Holy Cow!

If there's one place at the Museum of Art's new exhibit, "Cradle of Christianity: Jewish and Christian Treasures from the Holy Land," where the evangelical-minded might feel compelled to drop to their knees and shout hosannas, it's right at the beginning. The opening display is a fragment of marble relief depicting a figure (possibly Jesus) in a gesture of blessing.

From there, this fusty, well-meaning exhibit of more than 100 artifacts from the time of Jesus through the early Byzantine period (roughly 300 to 600 A.D.) wanders into gray academic territory. The idea is to show that Judaism and Christianity are intertwined. Not exactly a head-slapping notion. The guy who put the Christ in Christianity was himself, of course, a Jew. But the curators of this exhibit plow ahead, making the oft-proven point in as many ways as you can take to peel a locust.

It'll probably be a big disappointment to anyone hoping to get a little religious buzz on for Christmas — or even to the museum's usual audience of art appreciators. The show proceeds something like this:

The Life of Jesus: To begin our cultural/history lesson, the exhibit focuses on the times in which Jesus lived. Two sections here are noteworthy: Herod's temple and some artifacts that fit loosely into the category "Trial and Crucifixion." A stone parapet with Hebrew inscription, one of the few remains of the temple that the Romans destroyed in 70 AD, fell from a corner of the structure and remained on the street below for 2,000 years. The inscription tells us it's where a trumpeter would announce the beginning and ending of the Sabbath. Another temple fragment is inscribed in Greek with the warning that non-Jews who entered the sacred (rather than public) portion of the temple would be put to death.

The "Trial and Crucifixion" display changes our notions of how the condemned were executed. A replica of a heel bone pierced by a nail, the only physical evidence ever found of the Crucifixion, indicates that the heels were nailed to the side (rather than the front) of the vertical beam. Also on display is the only material proof (beyond the Gospels) that Pontius Pilate existed — a dedicatory inscription in stone.

All right, these fragments give us a sense of the palpable reality of the cold-blooded bumping against one another of competing orthodoxies.

Lesser artifacts, though, are also included in an effort to acknowledge important biblical events and possibly to correct assumptions made based on religious artwork that glorifies Jesus' life. Six large stone jars stand unremarkably on a platform as a reference to his first miracle. A coin display prompts commentary on the overturning of the moneychangers' tables. In the same sort of stretch, the Last Supper gets its due with rustic First Century tableware arranged on a table from the same period as a subtle image of 13 figures is projected subtly behind the display.

Other displays are even less impressive, in some cases seeming to be mere filler. Three ossuaries (containers that hold bones of the deceased once the flesh has decayed) reach — really reach — for a thematic tie. Bearing the names Jesus, Joseph, and Mary, the only purpose the containers serve is to illustrate the popularity of these biblical names, since they belong to no known historical personage.

The Dead Sea Scrolls: The most hyped part of "Cradle," the Temple Scroll ("the longest and most important of the Dead Sea Scrolls") is also the most anticlimactic, despite the darkened, draped shrine in which it's displayed. Only four fragments, each smaller than a woman's hand, are included along with an inkwell and one of the jars in which it was stored. On the discolored parchment, the gracefully scripted Hebrew speaks from the perspective of the Almighty, describing (we are told in translation) the construction of a perfect temple and criticizing the behavior of its members. Ironically, in an exhibit designed to bring faiths together, this fragment distinguishes between "another god" and "your God," who is "a jealous God."

The Holy Land: Here, the exhibit actually earns its $15 price tag (actually 20 bucks if you get the essential — though optional — audio tour, which explains the significance and context of the artifacts). The reconstruction of the Sixth Century/Byzantine church sanctuary is impressive. We stand where the congregation would have, separated by decorative marble chancel screens from the altar, with the columns and their capitals towering overhead. Most of the artifacts lie in this portion of the exhibit, including a reliquary (used to contain pieces of the cross or saints' bones) and a four-person stone baptismal font.

Though no Jewish synagogue is similarly constructed (this is the Cradle of Christianity, people), it's in this portion of the exhibit that we can begin to see the parallels between Jewish and Christian culture. The oil lamps and bread stamps (used to press images into the dough) are similar, except that, like the capitals and chancel screens, they display different religious symbology. We see that both use mosaic tiling on the floors of their houses of worship — though the Christian mosaics used nonsacred images because it was considered sacrilege to tread upon religious imagery. We see bread stamps from both cultures. Just in case you forget where you are, Judaica is presented with stone signs among navy-blue walls while Christian artifacts are presented with parchment signs among yellow walls.

Before you exit, you learn about holy pilgrimages and see a depiction of the cave where Jesus' body was entombed. Finally, a five-minute audio-visual presentation titled "Walk in the Pilgrims' Footsteps" is projected on a replica of a mosaic floor, which depicts a tourist's map of the Holy Land and its most famous religious landmarks. The presentation spotlights the cities and discusses its religious sites as it projects images in an empty (presumably destroyed) portion of the ancient mosaic.

If anything, the audiovisual element tends to levitate the exhibit above its reality as a mere collection of stone, pottery, and (besides their historical value) non-precious antiquity. From the audio tour to subtle elements like the shadowy, projected backdrop of the Last Supper scene behind the table of artifacts, the audio and visual choices give some depth — both intellectual and sensory — to the exhibit.

So the show amounts to a modest pilgrimage for stay-at-home types, providing context for biblical stories and providing parallels between cultures as Christianity emerged distinct from its Jewish ancestry. You want the real thing? You might have to hazard a trip to the war-torn Middle East.

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Marya Summers