Religion - The internets fastest growing blog directory Judaism Blog Directory Blogs Directory The Blog Directory BlogCatalog

Friday, May 15, 2009

A Jewish view of the Wandering Jew

The Eternal Jew by Shmuel Hirszenberg (1865-1907) [1,2,3,4]

Jewish culture never accepted the legend of the Wandering Jew as historical information. However, a modern Jewish interpretation of the figure of the Wandering Jew shows how lack of knowledge has changed a fundamentally anti-Jewish (read today anti-Semitic) character to a real cultural phenomenon. In an ironic twist of view, the non-Jewish portrayal of the Jew has now been adopted by many ignorant Jews themselves:

“Been there, seen that, am the Wandering Jew…”

A painting by Shmuel Hirszenberg, a young Polish Jewish artist who had studied at the Munich Academy of Art gives an interesting illustration of how Jews themselves have ended up using this figure from medieval Christian folklore.

The legend of the Wandering Jew began to spread in Europe in the thirteenth century and became a fixture of Christian mythology, and, later, of Romanticism. The original legend concerns a Jew who taunted Jesus on the way to the Crucifixion and was then cursed to walk the earth until the Second Coming.

The earliest known mediaeval source quoting the legend of the Eternal Jew appears in an Italian monastic chronicle written about 1223. According to this chronicle, while Christ "was going to his Martyrdom, a Jew drove Him along wickedly with these words: 'Go, go thou tempter' .... Christ answered him: I go and you will wait me till I come again". The Jew is condemned by Christ to wait, rather than to wander, until his second coming in the Last Judgement.

This version of the legend persisted with many variations in the details of the story, including different names given to the Jew up to the end of the 16th century.

The legend of the Wandering Jew appeared in print for the first time in 1602. In this version, the Jew is described as a shoemaker named Ahasver or Ahasverus. Unlike his mediaeval predecessors, Ahasverus is not condemned by Christ to wait until his second coming in the Last Judgement. Instead, he is doomed to expiate his crime by eternal wandering.

Numerous reprints and translations into several other European languages soon followed, and made the legend of the Wandering Jew widely known throughout Europe already by the beginning of the 17th century.

In the late 18th and throughout the 19th century, particularly during the rise of Romanticism, it inspired numerous literary, poetical, theatrical and even musical works, as well as dozens of graphic illustrations and popular single-leaf prints. The best known of such works is the famous series of twelve wood-engravings made after Gustave Doré's designs (1856).

A depiction of the Wandering Jew as an anti-Jewish figure was given by Wilhelm von Kaulbach (1804-1874) in his large painting The Destruction of Jerusalem. King Ludwig I of Bavaria paid 35,000 gulden for this painting, the largest sum ever paid in Germany up to then for an individual painting. The finished work was installed in 1853 in a place of honour in the central hall of the Neue Pinakothek in Munich which had been inaugurated that year by Ludwig I. It has been on display there ever since.

Kaulbach transformed the historical event of the destruction of Jerusalem and its Temple by the Romans into a visual Christian allegorical sermon according to which the destruction of Jerusalem was a divine punishment wrought upon the Jews for their rejection of Christ. The destruction of Jerusalem is seen as marking the downfall and dispersion of the Jewish people and also the end of their ancient religion, and the triumphal emergence of the new faith - Christianity. Kaulbach's interpretation follows a long tradition already apparent in the teachings of early Christian writers such as Tertullian. It was, however, in Kaulbach's work that the Wandering Jew made his first appearance in a large-scale painting, and in a representation with an even stronger anti-Jewish flavour than the original legend of Ahasverus. Kaulbach's Wandering Jew escaping from the burning Jerusalem is an allegorical reference to the dispersion of the Jews that followed the destruction of their holy city. In Kaulbach's painting the Wandering Jew, pursued by the demons of revenge, represents both the legendary Ahasverus suffering the punishment for his personal sin, and the entire Jewish people, doomed to dispersion among the nations and "to eternal darkness" as divine revenge for their rejection and condemnation of Christ.

In 1899, Shmuel Hirszenberg reacted to the anti-Jewish message of Kaulbach with his painting The Eternal Jew, which was exhibited in Lodz, Warsaw and Paris. To Hirszenberg's great regret, the artistic authorities in both Munich and Berlin refused to exhibit his work, probably because of its outspoken polemic content.

Hirszenberg transformed Kaulbach's legendary offender of Christ into a victim and a Martyr of Christian Persecution. Hirszenberg lifted the Eternal Jew from the pseudo-historical context of Kaulbach's Christian Allegory, inserting him instead into an original symbolical environment of his own conception: a forest of dark, huge crosses strewn with massacred corpses which represent Christian persecution that pursue the Eternal Jew on his desperate flight. Hirszenberg also transformed the ideal generic figure of Kaulbach's Ahasver into that of a realistically rendered figure of a contemporary, frail old Jew of the Eastern Europe Diaspora.

Hirszenberg died in September 1907, a few months after he had arrived in Jerusalem, having responded to an invitation to head the recently founded painting department of the Bezalel School of Art. The Eternal Jew, which the artist had brought with him to Jerusalem, remained in the possession of the Israel National Museum.

No comments: