Beyond Broadway at 61st: Temple Emanu-El

Every Wednesday, Art, the Bible & the Big Apple will feature a New York City site with interesting biblical art that we think is worth a look. Whether uptown, downtown, across town, or in the boroughs, we’ll explore art in context, from well-known landmarks to buildings tucked away on quiet blocks. Visit New York’s hidden gems with us, see some old friends, and maybe discover some new ones.

If you find yourself strolling though Central Park in need of an architectural destination, make your way to the 65th Street crossing and follow it to the East Side where Temple Emanu-El awaits.  Stunning both inside and out, Temple Emanu-El is the largest synagogue in the world. Built in a pastiche of gothic revival/Moorish/Romanesque revival style expressly for its Reformed Congregation and consecrated in 1929, the west facade features a monumental wheel window. The bimah, located in the synagogue’s east end, is eight stories of shimmering mosaic, designed and executed by one of America’s finest decorative artists, Hildreth Meiere (1892-1961).

Meiere took as her inspiration the fifth and sixth century mosaics found in many of Ravenna, Italy’s early Christian buildings, transforming them into Judaic symbols for the bimah’s monumental arch. Beginning with the lower left symbol and moving up the arch the symbols are: the date palm/Tree of Life; the tallit or prayer shawl; the menorah; the eternal light; the Magen David; a pair of shofars; the Torah Ark; the Table of the Shewbread; a Huppa; and a pair of Shabbath candles.

The most striking example of use and adaption is the depiction of  the open Torah Ark, which Meiere must have based on the Gospel cabinet from the Oratory of Galla Placidia, dating to c. 425, itself an adaptation based on the Torah Ark form used since Antiquity:

Galla Placidia, c. 425
Hildreth Meiere
Temple Emanu-El

The temple’s sheer size fails to shake a permeating feeling of peacefulness within the sanctuary, which is amplified by the stained-glass windows, the glittering mosaics, and the colored marble columns, among countless other beautiful objects.  3,000 New York City families call this temple home, and it is easy to see why.  Temple Emanu-El is gem not to be missed.

Also, check out the Herbert and Eileen Museum of Judaica, which features special exhibitions as well as fine permanent display of Temple Emanu-El’s treasures. A dynamic program of tours and lectures is offered by the Skirball Center, including one to be offered at MOBIA in October for our upcoming Louis C. Tiffany exhibition.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Spotlight: John the Baptist

Whether standing hip deep in the Jordan River baptizing his cousin, having his head presented on a platter by Salome to Herod Antipas, or standing a child with his aunt and cousin in a tender tableau, the figure of John the Baptist resonates throughout the history of Western art.

Saint John the Baptist Bearing Witness
Annibale Carracci (Italian, Bologna 1560–1609 Rome), ca. 1600
Oil on copper, 21 3/8 x 17 1/8 in. (54.3 x 43.5 cm), The Metropolitan Museum of Art (not currently on display)

How to Know Him: John the Baptist is often found carrying a reed cross, signaling his role as the harbinger of Jesus as the Messiah.  A man of the wilderness John “wore a garment of camel’s hair and a leather girdle around his waist,” as it is recorded in Matthew 3:4.

Where to Find Him: John is most frequently pictured in scenes of Jesus being baptized, as he was the one who did the deed.  He is also sometimes shown in collections of saintsgathered around the enthroned Virgin Mary, usually as a mark of patronage or as a way of singling him out for special devotion.  In other depictions, he is portrayed as an

The Baptism of Christ, ca. 1390, Lower Austria
Pot-metal and colorless glass, vitreous paint and silver stain, 27 15/16 x 12 1/4 in. (71 x 31.1 cm), The Cloisters

infant with the Virgin and Jesus, which is not a scene recorded in the Bible, though the some of the Gospels detail John’s conception and birth in relation to Jesus’s (Luke 1:5-25. 57-80).  There are also images of his death, showing his decapitated head on a platter, as it was requested by Salome, the stepdaughter of Herod Antipas, whom John had publically decried for his breaking of the Law of Moses.

New York City Hiding Places: John the Baptist can be found throughout the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Cloisters, as well as in various churches throughout the city.  The Met actually features a series of paintings by sixteenth-century artist Francesco Granacci depicting the baptizer’s life.

Scenes from the Life of Saint John the Baptist
Francesco Granacci (Francesco di Andrea di Marco) (Italian, Villamagna 1469–1543 Florence), ca. 1506–7, Tempera, oil, and gold on wood, 30 9/16 x 59 1/2 in. (77.6 x 151.1 cm), The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Plaque with the Head of Saint John the Baptist on a Charger
School of Nottingham, 15th century, Probably Nottingham, Alabaster with paint, Overall: 8 1/4 x 6 5/16 x 1 1/8 in. (21 x 16 x 2.9 cm), The Metropolitan Museum of Art

The Baptist Today: Theatre – In the musical Godspell – which closed its Broadway revival on June 24 – John the Baptist, dressed as a modern man, calls out to the audience to “prepare ye the way of the Lord.”  Interestingly, in that particular show, the actor who plays John the Baptist later portrays Judas Iscariot, Jesus’s apostle-turned-betrayer.

“Gospell”, 1973

Film – The birth of John the Baptist was recently explored in popular culture in the 2006 film The Nativity Story.  Though most of the movie is devoted to the emotional journey of Jesus’s mother Mary and her new husband, Joseph, there is attention given to the joy of John’s mother, Elizabeth, played by Shohreh Aghdashloo, as she anticipates the son she has long awaited.  The movie depicts the tender relationship between Mary and Elizabeth and uses it as a means to parallel the future importance that John will hold for his cousin Jesus.

Mary (Keisha Castle-Hughes) and Elizabeth (Shohreh Aghdashloo) reveling in their unborn children in “The Nativity Story” (2006)

Literature – The 2009 novel John the Baptizer by Brooks Hansen examines the man usually thought of as merely an opening act by weaving together historical accounts, legend, and traditions such as asceticism and mysticism.  Hansen cleverly splits the book between the story of John, who was born into the world special yet experiences the same doubts and longings as any other man, and the story of Herod the Great, the mad king of Judea who would order the Massacre of the Innocents in Bethlehem during Jesus’s infancy and whose son, Herod Antipas, would become fascinated by John before infamously ordering his death.  A compelling read, John the Baptizer focuses the attention on the classic messenger, to more than satisfactory results.

- T.C. for MOBIA

Beyond Broadway at 61st: St. Patrick’s Cathedral

Every Wednesday, Art, the Bible & the Big Apple will feature a New York City site with interesting biblical art that we think is worth a look. Whether uptown, downtown, across town, or in the boroughs, we’ll explore art in context, from well-known landmarks to buildings tucked away on quiet blocks. Visit New York’s hidden gems with us, see some old friends, and maybe discover some new ones.

St. Patrick’s Cathedral, a heavily visited attraction in New York City, is located directly across the street from Rockefeller Center.  This formidable, historic church is a Midtown landmark and an ever-popular sight in spite of the construction inhibiting a full view of the exterior.  Modeled on a medieval pilgrimage church, this basilica with its ample side aisles and ambulatory permits cultural and pious pilgrims alike to make their journey through the church simultaneously.  A trip to St. Patrick’s feels much like a visit to a museum, but the beautiful objects stationed around the premises are not just for show; at all hours, you will find believers venerating these works of art as part of their private devotions, together with camera-toting tourists and security guards.  While everything inside is eye-catching, from the white marble statues affixed in the side aisle chapels, to the towering western doors, to the magnificent rose window (the circular stained-glass window above the choir loft, a typical feature of Gothic cathedrals), the church itself is the most impressive aspect.  In a city full of architecturally striking structures, St. Patrick’s stands apart as a definite must-see for anyone seeking aesthetic inspiration.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Spotlight: Pontius Pilate

In the story of Jesus of Nazareth’s trial and execution, known to believers as his Passion, there are many interesting figures with differing motives and desires.  Few are as intriguing as Pontius Pilate.  A villain in some Gospel accounts and a passive aggressive middle man in others, the Roman governor of Judea at the time of Jesus’s death holds a unique place in history as a government official who could have easily slipped into obscurity had it not been for his decision to wash his hands of a case involving a peaceful Jewish preacher.  Pilate’s action has reverberated throughout the history of art.

Pilate Washing His Hands
Style of Rembrandt (Dutch, 17th century), ca. 1660s, Oil on canvas, 51 1/4 x 65 3/4 in. (130.2 x 167 cm)
The Metropolitan Museum of Art
(Artwork not currently on display)

How to Know Him: Pontius Pilate is often portrayed in the contemporary clothing of a government official in the town, province, or country from which the artist comes, making his character easily identifiable and his action understandable to the viewer.  He is usually pictured in a seat of judgment and often he is depicted with or near a basin of water, which he used to symbolically rid himself of responsibility in the condemnation of Jesus.

Where to Find Him: Pilate figures prominently in trial scenes, in which a silent, accepting Jesus is brought before the procurator.  He is also sometimes portrayed in a subset of paintings known as Ecce Homo, which is the Latin translation of the phrase, “Behold the man,” which Pilate is recorded in John 9:15 as having said to the crowd after he had had Jesus beaten.

His New York Hiding Places: If you walk into any Catholic church in New York City, you’re guaranteed to see a likeness of Pilate.  All churches feature the Stations of the Cross, devotional images that were invented in the Middle Ages as a means of allowing believers to walk with Jesus through his Passion without having to make an actual pilgrimage to the Holy Land.  The traditional First Station – Jesus is Condemned – assures that the image of Pilate sentencing Jesus to death can be found in any Catholic church, such as St. Patrick’s Cathedral.

There are also many works that feature Pontius Pilate in The Metropolitan Museum of Art.  Pilate’s singular actions are crucial to the Christian narrative of Jesus’s redemptive suffering.  As a result, Pilate’s likeness is found in many artistic forms and styles, from Old Master paintings, to icons, to stained-glass windows, to sculptures.  Depictions of him can be found in various galleries throughout the museum.

Pilate Washing His Hands
Mattia Preti (Il Cavalier Calabrese) (Italian, Taverna 1613–1699 Valletta), 1663, Oil on canvas, 81 1/8 x 72 3/4 in. (206.1 x 184.8 cm)
The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Christ before Pilate; The Resurrection
Attributed to Ludwig Schongauer (German, active by 1479–1493/94)
Oil on wood, 15 1/8 x 8 1/4 in. (38.4 x 21 cm)
The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Roundel with Christ Condemned by Pilate, ca. 1515–20
Possibly made in, Amsterdam, North Netherlands
Colorless glass, vitreous paint, and silver stain, 9 1/8 in. (23.2 cm)
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Cloisters Collection

In 2010, The Brooklyn Museum exhibited the religious works of James Tissot in the show James Tissot: The Life of Christ.  The exhibition featured many striking images of Pontius Pilate.  Though the works are not currently on display, you can view them online and learn more about the exhibition here.

The Message of Pilate’s Wife
James Tissot, 1886-1894, Opaque watercolor over graphite on gray wove paper, 5 3/4 x 7 3/16 in. (14.6 x 18.3 cm)
The Brooklyn Museum
(Artwork currently not on view)

Pilate in the Present: Theatre – As we mentioned in our previous post about Mary Magdalene, the current production of Jesus Christ Superstar running at the Neil Simon Theatre brings fresh verve to the age-old characters of the Gospels, and the

Tom Hewitt as Pontius Pilate in “Jesus Christ Superstar”

Roman governor, like Mary, is not spared a second look.  The show masterfully exposes the emotional turmoil that befell both Pilate and Jesus in those infamous moments when they stood before each other.  The show is worth seeing for many reasons, and the moving portrayal of the usual villain Pilate is one of them.

Literature – A side figure that hovers near Pilate in Scripture is his wife, who, in the Gospel of Matthew, warns her husband not to meddle with Jesus’s case because she had a foreboding dream about him.  Sometimes featured in works of art, this nameless woman has haunted the Western imagination for centuries.  Legend affords her the name Claudia, and in some denominations, her brief correlation to Jesus in the hours before his death merits her sainthood.  The 2007 novel Pilate’s Wife: A Novel of the Roman Empire by Antoinette May paints an intriguing picture of the lives of the ill-fated governor and his clairvoyant wife, who comes from one of the most famous families in ancient Rome and who deals with priestesses, gladiators, and scheming empresses alike throughout her tale.  May’s entertaining and thought-provoking story highlights how even relatively unknown biblical figures are characters worthy of a closer examination.

- T.C. for MOBIA

Beyond Broadway at 61st: St. Vincent Ferrer

Every week, Art, the Bible & the Big Apple will feature a New York City site with interesting biblical art that we think is worth a look. Whether uptown, downtown, across town, or in the boroughs, we’ll explore art in context, from well-known landmarks to buildings tucked away on quiet blocks. Visit New York’s hidden gems with us, see some old friends, and maybe discover some new ones.

If you happen to find yourself walking around the Upper East Side, across the island from MOBIA, you should definitely stop inside The Church of St. Vincent Ferrer.  Within walking distance of last week’s feature, Central Presbyterian Church, just a few blocks from major attractions such as Bloomingdale’s and Central Park, this Catholic church is a sweet sight amid the shops, apartments, and restaurants on Lexington Avenue.  The little garden outside its adjacent rectory features a statue of the Virgin Mary that catches the eye and stills the feet of some passersby, but only hints at the stare-worthy art behind the church’s doors.

Built by and still run by Dominican Brothers, the church’s design program reflects a turn-of-the-century love of saints and need for various expressions of devotion, the likes of which are harder and harder to come by in modern worship spaces.  No two side chapels are alike, nor are any two statues (of which there are many).  Paintings, stained glass windows, neo-Gothic archways swathed in shadows produced by consistently lit votive candles… this church has it all, a veritable playground for the imagination.  The highlight of this illustrious building might just be the baptistery.  Though spare in comparison to the main sanctuary, from which it is archiecturally distinct, the baptistery provides a calm respite in an otherwise beautifully riotous interior.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

St. Vincent Ferrer is located on Lexington Ave. at E 66th St.

- T.C. for MOBIA

Siena in the City: Francesco di Vannuccio’s Crucifix at the MOBIA

Ars longa, vita brevis and it is through works of art like Francesco di Vannuccio’s Crucifix that the legacy of trecento Siena remains alive. Featured alongside works by Vannuccio’s contemporaries that illustrate visual narratives of scenes surrounding the life of Christ in the Museum of Biblical Art’s current exhibition, The Adoration of the Magi by Bartolo di Fredi: A Masterpiece Reconstructed, visitors are provided with a comprehensive look at a period in Siena when the exchange of ideas between artists was fluid and shared.

Francesco di Vannuccio (active Siena 1356-89), Crucifix, ca. 1370. Tempera on panel. The Bob Jones University Museum & Gallery.

The central image of Vannuccio’s Crucifix is that of the suffering Christ or Christus Patiens; a type deriving from Byzantine models that emphasizes emotional realism and depicts Christ with closed eyes, bleeding wounds, and a drooping body. Byzantine art and artists arrived in Italy progressively after the capture of Constantinople in 1204 importing techniques and designs such as the painting style of the maniera greca (Latin for “in the Greek manner”) that influenced 13th and 14th century Italian painting. The pathos of Vannuccio’s Crucifix as well as the extensive use of gold appears to derive from this tradition. The intricate gold punchwork seen in this Crucifix serves as a complement to the punchwork designs found on the bindings of the Bibles displayed in the adjoining exhibition at MOBIA entitled Printers, Monks, and Craftsmen: Bookmaking in the Age of Gutenberg.

New Testament in Greek and Latin. Basel: Johann Froben. 1516.
Featured in the exhibition Printers, Monks, and Craftsmen: Bookmaking in the Age of Gutenberg.

The cruciform frame of Vannuccio’s panel with star-like edges emphasizes the deep black cross within. Christ’s body curves in an S-shape form and the animated drapery of the gold brocaded cloth can be seen to be influenced by the Sienese master Simone Martini. Blood dramatically flows from Christ’s wounds and his side is pierced with reference to the narrative from John 19:34 in which a Roman soldier punctures Christ’s lifeless body with a spear. At the top of the cross a sign with the acronym “INRI” for the Latin “Iēsus Nazarēnus, Rēx Iūdaeōrum” (Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews) is affixed signifying the notice of accusation that was placed on the cross, as detailed in Matthew 27:37.

The arms of the cross are anchored by vignettes of the figures that were present at the Crucifixion: the Virgin Mary in her blue mantle, St. John the Evangelist who appears as a young man, and St. Mary Magdalene with long, voluminous hair. Interestingly, Vannuccio incorporates the figure of Mary Magdalene at the bottom of the crucifix as she is oftentimes depicted at the foot of the cross in scenes of the Crucifixion and Deposition, such as Giotto’s Crucifixion fresco from the Scrovegni Chapel, Padua.

Giotto di Bondone, Crucifix. 1305-06. Fresco from the Scrovegni (Arena) Chapel, Padua.

In situ or in its original location this Crucifix would have been suspended behind the high altar or on a beam spanning the chancel arch within a church. A crucifix similar to that of Vannuccio’s can be seen hovering over parishioners in the nave of the Church at Greccio in the fresco of the Miracle of the Crib at Greccio; a work that documents Saint Francis of Assisi presiding over the first manger scene. This fresco provides glimpses into the appearance of an Italian Gothic church as its architectural features such as a baldacchino (canopy) with foliage swags, choir screen, and lectern are documented.

Miracle of the Crib at Greccio, from the Life of Saint Francis Fresco cycle. The Church of Saint Francis, Assisi, Italy. ca. Late 13th century.

The large scale of Vannuccio’s Crucifix and its original position would have reflected the Church’s regard for the Passion of Christ as well as connoted a Eucharistic function. Vannuccio figuratively presents Christ’s body and blood to the viewer and its association with the Blessed Sacrament that occurred at the high altar is unmistakable.

In 1348, the Black Death reached Siena claiming the lives of common citizens and artists alike, and Vannuccio’s Crucifix must have served as a poignant vehicle for meditation by worshippers during a time of contemplation. Reflected upon at different moments during liturgy and through the years, the significance of this Crucifix continued to evolve, as it does today within the context of MOBIA’s exhibitions.

- A.P.R. for MOBIA

Spotlight: Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus

Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus, long considered by many to be venerable biblical

“The Lamentation”, 1603
Domenichino (Domenico Zampieri)
The Metropolitan Museum of Art

figures, are the subject of popular legend and a rich visual tradition.

How to Know Them and Where to Find Them: Joseph of Arimathea was a Jewish council member, probably part of the Sanhedrin, an assembly of elected judges in ancient Israel.  As befitting this rank, he is often depicted wearing robes and a headdress.  He is usually found in Lamentation or Deposition scenes, which portray the removal of Jesus’s body from the cross.  He is also a common figure in Entombment scenes; his presence references the wealthy man’s offer to bury Jesus in own tomb.  In these usually heavily casted scenes, Joseph is distinguishable from the others because of his advanced age and his beard (the only apostle who witnessed Jesus’s death – and thus usually the only other man in these scenes – was John, who is typically depicted as being young enough to not have facial hair).

Joseph of Arimathea is often associated with Nicodemus, another member of the Sanhedrin who is also sometimes added to Lamentation and Entombment scenes.  He is noted in the Gospel of John as having assisted Joseph of Arimathea in Jesus’s burial.  The two figures share many attributes.

“Head of a Bearded Man (Nicodemus)”, 1577–1660
Giacomo Cavedone
The Metropolitan Museum of Art (not on display)

Their New York City Hiding Places: Museums in NYC possess some lovely art featuring the attentive biblical figures in their collections.  The Metropolitan Museum of Art has some sculptural groups from both the medieval period and the Renaissance, all examples of the style of the area of Europe in which they were made. 

“The Entombment of Christ with the Virgin Mary, Saint John, Nicodemus, and Joseph of Arimathea”, 1500-1510
The Metropolitan Museum of Art

“Joseph of Arimathea from a Deposition Group”, ca. 1125-50
The Metropolitan Museum of Art

“Descent from the Cross”, early 16th century
The Metropolitan Museum of Art

The Met also has a few beautiful paintings on display that feature Joseph, including this Flemish altarpiece:

“The Crucifixion with Saints and a Donor”, ca. 1520
Joos van Cleve and a collaborator
The Metropolitan Museum of Art

For fans of Albrecht Dürer, The Brooklyn Museum has two of his woodcuts that feature Joseph and Nicodemus.  Although they are not currently on display, they can be viewed on the museum’s website.

Modern Men: Film and Television – Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus, because of their tenderly depicted roles in the Gospels, have retained positive images in popular imagination throughout time.  They were portrayed by two of the most respected actors of their day, James Mason and Laurence Olivier, respectively, in Franco Zeffirelli’s 1977 miniseries Jesus of Nazareth.

Joseph of Arimathea has been connected to the legend of the Holy Grail since thirteenth-century French poet expounded on early Christian extra-biblical writings in his poem Joseph d’Arimathe and claimed that Joseph was the first keeper of Grail.  This became tied to Arthurian legend, which established firmly Joseph in the medieval literary and religious mindset.  His presence in these legends and the long-extending belief that he was a missionary to Britain have even made him a source of comedy in the 1974 film, Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

“It reads, ‘Here may be found the last words of Joseph of Arimathea. He who is valiant and pure of spirit may find the Holy Grail in the Castle of aaarrrrggh'”

MOBIA: Joseph of Arimathea also has a special place in MOBIA’s heart.  In the upcoming exhibition catalogue for Louis C. Tiffany and the Art of Devotion, guest author Jennifer Perry Thalheimer writes that Tiffany used his father’s likeness as the model for Joseph in an Entombment window created for the World’s Columbian Exposition held in Chicago in 1893.  This window is now on view in the Charles Hosmer Morse Museum of American Art in Winter Park, Florida.

“Entombment” window, ca. 1892
Tiffany Glass and Decorating Company
The Charles Morse Museum of American Art

- T.C. for MOBIA