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Public art, private prejudice

Two works of Christian art predating the Holocaust raise questions about whether they intentionally contributed to anti-Semitism.

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At first glance, a 20th-century mural and a 12th-century altar cross have little in common. But the controversy each has provoked reaches back into old Christian dogma itself, casting light on the role such art may have played in fomenting anti-Jewish feeling.

The issues mirror those being debated over the Ten Commandments - whether the US Constitution's First Amendment permits or prohibits the commandments from being displayed in public places such as courthouses - that will be taken up by the US Supreme Court in March.

The Boston Public Library, site of the mural "Triumph of Religion," and New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art, which acquired the cross as part of its medieval art collection, have approached their stewardship of these objects very differently. The decisions made offer a case study in dealing with controversial religious art.

At issue is whether a public institution should display religious (in this case Christian) artwork that may malign or offend people of another faith.

This question gathers intensity in light of the Holocaust. People today are far more conscious of the creeping effects of intolerance. Societies are also far more pluralistic than they were when John Singer Sargent began his mural or an unknown craftsman carved the ivory cross.

Two works, one doctrine

Begun in 1890 and left unfinished in 1919, Sargent's mural series in the library's Special Collections Hall incorporates a tradition that depicts Christianity as ascendant over Judaism. Though a casual visitor is likely to miss the significance of these images, one panel shows a vanquished Judaism - personified by the female figure of "Synagogue," a blindfolded old woman with a broken staff and her crown falling off - a common image in European Christian art.

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