The story behind this dark crucifixion by Moshe Castel (1900–91), an Israeli artist known for his depictions of Jewish religious, local, and national subjects, must be sought in Castel’s personal history. The work was created when the artist secluded himself in a monastery near the Sea of Galilee in order to recover from the loss of his first wife, who died in childbirth, and the death of their daughter three years later. Discovered in a locked cupboard in Castel’s house after his death in 1992, the painting—which is highly unusual in the context of his work and that of his Israeli contemporaries—was displayed publicly for the first time in the 2017 exhibition Behold the Man: Jesus in Israeli Art, curated by Amitai Mendelsohn at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem.
In an expressive style influenced by the French–Russian painter Chaim Soutine, and inspired by Marc Chagall’s crucifixions, Castel put himself on the cross. The face is a self-portrait, while above the figure a Hebrew inscription says ‘Castel the Jew’, so that the artist’s intense outpouring of pain culminates in total identification with the suffering of the crucified Christ.
In two of Castel’s sketches on this theme from the same period, the Hebrew inscriptions above the figure read ‘Jesus’ and ‘Jesus of Nazareth’. They give the full name Yeshu’a rather than the more common Yeshu, which was often read derisively by Jews as an acronym for a Hebrew phrase meaning ‘may his name be obliterated’ (Steinmetz 2005: 39).
The painter’s choice of name may indicate his rejection of this traditional revulsion and his own positive perception of Jesus as a personal and intimate symbol for suffering.
Steinmetz, Sol. 2005. Dictionary of Jewish Usage: A Guide to the Use of Jewish Terms (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield)
37And over his head they put the charge against him, which read, “This is Jesus the King of the Jews.”
26And the inscription of the charge against him read, “The King of the Jews.”
38There was also an inscription over him, “This is the King of the Jews.”
19Pilate also wrote a title and put it on the cross; it read, “Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews.” 20Many of the Jews read this title, for the place where Jesus was crucified was near the city; and it was written in Hebrew, in Latin, and in Greek. 21The chief priests of the Jews then said to Pilate, “Do not write, ‘The King of the Jews,’ but, ‘This man said, I am King of the Jews.’ ” 22Pilate answered, “What I have written I have written.”