The return of Antisemitic Art
A “Religious” painting revives the blood libel canard
ROME. It would be expected that in times of a pandemic plague when human, scientific, political, economic and multi-religious solidarity is so urgently needed globally, and major religious and secular authorities such as Pope Francis and the Secretary General of the U.N. Antonio Guterres are calling for a planetary ceasefire, that idea of instigating a return to virulent antisemitism would be definitively – or at least temporarily – shelved. The scandalous truth is that it has not been, and that the embers of the sad and shameful history of scapegoating and massacring Jewish communities motivated by what we today refer to as “fake news”, or more simply, “outright lies”, are being set aflame again in different hotbeds, all capable of spreading the contagion. However, similar to the cure of Covid-19 patients, quarantining anti-Semitic propaganda is not sufficient. The preventive medicine or vaccine would here take the form of more effective education, as well as monitoring and responding to new outbreaks.
Following are the facts. A grotesque outspoken anti-Semitic painting entitled “The Martyrdom of Saint Simonino (Little Simon) of Trent – for Jewish ritual murder” by Giovanni Gasparro, an Italian artist from the Italian southern town of Bari, was displayed on Gasparro’s Facebook page on March 26. The date itself – the annual anniversary of the discovery of a dead child near a Jewish home in Trent in 1475, that led to the accusation, torture and murder of a 15 member Jewish community and 5 centuries of the cult of “San Simonino” abrogated only after Vatican II, – indicates Gasparro’s conscious anti-Semitic and religiously retrograde aims. By reviving the notorious antisemitic canard of Jewish ritual murder to use Christian blood for making Matzot (the unleavened bread of Passover) known as the “blood libel”, he is also clearly defying the authority of the post Conciliar Church and its Popes. Moreover the timing of the Facebook reproduction also coincided with an exhibition in the Tridentine Museum of the Trent Diocese depicting the tragic consequences of 500 years of the propagation of this hate mongering idolatry.
The 37 year old artist is renowned for his mastery of a revived Caravaggio-like style of religious art which has won him a degree of national and international fame. Notably, he was commissioned by the Archdiocese of Aquila in 2011 to decorate the city’s earthquake-damaged basilica, whose results received praise from art critic Vittorio Sgarbi. He obviously has no need to produce a scandalous anti-Semitic monstrosity to add notoriety to his growing reputation. His reasons must lie elsewhere.
The painting is now reportedly in an unidentified “private collection”. Neither he, nor any ecclesiastic or civic authority, have revealed the source of commission for this painting. It displays a scene where ugly, absolutely evil looking stereotyped Jews are torturing and strangling a screaming baby boy letting his blood out into a pan.
In a comment published by “Pagine Ebraiche” (the national daily of the Italian Jewish Community) Gadi Luzzatto Voghera, director of Milan’s Contemprary Jewish Documentation Center (CDEC) accuses the painter of incorporating the entire manual of classic antisemitic stereotypes by portraying Jews as “men and women with sleazy and treacherous looks… Dirty, slimy, thirsting for innocent blood, guided by a false religion”.
Allegedly, Gasparro’s sympathies lie with the far right extremist traditionalist wing of Catholicism that does not recognize the authority or reforms of the Second Vatican Council, nor of its subsequent Popes (except perhaps to some degree Paul VI and Benedict XVI). The painting in fact challenges the official teaching of the Roman Catholic Church and Pope Francis by attempting to revive the outrageous and defaming fiction on which the cult of San Simonino was based. The cult was declared false, null and void only on October 28, 1965 the very day of the promulgation of Nostra Aetate.
After Trent’s torture and massacre of its Jews a rabbinical ordinance forbade Jewish settlement in the city – an ordinance valid throughout five centuries of similar, copycat trials and massacres throughout Europe, and lifted only after Vatican II. During the recent exhibition of this history, a ceremony was organized by the local Italy-Israel friendship chapter and attended by local civic and religious authorities, by the presidents of the local and national Jewish Communities and Israel’s Ambassador to the Holy See.
Jewish and Israeli representatives and media have shouted out their shock and indignation at this anti-Semitic monstrosity masquerading as religious art, defying all the progress we have made in reconciliation between two sibling religions after nearly 2000 years of periodic pogroms instigated by “the teaching of contempt” based on a false interpretation of the true moral principles of Christianity – principles that are rooted in the very Judaism that was despised.
We sought reactions to this incident.
Israel’s Ambassador to the Holy See, Oren David said: “I find it most disturbing and unfortunate that such a perverted, primitive, vicious and absurdist old libel can be revived in our time. As we approach the holiday of Passover we bear in mind all the innocent Jewish men, women and children who have lost their lives as a result of this shameful libel”.
Noemi Di Segni, president of the Union of Italian Jewish Communities (UCEI) said that the painting “evokes one of the worst falsehoods – that of the Passover Blood Libel – which, together with the Deicide accusation and the conspiracy for controlling world finance, have for centuries nourished Christian anti-Judaism. When the narrative is told by a painter it becomes even more credible and fascinating for those embarked on the streets of hate. The highest echelons of the Catholic Church have written, signed and published regrets, apologies and done rethinking, but much of this message has yet to arrive to those who paint and those who write, to those who listen and those who seek a sense of omnipotence by the abuse of art and language”.
A straightforward affirmation and a strong institutional appeal was made by Rabbi David Rosen, International Director for Interreligious Relations of AJC (the American Jewish Committee). His words can be said to represent the thoughts and feelings of a large percentage of the Jewish world, which does not consider this a minor and inconsequential incident but a dangerous new precedent requiring an effective response.
Rabbi Rosen declared: “This blatant Antisemitic painting is not only outrageous in itself, it is a violation of Catholic Church teaching as affirmed since Nostra Aetate by all Popes. We call on the Holy See to publicly condemn this obscenity”.
To this, the Pontifical Commission for Religious Relations with Jews responded that “while it is clear that the painter has violated all present day Catholic teachings and guidelines, the Commission cannot issue a declaration because national issues must be taken up by the respective national Bishops Conferences. The painter’s positions also place him distinctly outside the authority of the official Catholic Church”.
The question arises of how to deal with such cases of clearly religious (albeit perverted religious) origin if they are considered outside the realm of authority, even, apparently, of a joint Catholic Catholic-Jewish commitment to counter antisemitism, as stated in the text of the Fundamental Agreement between the Holy See and the State of Israel signed on December 30, 1993. That admirable text affirms that the two States “are committed to appropriate cooperation in combatting all forms of antisemitism and all kinds of racism and of religious intolerance…”. “The Holy See – it goes on to say – takes this occasion to reiterate its condemnation of hatred, persecution and all other manifestations of antisemitism directed against the Jewish people and individual Jews anywhere, at any tìme and by anyone.” (Article 2 of the Preamble)
While present educational methods are obviously still insufficient, a ray of hope comes from the noteworthy number of exponents of the Italian Catholic Church cooperating with the Jewish Community on a variety of initiatives. While they have evidently not yet been able to penetrate reactionary and/or ignorant sections of the population where classic, old anti-Semitic stereotypes still abound, they are working assiduously in the fields of education and catechetical reform aimed at new generations that will include tomorrow’s intellectual, political and religious leaders. They are also personally engaged in friendship and dialogue with members of the Jewish community. To mention but a few examples: father Cristiano Bettega of Trent, who leads the Diocese’s Commission for Ecumenism and Interreligious Dialogue that recently hosted the exhibition on the history of the city’s mendacious cult of the “Little Simon” saint and its dire consequences, said “the Church of Trent has recognized the falsity of what was for centuries regarded as truth, and now hopes to build bonds of friendship and fruitful collaboration with every member of the Jewish People”.
Father Etienne Veto, Director of the Pontifical Cardinal Bea Institute for Judaic Studies, flanked by colleagues and scholars, develops annual programs of research, international conferences and dialogue on the highest levels offering students opportunities to glimpse into the rich world of discoveries regarding the deep Jewish roots of their Christian beliefs and customs; Bishop Ambrogio Spreafico and father Giuliano Savina, repectively president of the Italian Bishops Conference (CEI)’s Commission for Ecumenism and Interreligious Dialogue and Director of UNEDI (the National Office for Ecumenism and Dialogue), are immersed in a project of cooperation with the Italian Jewish Community (UCEI) in updating religious textbooks to liberate them of all anti Jewish misinformation and bias, while Father Savina has written a book of substantial guidelines for reforming the Catechism.
A profound, in-depth reflection on the implications of “the painting incident” were sent to us by Bishop Ambrogio Spreafico in his capacity as President of the Ecumenical and Interreligious Dialogue Commission of the Italian Bishops Conference (CEI). He considers the painting to be “a sad demonstration of how the human mind seeks old stereotypes, nourishing the anti-Semitic attitudes that are growing in these difficult times, for which outside enemies and ‘plague spreaders’ must be invented. Whom else could we accuse to have caused situations we are unable to explain or dominate? The recent exhibition at the Tridentine Museum of the Diocese of Trent once again explained the falsity of accusations against the small Trent Jewish community in 1475 for the «ritual murder» of Simone, a 28 month old baby. Yet the consequences of this horrible forerunner of fake news were dramatic and real. The first was the massacre of that tiny, helpless nucleus of innocent people. The second was the inclusion, in 1584 by Pope Sixtus V of Little Simone of Trent in Roman Martyrology. The cult spread in space and time. Finally, after centuries, on October 28, 1965, the day of the promulgation by Vatican II of the Nostra Aetate document on relations with Judaism and non Christian religions, the Catholic Church abrogated the cult”.
“There would be no need to say more if such paintings were not presented as an expression of the Christian faith, despite the fact that there is nothing Christian about them. We Catholics must abide by the teachings of the Church and definitively suppress these anti-Semitic revivals. At times, self-styled believers prefer to invent truths contrasting the Tradition, slipping factually into heresy while the Vatican II documents are erroneously perceived as optional and that one is free to accept them or not. Yet they are binding documents, signed by the Bishops of the Catholic Church and promulgated as such by the Holy Father”.
“Unfortunately, we must conclude that despite the numerous declarations published by the Church during these years, despite the gestures and words of the different Popes, that part of the Church’s teachings regarding the unique and singular relationship of Christians with Judaism has not yet entered into the hearts and minds of the faithful. Much work must still be done to make this happen. As President of the CEI Commission for Ecumenism and Interreligious Dialogue I am working to ensure the diffusion of the Council’s teachings in this regard. It is urgent for our faithful to recognize the precious presence of the Jewish community and Judaism in our cities and in the world. To achieve this, the Commission aims to favor in all ways a knowledge of Judaism in the context of catechetical teaching of the Catholic religion. The only way to avoid antisemitism is through the defeat of ignorance and the prejudices that open doors towards exclusion and racism. We are aware that racism is growing within the fears of a global world, in this difficult moment while we are under heavy attack by a pandemic that triggers instinctive reactions of defense and violence, We have no need to add more to the suffering we are already enduring in this period”.
Lisa Billig is Representative in Italy and Liaison to the Holy See of AJC (American Jewish Committee)