See editorial: What Message Could Madonna Bring To Today's World?

Does she say, in Hebrew, 'I am the Lord, your God?'

Markings on bodice of the Virgin raise questions about
silence, secrets, miracle of Renaissance masterpiece

By Michael E. Abrams
Copyright 2010
•Letters appear, then vanish: a puzzle

Cincinnati, Ohio – It is Oct. 6, 2010,  and I had driven to Cincinnati to meet curator Benedict Leca at the Cincinnati Art Musum.  I was full of trepidation, for I had been writing about a Renaissance painting for four years since the day I discovered that an iconic  red passion flower, held daintily by the red-haired madonna, was a botanical impostor – a counterfeit – painted perhaps a century later by a mysterious craftsman.
The museum, at that time, removed the painting from the wall to examine it. Yes, the new world flower had been brushed onto the surface decades after the old world artist, Joos van Cleve, had died. I related the story at

To actually witness this sublime painting, to feel its majesty, was my goal.

It is one of
three almost identical paintings which I  have written about.

I had a few hours before an academic conference in Akron, Ohio.  I drove south down a slow Interstate, found a hotel across the bridge in Kentucky,  and arrived early at the museum, one of the family of white Roman columned buildings in architectural textbooks and which most large cities seem to be refurbishing these days.

Generous donors in Cincinnati have seen to it that entry is free to the public.

Dr. Leca handed me the file for the painting by Netherlandish artist containing articles and letters including comment by art historians Max Friedlander, and van Cleve biographer John Hand of the National Gallery in Washington. Some material told how the museum acquired the work and its provenance - a history of ownership really only known beginning in the 19th Century
I found no clue as to who might have painted the passion flower, proliferating from the carnation, with its "crown of thorns."  Those who have written the history of this flower know it was discovered by churchmen in South America and news, seeds and parts probably relayed to the pope sometime in the early 17th century.

I had written elsewhere, citing scholars,  that the pioneering medical doctor and botanist Fransciso Hernandez,  perhaps the first one to draw the flower in Mexico, and the famous historian there, Father Sahaguin, a contemporary, may have ironically been "conversos," or descendents of Jews whose families had changed faith to avoid the Inquisition in Spain. Both had connections to the passion flower.

To the Spanish and to the church, the parts of the flower represented the passion and torment of Christ. 

They saw a crown of thorns in the anthers and/or the three nails holding him to the cross, the five wounds in the five part stigma; the style being the column upon which Christ was tied, the filaments of the flower the whips of the Romans soldiers, and the ten petals the disciples of Christ, minus two who were not present during the passion.

Reporter Kati Schardl's story of the flower in the painting, in our local newspaper, The Tallahassee Democrat, of July 16, 2006,  is included in the folder at the art museum. 

Dr. Leca and I rode an elevator and strolled into a grand room with wood paneled walls and ceilings that looked 20 feet high. At the far end was the van Cleve. As we approached, I was stunned by the bright color and luminance of the painting, the white flesh and orange hair and purity of the idea, the red cherries for the sweet taste of heaven, the curly-haired child fleeing from the bloody, symbolic carnation from which sprouts leaves of rosemary and my passion flower. It was my painting, an organic whole, something I dreamed about. Benedict asked me to take my time. He left me with the

The Hebrew Letters

Suddenly, my eye was attracted to the right of the infant's head. There, in what have seemed scratches to me in the original photograph sent me by the museum, were actually what appear to be Hebrew letters, barely visible on the bodice of the Madonna, but surely printed by a deft scribal hand, as if done by a sofer, or bible scribe. Perhaps there were at least five letters there, a kupf or a bet, a chet, a yud, perhaps a lamed and a vav. Has no one has noticed these letters in more than 400 years? Surely, I was  not the first.  Someone must have put them there.

I thought about these letters and what they might mean. To a Christian believer, the fact that they have appeared after 400 years may have the earmarks of a miracle, a reminder of the origin of Christ and the progression from old religion to new testament. To a Jew, these letters signify a message that there are no other gods, and that worship of any human being is considered a violation of the first commandment.

In our age of science, proof is always demanded. And so we took a second trip to the Cincinnati Art Museum some weeks later, to put the painting under a scope with the help of the conservator of the museum, Per Knutas,  the outcome of which is discussed at length here.

The picture itself holds the paradox that the Mother of the Christ child was, indeed, Jewish, as was Jesus. 

 The middle-class Dutch scenario is far removed from its middle-eastern origin, and, as in all Madonna and Child paintings of the age, the child is uncircumcised.

   Joos van Cleve, Madonna and Child, courtesy of Cincinnati Art
The iconic passionflower sprouts from the carnation that
  represents the blood of Christ, from which also proliferates some sprigs of
  the mint, rosemary, used to perfume funerals in those times.

Hebrew letters can be seen to the right of the head of the child.
They are written in a script form similar to that of the Torah
script penned by a sofer, or scribe. Whoever wrote the letters
was skilled in their formation. Knowledge of Hebrew may
have been widespread among artists or illustrators who
used the name of G-d in Hebrew lettering on many illus-
trations prefacing botanical and legal works of the time.
This inscription, says in Hebrew, reading right to left,
"I am the Lord, your God."

Does the script near the Christ child say 'I am the Lord Your God?'

Would a Jew own this most reverent and Christian painting?  Why would he write this message on the breast of the madonna? 

The message, if it exists, can be one of salvation and redemption to believing Christians and Jews in the 21st century.

The translation, by a rabbi, has been made for a wide audience, possibly for the first time in 400 years. However, the Hebrew letters are debatable, according to one art critic, who sees them as "pseudo Hebrew" and not recognizable. In fact, the question of whether the letters are simply artifacts of restoration and a kind of cryptomorph, are discussed in our second visit to the musem.

Van Cleve biographer John Oliver Hand at the National Gallery in Washington says that he did not see the Hebrew words or lettering - "I would have mentioned it if I did."  He suggests the lettering might have become noticeable if the painting had been cleaned recently. At any rate, these letters are difficult to see, even for someone who might look at the painting intently. They require the right light and angle.

The letters, viewed in a photograph from the museum, are those of the first commandment, according to Tallahassee Chabad Rabbi Schneur Oirechman. They are "anochi hashem" which is usually translated "I am the Lord, your God." As do observant Jews, he uses the word "Hashem" in everyday speech, instead of the word, reserved for prayer meaning Lord, or God. Rabbi Oirechman said the words were not necessarily painted by a Jewish person, and could have been copied from a document. It is written in a Hebrew script, but not necessarily one written by a sofer, or one who writes and corrects Torah scrolls.

If anything, through the rabbi's interpretation, the painting now has a double-edged message.  It could be a mandate that Christ is the only Lord, from a Christian viewpoint. The difference between this and other paintings which may have Hebrew words, in the estimation, of this writer is that these words,  discovered perhaps after centuries, were like buried treasure intended to be hidden in the folds of clothing or camouflaged. 

Hebrew scripts have a history in the visual arts

To many, the Hebrew is a reinforcment of the idea that God is the father of Jesus, something that needed constant reinforcement in the art of the church, and what better to use than the original language of the Bible. The use of Hebrew letters and the familiarity of Christians with Hebrew led to the appearance of many Hebraists during the 16th Century.  However, to a Jew who might notice the hidden message, the van Cleve seems likely to present a warning to a Jewish onlooker knowledgeable in Hebrew, that to worship Christ would be a violation of Jewish law.

It is not unusual for Hebrew script to appear in paintings. Gad B. Sarfatti in Hebrew Script in Western Visual Arts finds 261 inscriptions from 1400-1699.  He writes that the three objectives of artists who used Hebrew were to attain realism, to mark a person or an object as Jewish, and to show erudition. A special issue of the journal Visible Language Inscriptions in Painting (Volume XXIII, Number 2/3l, Spring Summer 1989) is especially valuable in looking at the meaning of inscriptions. In the publication, Claude Gandelman in By Way of Introduction: Inscriptions as Subversion shows numerous examples of Hebrew script in paintings and discusses the scripts from a semiotic, philosophical viewpoint.  Also in Visible Language,  Moshe Barasch in Some Oriental Pseudo-Inscriptions in Renaissance Art discusses pseudo-inscriptions written in Hebrew letters and in Kufic.  A display of orientalism shows how the new Christian law evolved from the old, he writes.

Real,  an illusion or simply an artifact of a restoration?

To art historian Gary Schwartz, however, the letters in the Cincinnati Madonna can't be made out as easily and they are simply "pseudo Hebrew" which he has seen in more than 200 paintings of the time. Schwartz posts a web blog at  in which examples of pseudo-Hebrew are shown. He objects to the rabbi's interpretation suggests we should do further research into the lettering. Pseudo-Hebrew was used by painters to give the works a verisimilitude and give them more appeal for the market.  Our second trip to Cincinnati resulted in further discussion. Museum conservator Per Knutas believes the letters are artifacts of impainting during restoration. In essence, a kind of illusion.

If the rabbi's interpretation is true, and if the letters exist, this lettering is of the First Commandment. It is the first mandate of Judaism, and rejects the idea that there are other gods. To a Jew, having fled the persecution of Spain and Portugal, there would be a deep and abiding meaning to the words "I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery." The rationale for the Inquisition and the hundreds of years of persecution of Jews was their rejection of Christianity, based on the idea that Jesus was the son of God and had extraordinary powers. The Jews believed, and still do, that Jesus may have existed, but in a different fashion, perhaps as a rabbi or one of many claimants over the centuries to be the actual messiah.

It can be found that Sephardim, or Spanish and Portuguese Jews who may have converted to Christianity,  eventually found a home in Antwerp, van Cleve's home, where the painting was probably sold on the market. The story of these people, living in Antwerp, may be found in scholarly works, referred to here.   Many had continued to practice Judaism. The flower in the painting was altered perhaps a century after the artist died.  The madonna must have been a popular pose, as copies exist in the art museum in Kansas City, without the passion flower. Another copy, also without the passion flower, is held by a museum in France.  We discuss all three versions known to exist. 

Speculating: a dramatic scenario from ages past

Historians tell us that the Spanish sacked Antwerp in 1576. Soldiers were angered because they had not been paid by the Spanish monarch Philip II.  It has been speculated that 7,000 residents of the city were dragged from their homes and murdered.  Antwerp, in flames,  had been one of the foremost trading centers in Europe, influential and rich, especially in its cloth market.  Spices from India were even brought down the river by the Portuguese. Those days of glory ended with the fury, and the up and coming city of Amsterdam eventually took over the roles of commercial center of Northern Europe. Conversos and crypto-Jews, as well as outright practitioners of Judaism, came to find their fortunes within the new Dutch empire. Many had perhaps been living in Antwerp.

The camouflaged message, if it exists, in the painting by van Cleve, may tell us of the owner of the painting, perhaps a very religious Christian who wanted to reinforce the message of Christ's geneaology with the passion flower and the words on the bodice. In our imagination, we may see a crypto- Jewish family, attempting to hide beneath the protection of this Madonna. Perhaps this sentence was a code for visitors, or a sign to those who recognized them as more than scratches that they were welcome as co-religionists in the household. The passion flower intensified the Christian religious meaning of the painting, a good cover. 

Perhaps the words or letters tell us something of the mystery painter of the passion flower 100 years after van Cleve died. Perhaps these letters were added by the same hand, a Jewish artist who plied his profession secretly, a lone artistic soul, perhaps a Torah sofer or scribe, lost in the mists of history.

The journey seems to begin here. We see the simple, pious, virgin and child, the same woman and child, perhaps a relative of van Cleve, appearing in several of his paintings or those of his workshop in Antwerp. It is said that that van Cleve learned many of his strategies from the work of the master Leonardo. When Leonardo died in 1519 at about 57 years of age, Joos was possibly 39 or 40.  The story goes that Leonardo died in France with the king Francis at his side.  Ten years later van Cleve was said to be working in the opulent and scandalous court of art connoisseur and bon vivant Francis I.  van Cleve biographer Hand suggests the painting might be examined technically by the Cincinnati museum to see if the words are integral to the original work.  Perhaps there is a Kabbalistic or mystical connection, he suggests. We flew to Cincinnati to look at the painting under a magnification scope.

The big puzzles remain unsolved:

Whose hand painted the Hebrew letters (if they exist) on the Madonna's bodice? Why?

 Is this  a real message, five centuries old, meant to tell us a secret about the artist?

The still, quiet lady has kept her confidences through five hundred years of silent nights.

Below is a drawing of the Spanish Fury in Antwerp. The holy and unspoken name of G-d in Hebrew letters appears over the city. This is a public domain engraving of the drawing of the Spanish fury, by Hans Collaert, 1577, which is located in the Museum of Amsterdam.

In Cincinnati

Beside the painting is M.E. Abrams, author of this article and a journalism professor at Florida A&M University in Tallahassee, Florida.  Photo by curator Benedict Leca of the Cincinnati Art Museum.

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