Overcoming church’s negative past in Spain (National Catholic Reporter)

Santa María la Blanca in Toledo, Spain by Nachama Soloveichik

Interior of Santa María la Blanca in Toledo, Spain (Nachama Soloveichik)

My article “Overcoming church’s negative past in Spain” appears in National Catholic Reporter. Here’s the lede:

TOLEDO, SPAIN “Alas the synagogues, fallen to ruins, where kites and vultures have nested; for the children of Israel have departed,” wrote Ya’aqob Albeneh in a 1391 poem. He was describing a pogrom, which he survived, that began in Seville and left thousands of Jews murdered after it spread to Barcelona, Córdoba, Seville, Toledo and Valencia.
“The major synagogue, fallen into misfortune: raises her wailing voice, synagogue of Israel,” the poem continues. “Her doors lie parched, she was penetrated by mobs, Muslims and Christians, who obliterated from there the children of Israel.” That synagogue, one of up to 10 in Toledo described in the poem, may refer to what is today called Santa María la Blanca. If that doesn’t sound like the name of a typical Jewish house of prayer, that’s because it’s a church.

An inscription on a brick wall as visitors enter into a courtyard notes, “Antigua Sinagoga del Siglo XII,” following some datings of the building to 1180. Others refer to 1203 as either the year the synagogue was built or remodeled, while others claim it was likelier built after 1250 and even as late as 1300. From the outside, the structure follows much of Moorish architecture: Its plain, stone exterior doesn’t betray the lavishness inside. After entering via enormous modern doors, visitors immediately confront a high, paneled ceiling, which rests on Moorish-styled arches held up by four rows of white octagonal columns. The layout is basilican.

Unlike at the nearby El Tránsito synagogue or the synagogue in Córdoba — the only two other former Jewish houses of prayer in Spain dating to the Middle Ages — these walls aren’t adorned with Hebrew inscriptions. Not only are Jewish symbols absent, but a cross appears above the central niche.

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North Korea gives up its secrets right in the heart of Washington (Art Newspaper)

North Korea American University

American University staff unroll not-yet-framed photographs of North Korea ahead of an exhibition.


My article “North Korea gives up its secrets right in the heart of Washington,” about exhibitions at American University’s Katzen Arts Center, appears in The Art Newspaper.

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“Piecing Together the Histories of a Series of Stolen Paintings”

Hospital de la Caridad

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My article “Piecing Together the Histories of a Series of Stolen Paintings” appears in Hyperallergic.

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(Sojourners) At the National Gallery, a Family History On Display

Three saints. Della Robbia.

A post shared by Menachem Wecker (@mwecker) on

My article “At the National Gallery, a Family History On Display” appears in Sojourners magazine. Here’s the lede:

At first encounter with the National Gallery of Art’s Della Robbia exhibition in Washington, D.C., viewers must look up, heavenward. As if in prayer.

Above the exhibit’s entrance hangs a large terracotta, titled “Resurrection of Christ” (c. 1520-5), a sort of Renaissance jigsaw puzzle, with the trademark Robbia palette of rich greens, yellows, and blues. In the work, the resurrected Christ stands in the center, carrying a standard with a red cross on a white banner, what the Crusaders adopted as St. George’s cross, symbolizing triumph over death. Surrounding Christ, angels fly and Roman soldiers sleep.

And then, at Christ’s right hand, there is a well-dressed man with flowing blond curls and hands clasped in prayer, who is even larger than Jesus. The man is an Antinori, a Florentine wine-making family.

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(NCR) Medieval art is relatable today, even out of context

four-lobed reliquary

Detail of four-lobed reliquary: “St. Francis of Assisi Receiving the Stigmata,” Limoges, France, c. 1228-30, champlevé enamel (Courtesy of Dallas Museum of Art/Musée national du Moyen Age, Thermes de Cluny/Jean-Gilles Berizzi)


My article “Medieval art is relatable today, even out of context” appears in National Catholic Reporter.

Here’s a selection:

“Given the increasing misappropriation of medieval crusader rhetoric by American white supremacists and the constant misinterpretation of movements like [the Islamic State] as ‘medieval,’ just to name two examples, our work is more important than ever,” she said. “As scholars who grapple with the complex, multivalent and multicultural Middle Ages, it is incumbent on us to work to set the record straight.”

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(Forward) How One Word Changed The Course Of World War II

My article “How One Word Changed The Course Of World War II,” about two new acquisitions at the International Museum of World War II in Natick, Mass., appears in the Jewish Daily Forward.

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(Forward) What Do You Do When You Come Face To Face With The Spanish Inquisition?

My article “What Do You Do When You Come Face To Face With The Spanish Inquisition?” — about paintings at the Prado Museum in Madrid and the Harvard Art Museums — appears in the Jewish Daily Forward.

Here’s the lede:

“Nobody,” the Monty Python skit goes, “expects the Spanish Inquisition,” and the same goes for visitors to the Prado Museum in Madrid. Turning a corner on the second floor, viewers come face-to-face with Emilio Sala Francés’ 1889 painting “The Expulsion of the Jews from Spain.”

Expulsion of the Jews. Emilio Salas

The Expulsion of the Jews from Spain (in the year 1492). Emilio Sala. 1889. Oil on canvas. Madrid, Prado Museum. (Click to enlarge)

In the picture, a lavishly-dressed Jewish emissary has laid a treasure chest at the feet of Isabella I of Castile and Ferdinand II of Aragon, who sit enthroned beneath a canopy bearing their motto, “Tanto Monta.” Just as it’s impossible for viewers to connect with the messenger — his back is turned, and it’s easy to get lost in the folds of his lavish attire — his plea to prevent his people’s expulsion falls flat.

All eyes, save the apparently-napping queen’s, are on the modestly-attired monk Tomás de Torquemada, who dramatically casts a crucifix on the box. The message is clear from Spain’s first grand inquisitor, whose name Britannica notes “has become synonymous with the Christian Inquisition’s horror, religious bigotry, and cruel fanaticism.” If the Catholic monarchs accept this Jewish blood money, they might as well be Judas selling Jesus out to the Romans.

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(Forward) Jewish Philanthropist Establishes Kansas City As Cultural Mecca

Henry Bloch

Henry Bloch, 94, co-founder of H&R Block, at the Nelson-Atkins Museum. Photo: Menachem Wecker


My article “Jewish Philanthropist Establishes Kansas City As Cultural Mecca,” which draws upon interviews with Henry Bloch, 94, co-founder (and the ‘H’ in) H&R Block, about the new wing named for him at Kansas City’s Nelson-Atkins Museum, appears in the Jewish Daily Forward.

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(NCR) At new Smithsonian African-American history and culture museum, Catholic stories emerge

NMAAHC

Interior of National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC). Photo: Menachem Wecker


My article “At new Smithsonian African-American history and culture museum, Catholic stories emerge” appears in National Catholic Reporter.

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(Forward) Why Was This Italian Artist So Interested in Painting Synagogues?

Alessandro Magnasco. Interior of a Synagogue.

Alessandro Magnasco. Interior of a Synagogue. C. 1725-35. Cleveland Museum of Art


My article “Why Was This Italian Artist So Interested in Painting Synagogues?” appears in the Jewish Daily Forward. Here’s the lede:

Nearly 275 years after Alessandro Magnasco’s death, experts still aren’t sure what to make of his work — particularly four paintings of synagogues.

Known as il Lissandrino, Magnasco was born 350 years ago Feb. 4th. He wasn’t Jewish, but synagogues were among his most frequent subjects, notes the Cleveland Museum of Art, which owns “Interior of a Synagogue” (c. 1725-35). The museum describes the work as “mystical, dark, and imaginative,” adding that the artist likely viewed Jews as outsiders. “Magnasco’s personal views on Judaism in Italy remain unknown,” it states.

Some 350 miles west, the Art Institute of Chicago owns Magnasco’s “The Synagogue” (1725-35). A third Magnasco synagogue resides in Florence’s Uffizi Gallery. Here, a rabbi covers his head with a tallit and officiates from within a circle of candles, which may be a reflection of Magnasco’s lack of experience with synagogue services, though some scholars insist he would have been familiar with the Livorno synagogue.

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