Saturday, September 11, 2010

Museum of Biblical Art

Saturday, continued

TIME: 45 min
COST: $7 each

Opened in 2005, the Museum of Biblical Arts (MOBIA) is one of New York’s newer museums, but grown out of one of its older societies, the American Bible Society (founded in 1817).  It’s located in a modern glass-fronted building on Broadway, above a bookshop selling what you’d expect the American Bible Society to sell.  The museum had an odd security set up, with three security guards briskly patrolling its tiny two room space and peevishly demanding all of our pens, leading us to wonder what sort of violent graffiti artists normally frequent the place

Going in, I was a little worried that the museum might resemble a Christian Science Reading Room, but the museum is careful to take an educational and religiously neutral approach to the bible, viewing it as an important source of stories and symbols in Western art and offering exhibits on a wide range of art with biblical context.  To quote from its mission statement, “MOBIA takes no position on religion, only that the role of the Bible in literature and art is culturally profound.”  Past exhibits have included the influences of the bible on modern artists (Chagall’s Bible; Mystical Storytelling), cinema (Reel Religion; A Century of the Bible and Film), folk art (Self-Taught Artists, the Bible, and the American South), and, of course, medieval art (The Glory of Ukraine; Sacred Images from the 11th to the 19th Centuries).  One of the two exhibits on display today fell squarely in that latter category. 

Currated by Dr. Vivian B. Mann from the Jewish Theological Seminary, the exhibit “Uneasy Communion: Christians, Jews and the Altarpieces of Medieval Spain” used art of 14th- and 15th-century Spain to attempt to prove that Christian and Jewish artists of the time collaborated on the same pieces.  During this period, Spain was a multi-cultural society of Muslims, Jews and Christians, but many medieval Christian depictions of Jews are negative stereotypes and it’s often assumed that Jews lived apart, with little contact or co-mingling.  Yet this exhibit argued that that assumption may not be entirely correct, as artistic studios appear to have had both Jewish and Christian artists collaborating on the same pieces: Jews and conversos (Jews converted to Christianity) painting Christian altarpieces, and Christians illuminating Hebrew manuscripts.  Paul is fascinated by Spanish art and history and had been virtually drooling with anticipation to see this exhibit, timing our visit today to see it before it concluded.  (No, he’s not Spanish, just quirky.)  Unfortunately, he left feeling a little disappointed.

The first problem was that the exhibit was small, probably too small to illustrate its complicated historical subject.  There were only about 30 pieces (paintings, manuscripts, ceramic tiles and Jewish ceremonial objects) displayed in one small room.  All were on loan from other museums, most of which are in New York City (such as The Metropolitan Museum of Art and The Hispanic Society), with some paintings represented in photographs or reproductions.  It definitely seemed as if small, young MOBIA did not have enough clout to borrow items from further afield, but, to be more charitable, medieval art is notoriously fragile and doesn’t travel well, or without good reason.

The second problem was that much of the exhibit’s arguments and explanations were in tomb-like “catalog essays” tucked away in a nook at the back of the room, which Paul and I did not discover until we were ready to leave.  At this point we were a little frustrated and out of patience from trying to piece together the cryptic comments written on the walls in small print.  With some effort, we had determined a few things, like the fact that pointy halos in paintings meant the holy person in question was Jewish (see example at left), and that biblical Jews were often featured in places of prominence and honor in Christian alterpieces in Spain.  Also, many of the altarpieces featuring Jews had extremely detailed and knowledgeable depictions of Jewish temples and rites, for example, an early-15th-century painting illustrating the boy Jesus impressing doctors in a synagogue accurately represents what the interior of a medieval synagogue looks like (see picture above).  Also, a depiction of Zacharias contains elaborate details of Jewish objects and rites, such as a tik (Torah container) and an attendant holding a golden rope tied to the priest (allowing retrieval of his body if he died in the Holy of Holies; see picture at left).  It's unlikely that a Christian would know these details, suggesting that the artist was Jewish or converso.

The second exhibit at MOBIA was “Pearl of Great Price,” a selection of about 20 bibles from the Rare Bible Collection of the American Bible Society.  The society has been collecting for nearly 200 years and has over two thousand bibles and manuscripts.  Much of the collection has a historical focus, with bibles in original/ancient languages (i.e. Greek and Hebrew) documenting the history of bible text in early translations.  However the bibles on display today were of less scholarly interest, chosen as crowd pleasers for the beauty of their covers and illustrations, or association with exotic locales, historical events and/or celebrities. 

We saw the first folio Bible printed in America, elegant woodblocks of early bibles printed in Japan and gorgeous silver inlays on Chinese bibles meant for royalty.  We tried (usually unsuccessfully) to pick out words in translations into exotic languages, such as Delaware, Bengali or Malay, and marveled over the gigantic Braille bible made for Helen Keller.  It was a fun exhibit, but Paul and I would have appreciated learning more about the background and history of each bible.  Looking at them, you knew that each bible had a story to tell, about why it was made and the people who fought battles (sometimes literally) to print them, but, regrettably, those stories weren’t part of the exhibit, so they were reduced to being just nifty books. 

Our take on things: The Museum of Biblical Arts is a very small, very new museum, with both good and bad points.  I was disappointed by the lack of detail in the exhibits, but pleasantly surprised by the museum’s scholarly and non-preachy approach to biblical art.  Paul was dissatisfied by its limited space and items, but applauded their ambition in tackling a complicated historical subject.  We both think that, given time (and a reduction of their security), this museum could develop into a very interesting space.
Images in this post, from the top: The Prophet Daniel, from the Altarpiece of Santa Cruz by Miguel Jiménez and Martín Bernart, 1485–87 (A painting from the Altarpiece of the True Cross that singles out three Hebrew prophets, stressing their importance by placing them at the eye level of the congregation.); exterior of the Museum of Biblical Arts;  Christ Among the Doctors, anonymous, early 15th century (Painting is set in a medieval synagogue bearing a distinct resemblance to one discovered during a recent excavation of a Jewish quarter in Lorca.);  Annucation to Zacharias, from the Retablo of St. John the Baptist by Domingo Ram, late 15th century.  (This painting is set in the Holy of Holies in the Jerusalem Temple. The prophet is dressed as the high priest on Yom Kippur, and fidelity to Jewish ritual is extensive, including the tik, bells on the garment hem, and the chain around the prophet’s leg held by a priest outside the sacred space.); four selections from the Rare Bible Collection at MOBIA.


  1. Religious art is difficult to write about in an objective way, because, whether you are a believer of some kind, an unbeliever - militant or accommodating - or a bemused quasi-agnostic, the subject matter is bound to create some sort of emotional reaction. In addition, religious sanctuaries and museums are either free (the cathedral at Chartres, for example), or outrageously priced (the Sainte Chapelle in Paris charges 22 euros - about $29 - for admission). $7 seems a bit high for such a small one. It's a pity their information was not better presented; I had never heard about that pointy feature of Jewish halos in Christian art, nor the business of tying a rope to the high priest so that he could be hauled out in case he died without the hauler having to enter the holy of holies. The relationship of Christians, Jews, and Moslems in medieval Spain (and we are talking about a period of nearly 800 years) is as complicated as an arabesque mosaic. - Mike

  2. I, too, found the details interesting, the pointy Jewish halos, etc. I'm a big fan of long descriptions with art. One can always choose to read less if one wants. It's unfortunate that most museums choose to leave the art space "clean" by having the most minimal and uninformative of labeling text.

  3. Having just returned from a 2 week visit to France, I am feeling immersed in "the church," meaning of course the catholic church. It is impossible to imagine how much money went into building those incredible cathedrals. Notre Dame and Chartres were exemplary, but every town and village had a cathedral with huge gothic ceilings, a plethora of gold and marble throughout, and beautiful carved statues. Obviously, religion was first and foremost in the heart and minds of the medieval people. Lynn