Friday, September 30, 2016

Some thoughts on a painting by Jan Provost

In his chatty propography of the Orientalists (For Lust of Knowing), Robert Irwin remarks on the nineteenth-century Prussian scholar of the Qur’an and Arabic literature Theodor Noeldeke, who harbored contempt for Islam as he did for all religions, that “in at least one respect (…) he belonged to” a “grand tradition (…): he had never been to the Middle East and he could not actually speak Arabic.” This reminded me of the fact that most of the Old Testament scholars I studied with in Germany didn’t speak Hebrew. That did not necessarily make them bad scholars but it colored their scholarship. My teacher Rolf Rendtorff was exceptional in that he really appreciated his Israeli colleagues and brought some of them, including the Qumran scholar Shemaryahu Talmon, to Heidelberg and he encouraged his students to study in Israel and to learn modern and rabbinic Hebrew. Others were afraid that students might get the wrong idea and cited the case of Georg Fohrer who had converted to orthodox Judaism and moved to the Jewish Quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem. Others dismissed the relevance of Israeli scholarship, spoken Hebrew, or even rabbinic exegesis because they thought it irrelevant to an understanding of the Bible. Far more important to them were Ugaritic, Akkadian, and even Egyptian hieroglyphic, languages that– since the nineteenth century – were used to interpret biblical literature “backwards,” i.e., to make educated guesses about what went into making these texts, rather than “forwards,” i.e., to study what the readers of the texts made of them. Most of my German teachers read the texts as hints to what was before and behind them. Teasing out the cultural assumptions, putative oral traditions, and historical circumstances that the texts presupposed allowed these scholars to reconstruct a history of Israel and its religious practices that the texts obscured because those who produced or edited and canonized those texts were ideologically committed to a monolatric framework for their society and condemned all prior official and popular cultic practices as idolatrous. In this reading there is no real difference between Israelite and Jewish religion and the superstitions that preceded it, and the only progress in religion that really mattered was introduced by Jesus of Nazareth.

Many leading mid-twentieth-century Israeli biblical scholars followed instead the lead of Yehezkel Kaufmann who surmised that the veneration of a single deity was as ancient as the biblical patriarchs, just as described in the Book of Genesis, and that the religion of Israel was therefore indeed a sui generis phenomenon in the history of the Ancient Near East. While this reading of the biblical tradition appealed to conservative Jewish and Christian exegetes, it was not taken very seriously by my German teachers who thought it lacked the historical critical rigor of their own training and inclination. The commitment to Judaism as a great tradition and the assumption of a continuity between biblical Israel and modern Judaism implied by Kaufmann were also hardly to their liking. Clearly, Noeldeke harbored a similar Germanic antipathy toward the subject of his Arabic studies and even concluded that the effort entailed in reconstructing the exact meaning of Arabic poetry was not really worth it. This strikes me as an extreme case of the alienation of a philologist from the humanity behind the text, a humanism that has completed and exhausted itself in approach and method, a humanism that takes the notion of “scholarly disinterest” to its extreme.

Irwin’s remark about Noeldeke also reminded me of something else. I had recently seen the reproduction of a painting attributed to the “Flemish primitive” artist Jan Provost, a Crucifixion that had long languished unrecognized but now hangs in the Groenige Museum in Bruge, where a Boston University doctoral student and Humanities Fellow saw it who brought it to my attention. (Thanks, Eva Pascal!) The reason she liked it was that artist had painted the Roman soldiers in charge of the crufixion as “Muslims.” The painting was made around 1505, and crusading was never far from the European Christians’ mind, so that seemed to make some sense. When I looked at the painting I noticed something else. The urban landscape of Jerusalem in the background of the scene looked realistic to me. I noticed the tomb of the virgin just behind the Dome of the rock, and the overall placement of buildings and natural features made sense. Provost had depicted the very “village with monumental buildings” that Dominican friar Felix Fabri had seen and described just a short while before the painting was made. I wondered whether artist had seen the city with his own eyes or painted from another realistic depiction. A little bit of research revealed that Provost had made the pilgrimage himself and joined a brotherhood of such pilgrims. He had painted the city from autopsy. The Roman soldiers of his Crucifixion were indeed Mamluks, proud horsemen, exactly as he had seen them in Jerusalem, or Caesarea, or somewhere else on the way. (See HERE. The pilgrimage took place around 1500, in any case before the Ottoman conquest. Provost’s Jerusalem is therefore without walls, as it was at the time.)

Provost was one of the first to give us an accurate picture of the actual Jerusalem as it existed at his time. This does not deprive his depiction of the biblical scene of theological content. The fact that Jesus is crucified by Mamluks fits in with the crusading spirit and with the artistic tradition of identifying the Muslim rulers of the holy land as enemies of Christ. A fourteenth-century illuminated manuscript of William of Tyre’s account of the fall of Jerusalem currently on display at the MET Museum’s Jerusalem exhibition places the crucifixion on the inside of Jerusalem at the moment of the conquest of 1099. Here the crusaders literally take the holy city at the moment when Christ (and the Christians) are being tortured and killed.

There are striking differences between the manuscript illumination and Provost’s image. The Jerusalem of the manuscript looks like a Gothic cathedral (as Barbara Drake Boehm, chief medieval curator of the MET Museum, pointed out in a recent conversation). It invites the reader to see Jerusalem as if it were in France. It is not an alien place but right here. In contrast, Provost depicts Jerusalem as it really is. To him it is no longer an alien and he wants the viewer to get acquainted with Jerualem as it really is is even though the suffering Christ is still at the center of the scene. Yet the Mamluks are not depicted as evil. They are realistic, individualized, and impressive. They are also everywhere, and there are many horses, and the horsemen don’t all wear turbans. It is a lively scene, and the hanging itself is noted only by those immediately in its vicinity. It is ignored by the procession that leaves Golgotha (here placed in the vicinity where General Gordon was to find it, in the northern outskirts of the city). Hence while the symbolic juxtaposition of Saracen and suffering Christ nods to the crusading tradition, the realism of the depiction takes the image to a place beyond the preaching of a new crusade. It does not merely instruct, it also informs and hence opens up the possibility of encounter. In fact, the crucifixion recedes into the background once one focuses on the horsemen. Provost seems to attest to the fact that the pilgrim who sought to encounter the place of the death and resurrection of Christ found something else, too, something no less real or fascinating, and so would you if you went there. It is a painting that heralds a new attitude toward the east, one of curiosity rather than contempt. The MET Museum’s exhibition implies that this attitude itself may not have been entirely new in the early 16th century but it may have been novel to make it so evident in so visible a place as a religious painting.

[To view an image of Provost’s 1505 Crucifixion online, go to and click on the image to launch the image viewer.]

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