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Public art, private prejudice

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"We believe that the library should be a place for discussion - even for wrong ideas," Mr. Margolis says.

The library also produced educational materials and last fall conducted a series of public discussions on the Sargent murals.

During one forum, panelist Philip Cunningham, executive director of Boston College's Center for Christian-Jewish Learning, spoke of supersessionism as "replacement theology."

Pointing to the consequences of such teaching, panelist Adam Strom, of the educational program Facing History and Ourselves, said that the public today is in a better position since the Holocaust to judge the harm engendered by anti-Semitism than was the public in Sargent's day.

Inscriptions in ivory

The cross became a lightning rod of controversy for two reasons. First, the curator who acquired it in 1963 hid the fact that it was inscribed with derogatory references to Judaism and may have contributed to a pogrom against Jews at England's St. Edmundsbury cathedral in 1190. These facts would have been of great interest to the many Jewish supporters of the Met, not to mention its trustees. Second, the museum has chosen to play down the cross's anti-Semitic inscriptions in its display at the Cloisters, the Metropolitan Museum's medieval branch in Fort Tryon Park.

Of 100 inscriptions carved on the cross (quite a feat since it is only about two-feet tall) relating to Old Testament prophecy of the Messiah and its New Testament fulfillment, only two refer specifically to Judaism. One translates: "The Jews laughed at the pain of God dying," and the other: "Synagogue has collapsed with great foolish effort."

The cross's notoriety surfaced in the book "King of the Confessors," a page-turner on the intrigues at the Met by Thomas Hoving. Mr. Hoving, later director of the Met until 1977, was at the time of the purchase a curatorial assistant pushing for acquisition of the cross on its artistic merits.

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