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Jewish Journal

Show Decodes Early Years of 2 Religions

by Tom L. Freudenheim

May 18, 2006 | 8:00 pm

Chancel screen decorated with menorah within a wreath. Photo ©The Israel Museum, Jerusalem

Chancel screen decorated with menorah within a wreath. Photo ©The Israel Museum, Jerusalem

Whether it's good luck or good planning, the Maltz Museum of Jewish Heritage in the Cleveland area has hit the exhibition jackpot with its current show, "Cradle of Christianity," which runs through Oct. 22. Because while the film version of "The Da Vinci Code" is generating buzz over a purported tale of Jesus, here's an exhibition with tantalizing real objects that provide an actual glimpse from the years of early Christianity.

The exhibit's revelations are more subtle than, say, an uncovering of a liaison between Jesus and Mary Magdalene, but there is evidence of fascinating links between the older and newer religions: Judaism and Christianity.

That is especially evident in items used in liturgical contexts -- two Byzantine oil lamps -- one with a menorah and the other with a cross. The fact that both lamps are otherwise virtually identical is a useful reminder that, even in our own time, it's often the decorative motifs rather than the object's basic form that identifies the group using it -- as, for example, in the case of drinking vessels or candlesticks.

Such a case is even more forcefully made with two almost identical chancel screens. The chancel is the area of the church (or early synagogue) where the bimah was placed. The bimah was (and is) a platform on which the clergy stand. And the chancel screen delineates its separation from the rest of the church, to keep it "inaccessible to the multitude" (as Eusebius of Caesarea wrote).

Each of the two Byzantine stone chancel screen panels on display has a central wreath sitting on a kind of scrolled form that ends in a heart-shaped arrow. But on one there's a menorah in the center of the wreath, while on the other, the wreath is flanked by a pair of crosses. The similarity between the two suggests that the carvers of these reliefs could have been either Jewish or Christian.

This interplay between traditions should not be surprising; it's probably a permanent feature of cultural intersection. Many of our most treasured Jewish ritual objects were made by non-Jews.

Yet there's something magical about coming into direct contact with these works. A first century ossuary (bone box) bears the inscription "Jesus/Jesus son of Joseph, Judas son of Jesus."

Maybe it would feed your appetite for Dan Brown's inventions, but more important, it's eloquent testimony to the fact that Jews were commonly using these names at the time. In other words, the Jesus/Judas reference is likely meaningless, in so far as the Jesus and Judas that people want most to know about.

That's not the case with another artifact, the stone inscription, 26-36 C.E., found in Caesarea and originally part of a building constructed there by Pontius Pilate to honor the Emperor Tiberius. The Latin writing on stone bears Pilate's name and title, the only such archaeological find.

Traditional Western Christian iconography developed early on; there's a Byzantine pottery pilgrim's flask with a worn but recognizable, depiction of the Annunciation and a small ceramic blessing token from the sixth or seventh century, showing the adoration of the Magi.

As for Jewish symbols, the menorah is the most important Jewish signifier in this exhibition, not the Magen David, whose common usage is much more recent.

The time of early Christianity also was a rich era for Jewish history. And this exhibit, put together by the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, offers a rare opportunity to perceive this coexistence, contrast and clash through objects from that epoch. The Israel Museum's co-curator of this exhibition, David Mevorah, said that it was this convergence of familiarities that made the exhibition such a hit in Jerusalem.

It ought to be exciting for Jews and Christians to see their earlier visual traditions in this kind of exhibition face-off. It's enough to make one put down the fictional potboiler and discover the revelations to be found in museums.

Tom L. Freudenheim is a retired museum director who writes about art and cultural issues.

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