Sanctus, Sanctus, Sanctus Lights Beyond the Eye of the Beholder
Sacred Beauty Home Page Vanishing Point
Camera Sacra Beauty and the Book In the Beginning

The exhibition The Beauty of Sanctity, the centerpiece of a series of shows in honor of the Israel Museum's 40th anniversary, presents masterpieces from the Museum collections, all of which relate to the subject of beauty and sanctity.
(The virtual exhibition tour )

The exhibition brings together key works from all of the Museum's departments, from different historical periods and various artistic fields, in order to create linkages between them - some self-evident, others unexpected. These juxtapositions, we hope, will inspire the viewer with new insights: acquaintance with the past will deepen the understanding of the present, while the present-day may engender original interpretations of the past, or, as the philosopher Theodor Adorno said in a different context: "He who understands Bach will understand Schoenberg, but only he who understands Schoenberg will understand Bach."

What is more, the very encounter between works that belong to different periods and diverse cultures creates an experience that was not possible until recently. This kind of encounter easily occurs in books, and it is the theme of the imaginary photographic museum described by French author Andre Malraux; here, however, we have tangible, authentic artistic presences coming into contact with one another, creating an experience of an entirely different sort, one that is capable of enriching our self-knowledge. It is perhaps the primary role of the museum to be a place where we gain understanding about our lives and imbue them with meaning.

Itzhak Danziger, Israeli (born Germany), 1916-1977
Nimrod, 1939
Nubian sandstone, 95x33x33 cm
Gift of Dr. David H. Orgler, Zurich and Jerusalem

The root of the Hebrew word for sanctity expresses separation and distinction. The sanctification of an object separates it from other objects, applying special rules to it. Thus, when in a Jewish wedding the groom "consecrates" the bride with the ring, he thereby renders her off-limits to all of humanity besides him; similarly, the sanctity of the Sabbath indicates that this day is separate from the rest of the week. In Judaism, sanctity is in fact invested with a measure of caution. A measure that distinguishes between the sacred that is God - ineffable, existing beyond the confines of nature and completely inexpressible in concrete form, impossible to contain in an object or a verbal description - and the sacred that is associated with the Most Holy and emanates from it, but is lesser in degree. Visual representations are incapable of transmitting absolute sanctity - "and all the people saw the thunderings," says the description of the divine revelation on Mount Sinai - yet certain ceremonial objects are associated with the lesser degrees of sanctity, even though the Jewish faith avoids sanctifying them explicitly.

Lebanon region, Crusader period, late 12th or early 13th century CE
Poplar wood, plaster, and paint, 41x22 cm
On permanent loan from the
Ze'ev Goldmann Collection, Jerusalem

Although the sacred object is an anomaly in the secular world - since the secular outlook considers human reality to be the only context for understanding human action - the concept of sanctity is not foreign to it. If, in the secular world, the idea of the authentic work of art is a holdover from an ancient religious experience, this is due to the fact that the artwork initially had a ritual-magical role, and this ancient function still casts its shadow over what later became art's aesthetic role. Indeed, in the veneration of beauty, even in its most secularized forms, we can still see the traces of religious worship, just as sacred ancient myths can be found concealed within modern ideas, and just as secular ceremonies retain the structures of religious rites. The present exhibition similarly does not separate religious sanctity from "secular sanctity."

The relationship between sanctity and the institution of the museum is an interesting one. The masterpieces displayed in the museum are perceived as sacred objects of sorts, on account of their very uniqueness and distinction from the ordinary cultural continuum. Museums are the custodians of these sacred objects, sometimes even generating their sacred status by bringing them inside their walls. In his utopian Zionist novel Jerusalem Rebuilt (1918), Boris Schatz, the founder of the Bezalel School of Arts and Crafts and the Bezalel National Museum (later to become the Israel Museum), described the Third Temple that would someday be erected as a national museum "guarding the nation's sanctities." Some contemporary thinkers still consider museums to be the cathedrals of the secular world, although art theories offering a more critical and demystifying view of the museum object have undermined this sanctified secular status, emphasizing the connection between the concept of sanctity and the politics of power. Furthermore, sanctifying a work of art may blind us to the fundamental aspect of rebellion, the creation out of defiance and destruction, that characterizes the birth of most great art. Sanctification depends on social consensus; the artwork is often antisocial. The tension between these poles implies that the "new" sanctity has a critical side, and that the viewer's encounter with it is no passive experience.

This exhibition does not address the definition of beauty and the questions surrounding it, which have occupied generations of philosophers and critics in the field of aesthetics, the branch of philosophy concerned with beauty. The perennial controversy regarding the relativity of the definition of beauty, the difficulty in formulating its essence, and the fluctuations in the degree of importance ascribed to it by society at one time or another do not change the basic connection between the museum and the concept of beauty - a connection that is clear, though not always simple and obvious. We say "beauty and sanctity," since the relationship between these two concepts has always been one of affinity. In theological terms one could say that the sacred does not need the beautiful as ornament; rather, it relates to the beautiful as an element in the harmony of its being. Like the sacred, the beautiful is unique, special, extraordinary, set apart from the usual range of visual stimuli; like the sacred, it has been identified in various philosophical doctrines with the Good and the True. It could be said that beauty is often an embodiment of sanctity.

The influential Jewish-German philosopher and critic Walter Benjamin formulated the concept of the "aura" that surrounds the authentic artistic object - something that can never be repeated, yet is present here and now, endowed with the simultaneous uniqueness and immanence that belong to the realm of the sacred. That same aura sheds its light on this exhibition, which is a celebration of uniqueness. Our belief in the importance of the aura guided us in choosing the works, as we sought to present the museum as a treasure chest - a place where the encounter with singular artworks makes it possible to experience enchantment and inspiration. The exhibition proposes a very specific way of seeing these works: as the products of great ideas, hopes, dreams, and fears, of passion and love; as the result of the call to rebellion and revolution; and as the outcome of the human need to respect and preserve time-honored traditions. But most of all we hope that these powerful images, laden with the authority of the cultural past and suffused with the aura of the authentic, will be viewed with excitement, with exultation in the face of a kind of miracle: that wondrous ability of talented artists to transform tangible material into an event of the spirit. The summons to this kind of transformation bears the marks of a fateful encounter. This is the beauty of sanctity. This is the sanctity of beauty.
The Buddhist Monk Ganjin (?)
Japan, 18th century
Gilt wood, 28x46.5x54 cm
Gift of Ofer Shagan, Tokyo,
in memory of his grandmother, Bella Hauslender

The exhibition creates various contexts for exploring different aspects of sanctity - sanctity of place, of time, and of the body. Here are some examples of these groupings:

Burial Society Glass
Prague, Bohemia, dated 5473 (1713)
Glass, enamel, paint, 24.5x15.7 cm

The essentially irrational feelings that define an experience as sacred include awe, dependence, enthusiasm, religious fervor, and a sense of one's own insignificance. One section of the exhibition, God, Gods, and Idols, is dedicated to representations of the sacred based on the human figure - representations that evoke feelings such as these. The modern Israeli sculpture Nimrod is displayed near a statue of the Roman emperor Hadrian; an ancient fertility goddess stands beside an African reliquary figure. And there can be no better embodiment of the connection between beauty and sanctity than Venus, the goddess of love and beauty, portrayed in a sculpture that graced a Roman bathhouse in Beth Shean.

Another group of objects addresses the concept of the "Temple of Man." An ancient model shrine for the home is displayed alongside a self-portrait by a young Israeli painter, his mouth agape, his face amazed. Both represent the connection between material shell and spiritual content. Beside them is a section from an important Dead Sea Scroll, discussing a community that declared itself to be a pure "temple of men," a substitute for the temple of stone in Jerusalem, which it considered defiled.

Human beings appeal to the divine, seeking the fulfillment of their wishes, by means of prayer. In the exhibition, this theme is presented through a Byzantine wall painting of orants, a statue of a Buddhist priest, and Jewish and Muslim illuminated holy books of great rarity, along with a well-known image of hands raised toward the moon, engraved on a basalt stela found in the excavations of a Canaanite temple at Hazor.

The offering of sacrifices on the altar is perhaps the most dramatic of rituals connecting the human and the divine. This is the subject of a group of objects that include an ancient altar, the place most directly symbolic of the meeting of these two realms; Israel Hershberg's painting Cow Tongue, which addresses the fundamental meaning of an altar - a table on which the slaughtered animal is laid; and Altar to the Chajes High School, a work by contemporary French artist Christian Boltanski that features photographs of students at a Viennese Jewish school, who most likely perished in the Holocaust.

In many traditions, angels are celestial, quasi-divine beings that mediate between the upper and lower worlds and between the sacred and the profane. They have been the objects of prayers and the subjects of sacred texts and countless artworks. The celebrated German artist Anselm Kiefer named his lead sculpture in the form of a warplane, massively immovable, Angel of History: Poppy and Memory. This is an angel of destruction, too tired to soar aloft, too weary to remember, to know, or even to cause harm. Kiefer's angel alludes to the Angelus Novus depicted by one of the greatest painters of the twentieth century, Paul Klee. Inspired by this intriguing drawing, its owner, Walter Benjamin, formulated a pessimistic theory of history and progress. Benjamin eventually committed suicide during World War II. War and Holocaust form the backdrop to these works. Very often memorials and ceremonies of remembrance are charged with sacred energy. The siren sounded throughout Israel on the country's days of remembrance announces a temporary break in ordinary, historical time, allowing for the irruption of the sacred time of mourning and memory. Yael Bartana addresses this complexity in her video work, displayed in this part of the show.

Daniel Enkaoua, born France 1962, active Israel and France
Self-Portrait, 1992
Oil on canvas, 45.5x50.3 cm
The Vera and Arturo Schwarz Collectionof
Israeli Art in the Israel Museum

The Temple in Jerusalem and its vessels are at the center of a group of important objects displayed in connection with Nicolas Poussin's painting The Destruction and Sack of the Temple. If the Temple contains the "Holy of Holies," then Jerusalem is the "Holy" -the ultimate sacred place. No other city can compare with its symbolic power and spiritual status, which have made it the cause of wars between peoples, religions, and empires. It is sacred to all three monotheistic religions, fulfilling all the conditions that define a place as holy. In mythology and theology, the sacred place is identified as the center, or navel (omphalos), of the world. This is how Jerusalem is perceived, and these aspects of it are presented here.

Rembrandt van Rijn, Dutch, 1606-1669
St. Peter in Prison (St. Peter Kneeling), 1631
Oil on panel, 59x47.8 cm
Gift of Judy and Michael Steinhardt, New York,
to American Friends of the Israel Museum

Ever since the dawn of human culture, gold has been identified with the sacred. There is something extraordinary about gold: its rarity, its color, its sheen. Gold never rusts or tarnishes. It is therefore viewed as eternal, as a symbol of an abstract essence, and as a natural conductor of sanctity. Accordingly, gold is most appropriate for the representation of immortal gods untouched by merely human time, and no material is better suited to the making of a death mask commemorating the deceased. Christian icons and mosaics made generous use of gilt backgrounds and golden halos adorning the heads of saints. This section of the exhibition features a group of gold artifacts from diverse cultures and different eras. The light emanating from gold recalls the golden glow in Rembrandt's St. Peter in Prison, a masterpiece that draws together many of the themes explored in the show.

The figure of Lilith is at the center of another group of works - one which highlights the idea that sanctity has always been imperiled and vulnerable, and that the reverse side of sanctity has to do with the powers of evil. In Jewish legend, Lilith was the first wife of Adam; aspiring to be his equal, she was abandoned by him, and ever since has been prowling the world in the form of a destructive power directed against the sanctity of marriage and the lives of newborn infants. Her naked, sensual body in the work by contemporary artist Kiki Smith clings to the gallery wall, threateningly overhanging the Yemenite mother from the Jewish ethnography collection, who defends herself by covering her body and concealing it behind a triangular partition.

Faced with the inevitability of death, human beings grow more keenly aware of their own insignificance, and come to suspect that their life and fate are ruled by mysterious, obscure powers. Such emotions and intuitions are part and parcel of the realm of sanctity. Burial shrouds; anthropoid sarcophagi; a glass cup depicting a funeral procession, used in the ceremonies of the Prague Jewish Burial Society in the eighteenth century; British artist Anthony Gormley's sculpture of a man stretched out on the floor; and a series of photographs by Nicholas Nixon depicting the external effects of time on his wife and her sisters - these are the core works in this group. Additional groupings in the show address such subjects as the concept of consecrating the union of man and woman during the marriage ceremony, or the idea of havdalah (differentiation), the Jewish ritual that proclaims the separation between sacred and profane time.

The installation Wish Piece by artist Yoko Ono takes on content and meaning only through our interaction with it: viewers are invited to write their wishes on slips of paper and tie them to the branches of a tree. Unlike prayer, with its predetermined and institutionalized formulae, the expression of a wish on a note is a private, individual action that is full of freedom. The tree, as part of the cycle of life and as a participant in human destiny, serves here as a live intermediary with the world beyond, and calls to mind the sacred trees familiar to us from ancient and contemporary Middle Eastern cultures. This work closes, like a sort of parting gift, the Beauty of Sanctity exhibition.

Burial Mask
Lambayeque-Sican, Peru, 900-1100 CE
Gold, copper, pigment, 35x44 cm
Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Arnold Maremont, Chicago, to American Friends of the
Israel Museum

The Beauty of Sanctity: Masterworks from Every Age

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