To Nazareth and back: an uncomfortable/hopeful journey through time

Written by Anna Geurts

More of Anna Geurts’ articles on historianatlarge.wordpress.com

I – living in western Europe, 2020 AD – have just returned from a visit to Mary and Joseph’s home: their cottage and carpentry workshop in Nazareth. How is that possible, you may wonder, in times of coronavirus? I’ll tell you.

The Dutch woods between Nijmegen and Cleves house a remarkable museum. The museum, called Orientalis, is dedicated to educating visitors about three large monotheistic religions from south-western Asia: Judaism, Christianity and Islam. It is situated in a beautiful park landscape in which dispersed groups of buildings tell a story of shared roots and cultures, aimed at enhancing mutual understanding and (re)conciliation between these faiths.

Museum village Beth Juda/Nazareth, photo by C.S. Booms (2009) (CC-BY-SA 3.0).

Yet things are not so simple, even within a relatively small museum such as this, and even (or especially?) in a land far away from the pain of Palestine-Israel.

This is not in the first place a critique, but an account of the fascination which this museum holds.

While walking through the museum park, I feel myself move through many layers of history, and many layers of meaning. For the greater part, this is a very exciting experience. But it is also unnerving. Those layers across which I walk can be distinguished quite precisely:

It all started in the 1900s when three Dutch Catholics – until about that period a heavily marginalised cultural minority in the Netherlands – met on a pilgrimage to the Biblical lands. On their return to Europe, priest Arnold Suys, artist Piet Gerrits and architect Jan Stuyt decided to offer their less fortunate Dutch brothers and sisters the opportunity of seeing the holy places for themselves, right there, virtually in their own back yards.

They bought a piece of land east of Nijmegen, and from 1911 started building what was to form a halfway stage between a Catholic church – with its Biblical pictures and stories – and a theme park. They called it ‘foundation Holy Land’.

Imagine a super-elaborate open-air nativity scene. A place of devotion, of education, but also a place of enjoyment and even entertainment, with its forest, hills and meadows, its cottages, its recreated scenes from well-known stories, its group visits, monks acting as tour guides, and the refreshments that must undoubtedly have formed part of the day out. And, let’s be honest, most real pilgrimage journeys also have something both of the austere and of the frivolous.

So, there we have the museum’s first layer, created in 1911 and the decades that followed.

But of course, what the creators of the museum really wanted to show was the holy land as it existed in the days of Jesus. And so, visitors are led on a tour past Nazareth, past the cave where Jesus was born, and past the house near Nazareth where he grew up. (On the matter of that nativity cave, by the way: while we see Mary admiring the new-born baby Jesus in her lap, husband Joseph is taking a well-deserved nap. Poor guy, the twenty-first-century visitor thinks: modern expectations of fatherhood must have been taking their toll.)

Joseph resting after the birth of Jesus.

Especially the Jewish village (aka Nazareth, pictured above) makes for a real voyage of discovery, with its Mediterranean vegetation, its contrasts between hot outdoor and cool indoor spaces, and its mountainous winding paths that makes wheeled traffic nigh impossible – a boon for clamber-happy children, while probably a nightmare for wheelchair users who might therefore have to miss out on what is one of the best, most immersive parts of the museum.

But what’s that? That modern-looking plaque on one of the Jewish cottages? Isn’t that the emblem of the twentieth-century bureau for national built heritage, the kind of emblem usually found on medieval castles and around the grand canals of Amsterdam?

Carpenter’s workplace and home, design Piet Gerrits (1924).

It turns out that, in a highly ironic gesture, the national heritage service in 2003 (now no longer anti-Catholic, nor anti-Jewish, one imagines, and with a refreshingly broad-minded view on what counts as ‘national’) officially declared these faux Palestinian buildings to be part of Dutch national heritage.

Interior of the same.

There is more. The buildings, designed to exemplify the architecture of Biblical times (an idea which in itself forms a mixture of history and narrative, mind) – these buildings were modelled on nineteenth-century Palestinian buildings.* The assumption of the Dutch creators of the park, in line with a view on world history dominant in Europe at the time, was that life outside Europe, especially outside the city, had remained virtually unchanged for thousands of years. Therefore, when we visit Joseph’s carpenter shop, a site where we may imagine the infant Jesus playing with bits of left-over wood, we are at the same time visiting a rather pretty nineteenth-century house – or at least one as remembered by a Dutch traveller who spent quite some time studying western-Asian design. And so, we may imagine an entirely different set of children running around the place – or not so different after all?

So far, we have been criss-crossing between historical antiquity, Biblical narrative, nineteenth-century Asian architecture, twenty-century Dutch monuments and Catholic devotional tourism.

But we are not done yet. From the 1960s onwards, the museum changed tack as it moved in the direction of interreligious education, dedicating more space to Jewish history and later also to Muslim lives. This led to a series of new buildings and displays, and a reinterpretation of existing displays, many dedicated to contemporary themes ranging from Omani fashion (the Omani state is an important recent donor of the museum), to European celebrations of Eid al-Fitr, and the poverty philosophy of the current Pope. One could teach a veritable course on the history of museum education here.

Two more layers to go.

First, there are the temporary exhibitions and events, which this year are related to ‘75 years of freedom’. ‘Freedom’ here refers to the period since the allied forces conquered the Dutch territory from the German forces in 1945. And, truly, the museum has some surreal tales to tell, of twentieth-century soldiers in bivouac on the mock-Roman military square of no less than Pontius Pilate himself; and of locals who refused to collaborate, hiding away in the nativity cave.

In WWII, people found a hiding place in the nativity cave.

But wait. There’s a final building: the Sanhedrin, the court where Jesus was reputedly trialled by a council of rabbis (such a council was called a sanhedrin). This structure, too, has Dutch national-heritage status. But must we therefore display it in the same way as it was built?

The Sanhedrin was artist Piet Gerrits’s interpretation of what such an assembly building, and such as assembly, may have looked like in ancient Judea, based on the Bible and on archaeological excavations, but, I suspect, also on the long art-historical tradition in which Gerrits had been educated. The building was installed in 1940 and a range of mannequins added in 1952. In the inner room, the assembly itself is taking place before our very eyes: eleven bearded men are passionately discussing Jesus’ verdict. Jesus himself must be imagined to have stood at the centre of the room, in the position where present-day visitors find themselves.

Now I may be mistaken, but when I enter the room, I feel there is something the matter with these mannequins. Eleven bearded men in togas, gesticulating vehemently. The expression on their faces – is it earnest, motivated to learn the truth, as you might expect a council of judges or jurors to be? Rather, their faces seem contorted in anger. Instead of dignified, some of the councillors look evil, as if they are playing the villain in a Disney film. Are they passionate in disagreement? Or, instead, in their agreement that Jesus should be convicted? One gets the sense that one is dealing with a mean set. Is a more historical interpretation of the Bible perhaps making way here for a more overtly ideological one? And what about the facial features of these councillors? Are their noses bigger than those of the figures who play a more positive role in the museum’s story of Jesus? Their teeth more often bared, their eyebrows more pronounced? And how about their postures and gestures, which certainly stand in a long tradition of Christian painting?

Standing in this room, I get the unpleasant feeling that I am looking at the remainders of a centuries-old Christian idea of Judaism. An old idea of Judaism that we now more commonly refer to as anti-Semitism, and that seems to have survived in the artistic style of the by that time 74-year-old artist Piet Gerrits, who may still have been caught up in his Catholic revival, a project which had by that time long been completed.

It may be time to give these sculptures a new context; to remove them from their self-evident place as telling a story that does not need a counter-story.

True, the much more recent interpretation sign in the courtyard of the Sanhedrin gives a fairly neutral explanation of the biblical story of Jesus’ last days. Still, the centre piece of that courtyard is a so-called Judas tree, which again draws attention primarily to Christian traditions of Jewish guilt and Christian martyrdom. It gives the entire Jesus route in the park a flavour of animosity rather than peace, love and forgiveness, which seem to be the aspects of the Christian faith which the current museum directors want to emphasise.

I am editing this column just as Facebook and Instagram have announced that they will start to remove some of the harmful stereotyping of Jews that happens on their platforms (although far from all). Facebook and Instagram are obviously surfing on the hype/working under the pressure of the current media attention for the Black Lives Matter movement. But the fight against racism, including anti-Semitism, is of course much older. And even within European museums, which are usually run by people of white, Christian backgrounds, efforts to get rid of the racism that is inherent in so many of these museums, have been long underway.

We all know that it is precisely the kind of hate-mongering stereotypes that are often propagated through images of Jesus’ last days, that keep sabotaging peaceful relations between (cultural) Christians, (cultural) Jews and (cultural) Muslims. Therefore, in a museum that is constantly reinventing itself anyhow, these are the images that need tweaking first of all; especially now that the museum’s new mission expressly preaches understanding between the faiths.

Museum Orientalis offers a veritable walk through time. A walk that is at times pleasant and picturesque, at times fascinating, but at times also uncomfortably close to the violent tendencies in our history.

Orientalis deserves a visit. But the Sanhedrin deserves a renewed display.

* See the interpretation signs in the museum itself, as well as the Heilig Land Stiching website.

All photos by APHG, unless noted otherwise.

For the museum at its most picturesque, see for instance this blog.