Eclipse of God: Aaron Rosen offers a Jewish reading of an anti-Jewish masterpiece.
Uccello's six-part predella tells the story of a Christian woman who is duped by a Jewish usurer into stealing the Eucharist in exchange for cash. The Jew boils and stabs the Host, only to discover--in a miraculous testimony to the efficacy of transubstantiation--that it begins to ooze blood. In the second panel, which forms the basis for Kitaj's canvas, blood has begun to seep through a crack in the wall, attracting the attention of the town's soldiers, who are about to break down the door to the Jew's home. In the ensuing scenes, the Host is rescued while the offending Jew, along with his wife and two children, are burned at the stake. Meanwhile, in the final scene the Christian woman--a victim of the Jew's perfidy--is forgiven from on high, receiving the Host from hovering angels on her deathbed.
The inspiration for this narrative was a miraculous incident which purportedly occurred in Paris in 1290, but which was known by the fifteenth century in numerous popular Italian variations. Artistic representations of the legend of the profaned Host are rare in Italy, but the motif served a critical purpose in Urbino, where it was meant to justify the implementation of a new banking system, put in place to stamp out the practice of usury; an exclusively Jewish livelihood. The desecration legend also served to reinforce the broader policies of the local ruler, Duke Federigo da Montefeltro. As Katz argues, 'Painting symbolically punished Jews for their alleged crimes in an attempt to preserve Christian social order.' In addition to clarifying the parameters of tolerance within Christian society, the symbolic murder of Jews also deflected attention away from a much greater but less easily contained threat: Ottoman Turks. Together, these combined factors go some way towards explaining the exceptionally virulent tone of the piece, which takes the unusual step of showing the offending Jew's entire family burned alive. Uccello even makes a further, unprecedented move, by depicting the Jew's wife as pregnant. Thus, even the unborn Jewish child is designated as unworthy of reprieve, in sharp distinction to the Christian woman, whose theft of the Eucharist sets the drama in motion.
As Marilyn Aronberg Lavin remarks, all this violence is belied by the refined aesthetic of the piece, with its delicate figures rendered in what she calls 'pure crystals of mathematical space.' For Kitaj, it is precisely this incongruous blend of beauty and barbarity which seems to have prompted his engagement with Uccello's masterpiece. More than a simple desire to avenge anti-Jewish imagery, Kitaj seems animated by a genuine reverence for the meticulous visual investigations of Uccello, whose Deluge (c. 1447) fresco he had previously used as inspiration for his 1990 painting Greenwich Village. Obsessed as he was with the history of painting, Uccello's biography probably also held an appeal for Kitaj. Well into the throes of what he called his 'old-age style' when he painted Eclipse of God, Kitaj may have felt a kinship with the elderly Uccello, whose style of painting was falling out of style at the time he executed the Miracle of the Profaned Host, regarded as one of the artist's very latest, if not last, paintings. Altogether, Uccello seems to occupy an ambiguous role in Kitaj's imagination, akin to that of T S Eliot, whose poetry was a major influence on Kitaj, and whom he frequently referred to as 'my favourite anti-Semite.'
The thrill for Kitaj, then, lies in a careful reversal of Uccello's perspective, beginning quite literally. Where Uccello plots the lines of sight in his panel to intersect just behind the Christian soldiers, causing us to identify with the soldiers' side of the story, Kitaj's composition directs the viewer to the threatening tip of the soldier's lance. The decision to turn Uccello's axe into a lance, and depict it penetrating the door rather than swinging towards it, further focuses our attention on the violence of the act being committed. As the lance pierces the fleshy red plane of the door, we are reminded that it is not so much the Eucharist being violated, but rather the sanctity of a Jewish home. Our sympathies are further aroused by the more personal, expressionist touch with which Kitaj renders the Jew and his family, opposed to the sharp, flattened geometry of the mob assembled outside.
There is also a strong personal element in Kitaj's picture, which extends beyond the artist's empathy for the Jewish victims of the kind of attacks depicted by Uccello. Kitaj was convinced that the scathing reception of his 1994 retrospective at the Tate had been motivated by English anti-Semitism, and he lashed out publicly at critics. At the height of this controversy--the 'Tate War' as he called it--Kitaj's wife, the American painter Sandra Fisher, died suddenly from an aneurism. Blaming his detractors for Sandra's death, Kitaj declared that England, his home for over thirty years, was dead to him. After exhibiting the ferocious painting The Killer-Critic Assassinated by His Widower, Even at the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition in 1997, Kitaj departed bitterly for Los Angeles. For all its airy palette and light brush work, Eclipse of God, begun soon after Kitaj's arrival in California, conveys the artist's sense of being under siege, even with a continent now between himself and his critics. The yellow barrier in the canvas might be read as the wall of Kitaj's 'Yellow Studio' in the back yard of his new home in Los Angeles. And where the Jewish woman in Uccello's panel is clothed in vibrant red, in Kitaj's revision she's been turned an ashen black in memory of Sandra. A small child clings to her shade, perhaps reminding us of Kitaj and Sandra's young son Max.
Beyond Kitaj's own trials--which he casts in explicitly Jewish terms--the figures in Kitaj's painting also play a more emblematic role, symbolizing the long-suffering history of the Jews in Europe, from the purported golden age of quattrocento Italy to the horrors of the Shoah. To all these accumulated tragedies, Kitaj's God--his name sketched on the cloaked figure in the foreground--stands witness. Tellingly, Kitaj positions the Almighty alongside the persecutors, watching impassively as they threaten to overwhelm their Jewish victims. While this depiction of the Divine might recall Exodus 33, in which Moses sees God from behind, the impending violence of the scene brings to mind the desperate plea to God in the Psalms: 'Why do you hide your face?' (Ps. 44.24; 88.14). In a small canvas from 2005, one of several late works in which he takes up this theme of God's hidden countenance, Kitaj spells out this very question at the bottom of the painting, citing Psalm 44. Just as the Israelites suffer unjustly under their enemies in the psalm which reminds God that it is not they who have forgotten their holy covenant--the Jews in Kitaj's Eclipse stand blameless, awaiting God's intervention. Translucent and inert, however, amidst the tumult, God shows no signs of coming to the rescue. Whereas the Corpus Domini Altarpiece was meant to remind Christians of the 'real presence' of their God in the sacrament of communion, Kitaj imagines a Jewish God who has become--at most--an absent presence.
To use the painting's title, borrowed from the eponymous book by Martin Buber, we witness the Eclipse of God. In this series of essays, published in 1952, Buber attempts to unmask the ways in which modern philosophy has marginalized God, making a genuine I-Thou relationship with the Divine seem unreal or impossible. Behind the task which Buber ostensibly sets himself, however, lies a further anxiety which he only hints at: that it is not merely humanity which has obscured God in modernity, but God who has shrouded himself from humanity. It is this second eclipse, as it were, which lies at the heart of Kitaj's canvas. By choosing to frame his work around this question of theodicy, the problem of God's presence in the face of evil, Kitaj makes it clear that his stated project of repainting Uccello and other artistic precursors 'over again, after Auschwitz,' extends beyond the merely polemic; beyond simply shifting accusations from Jews to Christians. For the Jewish viewer, Kitaj reassigns Uccello's masterpiece within a Jewish tradition of protest, of calling the Almighty to account in the spirit of Psalm 44. For the Christian viewer, who might be unfamiliar or uncomfortable with Uccello's image of Jewish persecution, Kitaj insists on the value of resurrecting this work as a cultural inheritance. If the Jewish artist is accustomed to approaching the artistic past from the outside, from a position of disjunction, Kitaj suggests that it might be just as important for Christians to train themselves to be uncomfortable with their own tradition. To learn to look, in a sense, with Jewish eyes.
Aaron Rosen is Lecturer in Sacred Traditions and the Arts at King's College London. His first book was entitled Imagining Jewish Art (Legenda, 2009) and he is currently working on a new book entitled The Hospitality of Images: Modern Art and Interfaith Dialogue.