On a Masterpiece Rediscovered
Updated: Feb 28, 2019
Over several years, I visited Dr Ze'ev Goldmann in his tiny apartment in a home for the elderly in Jerusalem. Dr. Goldmann, who I have mentioned in an earlier post, was a very elderly gentleman (a gentleman in every sense of the word) in his late nineties when I first met him, a former archaeologist whose career spanned the early decades of the State of Israel and who worked in the north, mainly in and around Acre. One day while visiting him, Ze'ev, who had collected over the years a number of interesting objects from the past, showed me an item that he had purchased in Acre from some United Nations soldiers who had supposedly obtained it in Lebanon. It was a head and torso of Christ, no doubt originating as a crucifix from a church in the northern part of the kingdom of Jerusalem. Now hanging rather inappropriately on a nail on the side of his bedroom wardrobe, it was a stunning work of art.
This piece shares the El-Greco-like lengthened features that also appear on a series of magnificent figures carved on capitals from the Church of Annunciation in Nazareth, in particular a pair of life-size bearded heads as well as several smaller figures that had been possibly intended to decorate an entrance to the crypt but were never actually used.
When in 1998-9 I served as scientific advisor for an exhibition on the crusades that was to take place at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, Ze'ev agreed that this work be on loan to the museum, and it became one of the focal points of the exhibition. It has since remained on permanent loan in the medieval section of the museum, a unique and splendid example of medieval painted wooden sculpture from the Latin East. The most remarkable use made of it was when it was included some years later in an exhibition of related and contrasting objects titled Beauty and Sanctity. It was placed beside a magnificent bronze sculpture of the emperor Hadrian, and a more extraordinary contrast is hard to imagine. These are superb pieces of art representing two of the major characters in the history of Jerusalem as indeed of the world. The bronze Hadrian was discovered in 1975 at a campsite of the Sixth Roman Legion at Tel Shalem in the Beth Shean Valley. It is the epitome of power and leadership. The emperor is represented wearing a muscle cuirass decorated with archaic warriors. His countenance is one of pride, power and self-confidence but with a degree of serious thoughtfulness appropriate to a Roman emperor. By contrast, the main sense one gets from the Christ figure is of sorrow and frailty, projected through its expressionist style, its elongated form with the downcast head, the heavy eyes, the almost anorexic rib cage, and even the material itself, the soft, flaking wood and faded paint.