An exhibit in New York illuminates the complex relationship between Christians and Jews in medieval Spain and shows that producing art was often a cooperative, interfaith enterprise - writes Chris Herlinger.
The exhibit, 'Uneasy Communion: Jews, Christians, and the Altarpieces of Medieval Spain,' at the Museum of Biblical Art, does not downplay the tensions that existed in Spain and ultimately led to the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492.
At the end of the display of more than two dozen paintings, tiles and other artefacts, visitors are reminded, in large script, that after 1492, the spirit of Jewish-Christian cooperation ended abruptly and tragically.
Art critics have said, however, that the display, helps correct an oft-stated presumption that Jews did not produce art during the 14th and 15th centuries and that Jews and Christians had little interaction with one another.
Rather, they say the exhibition proves that Spain was fertile ground for interfaith cooperation and even dialogue, something they believe is worth recalling during this period of the Jewish commemoration of Passover and the Christian observance of Easter.
"There was a ferment, like the ferment of what happens today in the contemporary US – it's the ferment that occurs when you have the mixing of cultures," Vivian Mann, the exhibition's curator, told Ecumenical News International in an interview.
A key theme for the exhibit is the idea of co-existence, or "convivencia" in Spanish – the idea that mutual creativity by Christian and Jewish artists occurred alongside what the exhibit call "mutual friction, rivalry and suspicion."
The exhibit notes that Christian and Jewish artists and artisans worked side–by-side in artists' workshops, or studios to produce religious pieces for both Christian and Jewish places of worship. Christian artisans illuminated Hebrew manuscripts. Meanwhile, Jews - both those who retained their faith and those who converted to Christianity - produced pieces for churches.
Dominating the exhibit are the large 'retablos', multi-panelled altarpieces that convey, either explicitly or subtly, the problems faced by Jews in Spain. Other pieces see the Jewish tradition as ushering in Christianity and convey "a messianic view of a future in which Jews would join with Christians in one faith," the exhibit notes.
The various pieces demonstrate that "the whole mixture of cultures is what made the [overall] culture of medieval Spain so vital," said Mann, who teaches at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York.
* 'Uneasy Communion: Jews, Christians, and the Altarpieces of Medieval Spain,' is on display at the Museum of Biblical Art in New York City, USA, until 30 May 2010.
[With acknowledgements to ENI. Ecumenical News International  is jointly sponsored by the World Council of Churches, the Lutheran World Federation, the World Alliance of Reformed Churches and the Conference of European Churches.]