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Confessions of a Cross-religion Art Lover

December 11, 2009 – 2:01 pm5 Comments
Giotto di Bondone: Kiss of Judas (fresco in the Scrovegni Chapel)*

Kiss of Judas (fresco in the Scrovegni Chapel) by Giotto di Bondone*

By Almoni

For the past ten years I’ve had an increasing interest with Renaissance Art: Duccio, Giotto, the Lippis, Martini, della Francesca and many others. For all of them – and for earlier wonderful painters like Cimabue – Christian iconography is central to their extraordinary art.

But for most of my life, I could not bear to look at icons, frescoes, crucifixes, diptychs, triptychs or Byzantine mosaics. It was as if, by looking at the traditionally forbidden and hated graven images, the worship of the golden calves and idols of Art, I would be instantly Christianized and become some sort of fervid, rosary-waving, anti-Semitic Catholic: everything our tradition has taught us not to be. In reality, as the frescoes in the Synagogue at Dura-Europos on the Euphrates tell us, old time Jews loved a good narrative painting (the equivalent of a blockbuster movie) as much as anyone else and aberrant tendencies also appear in Jewish Palestinian mosaics.

I knew something was special about Renaissance Christian art when I first saw Giotto in Florence 36 years ago – I still have the postcards next to my bed.  But I couldn’t handle the ‘really’ Christian stuff that featured not just kind St Francis, but Jesus, Mary and angels.  That is at least, not until more recently.  I’ve grown fond of looking at Maestàs (an enthroned Madonna and Child) and spend hours appreciating subtle differences between artistic masters in Florence or Siena, without a shred of fear.  I can spend hours on trains going to museums in Italy to see another masterwork, to come home with aching legs and a mind overwhelmed.

So what is it about my obsession with Renaissance masterworks?  I think that they represent our Western ideal of beauty: everyone now knows Botticelli’s Birth of Venus and his angels—but Botticelli is a secular copout compared with the real religious stuff.  This magical art did not come out of the blue.  It is rooted in an ancient tradition that was hidden for about 1000 years during the period of a more formalized Byzantine Art (which has its own splendours: just go to Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, Ravenna, or the island of Burano near Venice).

What makes Renaissance work so wonderful is its astounding and audacious development and technique. Renaissance artists knew how to capture a moment in time and milk the ‘psychological moment’ for all its worth. That moment can be one of serenity, of contemplation, suffering, love, the moment of death, adoration, resurrection, budding youth. You name it, they could paint it or sculpt it, with a few deft strokes on wet plaster, or in infinite detail, with minute brush strokes or moulding of clay, as fresh as day they were created, half a millennia or more ago.  There is something eternal in their art, and that was certainly their intention, as many of these works were painted for public display to a largely illiterate audience that ‘learned’ its religion from pictures, rather than print.

It is not as if each of these works was meant to be a stand alone item either: there are thousands of examples of Madonnas and Child, manufactured for anyone with money to spare for a church or private devotion by artists and their schools and guilds – an early example of mass-reproduction of art, albeit of a very high quality.  Their secular art, of Doges and Duchesses, or beautiful young men and women is equally astounding.  Della Robbia’s terracottas are the most beautiful sculptures of young women as you will ever see.

Consequently, because Renaissance artists hit the magic spot with their art, it is inherently enjoyable.  There are no intellectual games here. Their art is as crisp as the latest large-screen TV, only better because it is real.   This is despite the fact  that the ghetto is usually just down the street and even though the Jews are gone, you can still see where the mezuzot were.

And there are signs of the connection with Judaism.  On the wall of the Palazzo Bocchi in Bologna is a long, beautifully engraved Hebrew inscription. In the Bologna Medieval museum there are Jewish gravestones with inscriptions that have to be from the same stonecutter.  I’ve seen chapels with Hebrew inscriptions coming out of the mouths of saints, bits of Hebrew on other works of art, and the Ten Commandments in Hebrew on the side of a prelates’ huge gold throne in Venice.

So even if you are still a bit scared of the art, you can treat it as a detective story and look for connections.

* Image source: The Art Wolf

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  • TheSadducee says:

    Wondeful article and I wholeheartedly agree – there is a lot of value in the art for art’s sake and its aesthetic appeal has probably not been matched since (with the exception of the neo-Raphaelites who were imitating) in modern art. 

    Its also a wonderful call for Jews to also examine contacts in this period with our art and cultural expression in these locales.

    The only shame is to imagine how much more beautiful the Haghia Sophia would have been before it was significantly damaged by the Turkish occupation.

  • Almoni says:

    Actually, Sadducee, I am increasingly of the opinion that if we were faced with a deluge of unadulterated  Byzantine or Renaissance Art we would find the stuff kitch, overstuffed, and suffering from overkill.   And if the Turks hadn’t taken Istanbul, Sinan, one of the greatest architects who ever lived would never had got to have a go!  History is cruel.
    Part of the mystery of such art to me is that you get hints of what might have been –a sort of artistic Dina von Teese (isn’t that what La Gioconda /Mona Lisa is all about) and countless other suggestive smirks and winks to get the juices going?    I’ve spotted quite a few works of art from the period which have more than a nudge nudge wink wink about them. The Museo di Capodimonte in Naples has some let’s put it mildly, filthily stimulating pictures masquerading as religion. They are well worth a look at.
    If you get the opportunity, watch out for girls (and boys) copping a good look at Michelangelo David’s anatomy in Florence, and there’s a modern take on David now on display in Venice –an 8-foot high sculpture of a boy holding a frog, on  the Grand Canal.  It’s remarkable. If it was on show in Australia, I am positive it would be classified as pornographic.  See this link (but his front bits aren’t visible )
    But too much of a good thing isn’t good for the right hand side of the brain.  I realise this when I force myself to look at everything or see three  museums in a row. I can’t remember a thing a week later but it was great at the time!   On the other hand, there are some lost works that are true losses to humankind, and all we have are pre-war black and white photos or Hellenistic copies.
    In any case, ‘nod nod wink wink’  raises the issue of sexuality in art (and the connection with pornography), and this probably also explains traditional prurience because of halachic rules about modesty and ‘Hellenism’.
    I’d be interested in discussion about this, because of the pervasiveness of sex and sexualization in contemporary media. What is off limits (like the boy and his frog)?  Can we deny the sex drive and the creative urge?   Just because our brains respond so strongly to such stimulation in art doesn’t mean that we are perverts or anything else. It’s a fact, like the fact that we kill animals and eat them (most of us do).

  • Chaim says:

    I believe the only issue with sexuality (and it is pervasive in Kabbalah and Talmud) is not the sex or attractions/desire itself but when it becomes overwhelming and you lose control of mind over body… You are not making rational, educated decisions on your behaviour (to whatever code you ascribe to) and are therefore just like an animal… not thinking about consequences to yourself or others. If anything we could realise how important and potent it is to us… we can definitely utilize it for betterment of ourselves and mankind and not as a power tool over others or for pure gratification. Unless of course  you just consider yourself another animal species…
    The issue with hellinism was not sexuality or beauty but rather the given significance of the individual person and “physical ideal” rather than to social and spiritual causes.

  • Chaim says:

    You weren’t trying to actually sell or reclaim hellenism on Channukah were you?

  • TheSadducee says:


    I don’t know enough about sexuality and art – it is an area I’ve never really looked at before, but I am aware of it in ancient Greek/Roman art.  There is quite a catalogue of it on a variety of media (pottery, murals/mosaics/frescoes/sculpture).

    As to Sinan, he might not have had an opportunity to build in Constantinople but he would have had an opportunity to build in other parts of the Ottoman Empire.  And besides, I’m not that keen on his personal story – he was a forced convert you know.

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