating the exhibit are the large “retablos”, multi-panelled
altarpieces that convey, either explicitly or subtly, the problems faced
by Jews in Spain. Other pieces see the Jewish tradition as ushering in
Christianity and convey “a messianic view of a future in which Jews
would join with Christians in one faith,” the exhibit notes.

The various pieces demonstrate that “the whole mixture of cultures is
what made the [overall] culture of medieval Spain so vital,” said Mann,
who teaches at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York.

* “Uneasy Communion: Jews, Christians, and the Altarpieces of Medieval
Spain,” is on display at the Museum of Biblical Art in New York City
until 30 May.


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