R. B. Kitaj (American, 1932-2007)
Eclipse of God (After the Uccello Panel Called Breaking Down the Jew's Door), 1997-2000
- Oil and charcoal on canvas
- 35 15/16 x 47 15/16 in. (91.3 x 121.8 cm)
- The Jewish Museum, New York
- Purchase: Oscar and Regina Gruss Memorial and S. H. and Helen R. Scheuer Family Foundation Funds, 2000-71
Not on view
Commissioned for a church in Urbino, Italy, Uccello’s work depicts a woman who sells a sacred Host (a Eucharist wafer believed to represent the body of Jesus) to a Jewish merchant, who then throws it into a fire. Miraculously, according to the story, the host bleeds under the wall of the house into the street, which alerts local Christians who then break down the door and rescue the Host. The Jewish merchant and his family are eventually burned at the stake for their crime against the Christian faith.
Accusations of Host desecration began in Europe in the 13th century. During the Middle Ages, thousands of Jews were falsely accused of this crime and burned at the stake for these alleged acts.
Uccello uses the story of the desecration of the Host to portray Jews as heretical and faithless. This was part of a campaign that sought to replace Christian dependence on Jewish moneylenders with a new Catholic agency. (The church’s regulations against loans with interest, combined with the fact that Jews were generally denied admittance to craft guilds and other professional opportunities, had led many medieval Jews to become moneylenders.) Uccello’s painting was intended as an attack on Jewish moneylenders.
By appropriating Uccello's imagery, Kitaj makes a contemporary connection to these historical events. His title, Eclipse of God, refers to a text by the 20th-century Jewish philosopher Martin Buber. This reference implies that the image is meant as a commentary about the absence of G-d during historical moments when the Jewish community's existence was threatened.
Kitaj reworks the figurative material in Uccello’s 15th-century painting to create a contemporary, abstract composition. Moreover, he inverts the meaning of Uccello’s work through his reformulation of details. He employs rigid, geometric forms to portray the mob in all of its intolerant fury. The Jews, in contrast, are rendered with looser brushstrokes. Kitaj also seems to intimate an “us/them” mentality or a notion of the “other” on the part of the players in this incident by focusing on formal contrasts: the Christians’ side of the canvas features geometric forms, hard lines, solid planes of colors, and warm colors; the Jews’ side features looser brushstrokes, gestural, uneven paint application, and predominantly cool colors.
The neck of the figure in the orange coat with its back toward the viewer bears the word "god." Incorporating this figure in the foreground of the composition is enigmatic and open to interpretation. The inspiration appears to be the passage from Exodus 33:23, which states that G-d will never show His face and can only be seen from behind.
In 1989, Kitaj published his First Diasporist Manifesto, a terse, personal, and playful treatise in which he muses about what it means for an artist to create from the position of being an outsider, in particular, a Jew. Modern Jewish history—especially related to anti-Semitism and the Holocaust—is of paramount importance for Kitaj's textual and visual explorations. Dubbing his artistic movement "Diasporism," he deploys this shrewd terminology to underscore the paradox of his outsider status.
Baigell, Matthew. Jewish Art in America: An Introduction. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, 2007.
Berger, Maurice, and Joan Rosenbaum, eds. Masterworks of The Jewish Museum. New York: The Jewish Museum; New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2004.
Kampf, Avram. Chagall to Kitaj: Jewish Experience in Twentieth-Century Art. New York: Praeger Publishers in association with Barbican Art Gallery, 1990.
The Independent R.B. Kitaj Obituary