Tuesday, 05 September 2017 11:19

Jesus Among the Doctors

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Jesus Among the Doctors, 1938, © Roger Boccini Nincheri Jesus Among the Doctors, 1938, © Roger Boccini Nincheri

Introduction

The 1938 window called Jesus Among the Doctors refers to the events told in Luke 2:41–47:

41 His parents went to Jerusalem every year at the Feast of the Passover. 42 And when He was twelve years old, they went up to Jerusalem according to the custom of the feast. 43 When they had finished the days, as they returned, the Boy Jesus lingered behind in Jerusalem. And Joseph and His mother did not know it;44 but supposing Him to have been in the company, they went a day’s journey, and sought Him among their relatives and acquaintances. 45 So when they did not find Him, they returned to Jerusalem, seeking Him. 46 Now so it was that after three days they found Him in the temple, sitting in the midst of the teachers, both listening to them and asking them questions. 47 And all who heard Him were astonished at His understanding and answers.

In the window, we see Jesus sitting before the Torah, teaching the Doctors who are sitting around him. One of the most interesting aspects of the window is that Nincheri moved the scene from the temple of Jerusalem to a synagogue, which was not without meaning, as Nincheri never did anything thoughtlessly.

Depicting a Synagogue

Even though the Bible clearly says that Jesus was found in the temple of Jerusalem, Nincheri chose to depict the scene in a synagogue, a building that became the only place of worship after the destruction of the temple by the Romans in 70 CE. This depiction of the synagogue reveals the artist’s knowledge of Jewish heritage.

By moving the scene from the temple to the synagogue, a place where Jews gather (the word “synagogue” is the Greek word for “assembly”) to study scripture, Nincheri chose to show how the ritual changed from the temple to the community of the synagogue. According to Steven Fine, the centrality of the temple was replaced by the reading and studying of the Torah along with communal prayer recited facing the Torah cabinet (or Torah ark) oriented facing Jerusalem.[1] It was a thrice-daily regime that corresponded to the times when sacrifices had been offered in the temple. The tradition of facing Jerusalem was kept in Christian churches where the apse also faces the East.

We know this is a synagogue because of several clues that Nincheri added to the scene.

The Eternal LightEternal light

In the window, Nincheri added a lamp above the Torah. This lamp, the Eternal Light (Ner Tamid), is a perpetually burning lamp located in synagogues, above the Torah ark. It represents the light that burned continuously in the ancient temple of Jerusalem. Once again showing that change—from the physical temple to the temple as a symbol within a synagogue—is coming.

Menorah

Menorah

Another source of light that represents the temple within the synagogue is the menorah, a seven-branched lamp. In the Saint-Léon-de-Westmount window, the menorah is found at the top, flanked by roses and beneath a triangular arch surmounted by a cross. This shows that, with the coming of Jesus, Judaism is being replaced by Christianity.

Interestingly, between the two menorahs is a kneeling angel holding a shroud. The shroud is usually a symbol of the Resurrection, as this is what Christ was buried in. Therefore, in this context, we can understand that this change is a form of resurrection for the Jewish community. This parallel with the resurrection is reinforced by the fact that it took three days for Joseph and Mary to find Jesus in the temple.

Moses seatMoses’ Seat

Jesus is sitting in what is known as Moses’ seat. This seat was an ornately carved chair located in front of the Torah ark, in ancient synagogues. It was where scribes and Pharisees sat when teaching. It is also a symbol of Moses’ authority, since “. . . Moses took his seat to serve as judge for the people, and they stood around him from morning till evening” (Exodus 18:13).

In Matthew 23: 2–3, Jesus himself warns people against those who sit in Moses’s seat:

The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. So you must be careful to do everything they tell you. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach.

He later adds:

But you are not to be called “Rabbi,” for you have one Teacher, and you are all brothers. And do not call anyone on earth “father,” for you have one Father, and he is in heaven. 10 Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one Instructor, the Messiah. (Matthew 23:8–10) 

Which is why he is sitting in the chair himself. Once more, this shows that 1) the scene is situated in a synagogue and 2) the old authority is being replaced.

New Authority

As explained above, this modification of the location also shows the changes brought about by the coming of Jesus. This change is represented by various elements of the window.

torahThe Torah

The Torah in the window of Saint-Leon-de-Westmount displays a Biblical verse in Hebrew. The verse is a prophecy that reads:

Seventy weeks have been decreed for your people and your holy city, to finish the transgression, to make an end of sin, to make atonement for iniquity, to bring in everlasting righteousness, to seal up vision and prophecy and to anoint the most holy place. (Daniel 9:24)

When reading interpretations of the Bible, this verse seems to be one of the most difficult to analyze. On the one hand, it could prophesize the coming of Christ, especially if you read on to verse 25. On the other hand, it could prophesize the destruction of the temple of Jerusalem (more explicit in verse 26), which then brings about the use of synagogues depicted in the windows. Either way, the use of that particular verse in the Saint-Léon-de-Westmount window shows that Nincheri wanted to show Jesus teaching and listening to the Doctors as the beginning of a new era.

empty chairThe Empty Chair

The window also includes an empty chair at the forefront. This empty chair refers to a Passover tradition where an empty chair is designated as Elijah’s chair, the place where the prophet will sit when he comes to visit.

In Jewish tradition, it is Elijah who will announce the coming of the Messiah, and it is hoped that he will show up during Passover to announce the coming of the Messiah and the rebuilding of the temple. This occurs during the Passover Seder, a ritual feast that commemorates the liberation of the Jews from slavery in Egypt. The hope for redemption and a new temple is stated when they say, at the beginning and end of the Seder: “Next Year in Jerusalem!”

In the Saint-Léon-de-Westmount window, then, Nincheri added an empty chair to symbolize the coming of the Messiah who will bring about change.

Crucifixion

In a much more subtle way, Nincheri also uses symbols to remind viewers of the crucifixion. While this may seem strange in a scene that shows the first example of Jesus teaching, it is important to remember that when Jesus died on the cross, “At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom” (Matthew 27:51), which marks the end of the Old Law and the beginning of the New. The crucifixion, then, is part of the change expressed in the window.

In this window, the crucifixion is represented by Jesus’s posture. By having him point to the Torah with his right hand and to the sky with his left, Nincheri extended both of his arms in a manner reminiscent of his posture on the cross. Furthermore, his legs are slightly bent and his feet are one on top of the other, just as they are when he is nailed to the cross. The crucifixion is also represented by the crosses at the top of the window.

Other Details

Physiognomy

Nincheri’s ability to show different expressions, body languages, and psychological states is well illustrated by the way in which he depicted the characters in the window. It is quite clear what each of the Pharisee and even Jesus is feeling.

Most of the Pharisees seem pensive, stroking their beards as they listen to Jesus. The man in green on the right, however, is slightly frowning and seems ready to argue. Jesus himself has a beatific face as he looks up to the heavens where is Father is, as though he is listening to what God tells him to say.

[1] Steven Fine. (1996). “Did the synagogue Replace the temple?” Bible Review 12(2): p. 4.

More in this category: « Jesus Calming the Tempest

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