The Jesus Scandal

The Jesus Scandal. A Liebermann Painting in the Crossfire of Critics, 18 April – 18 July 2010, Saal der Meisterzeichnung

With The Twelve-Year-Old Jesus in the Temple (1879) the Hamburger Kunsthalle holds one of Max Liebermann’s few religious paintings, as well as one of his earliest. When the artist showed the painting for the first time at the Munich International Art Exhibition in 1879, it sparked a scandal. Contemporary critics took offence that the Jewish painter should dare to address the Christian theme of the twelve-year-old Jesus in the temple. He was said to have “depicted the Saviour as a Jewish urchin, barefoot and off the streets, and thus dragged him in the mire.” Liebermann’s artistic intention of rendering the scene in the most realistic way possible, was misjudged and ignored by these anti-Semitically tinged accusations. The outrage this painting aroused upset Liebermann so much that in the following years he overpainted the figure of Jesus. Even today, the painting has lost none of its relevance and fascination, and with a subject that strikes at the roots of both religions, Judaism and Christianity, it remains highly controversial. In addition to Liebermann’s paintings, sketches and studies, the exhibition also featured works by other artists on the same iconographic theme: prints by Dürer and Rembrandt, an oil painting by Heinrich Hofmann and a pastel drawing by Adolph Menzel. Aside from the scandal, the exhibition also shed a light on the history of the work: Alfred Lichtwark purchased the painting in 1911, then sold it for political reasons in 1941, and finally re-purchased it for the Kunsthalle in 1989.

The exhibition was kindly supported by the Kunst- und Literaturstiftung Petra und K.-H. Zillmer.

The exhibition was developed in cooperation with the Liebermann Villa in Berlin and was documented in a catalogue published under the same title.

Exhibition Views