A Genuine Article of Faith

May 9, 2009

5 min read


What makes a drawing a Michelangelo? And what makes a religion Divine?

From Manhattan's Cooper-Hewitt Museum comes the news that a little-known drawing that collected dust for decades in a box of centuries-old, unidentified sketches is actually the handiwork of the great Italian Renaissance master Michelangelo.

The find was made by Scottish art curator Sir Timothy Clifford, who believes that the drawing, which dates from approximately 1530, is a design for a Jewish menorah. If Clifford's attribution is correct -- and several other noted art historians believe it is -- it will enable the artwork's owners, who paid a grand total of $60 dollars for it in 1940, to set an asking price at auction in the millions of dollars.

Clifford believes that the drawing is a design for a Jewish menorah.

While Sir Timothy undoubtedly knows a great deal about art, his identification of the drawing as a menorah must be taken with some skepticism. In fact, it appears as a tall candle-stand with no branches protruding, and everybody knows that a menorah sans eight branches and cups is like, well, a Chanukah party without oily latkes.


That doesn't mean, however, that there's no Jewish angle to this story. There is. In fact, there's an important Jewish lesson beneath the surface of this improbable tale, one far more significant than whether this High Renaissance light fixture is or isn't a menorah.

Clifford's discovery, and the picture's ensuing million-dollar price spike, raise a very basic question: Why? Why is it that from 1940 until a week ago, one couldn't buy a decent pair of sneakers for the money this drawing would have fetched, and now in the virtual blink of an eye, it has become one of the world's most coveted objets d'art? Nothing about it has changed one whit since Sir Timothy's serendipitous find, save our knowledge of its celebrated source.

This query, in turn, calls to mind the episode involving Dutch artist Henricus Van Meergeren, who, prior to World War Two, claimed to stumble upon a long-lost work, The Supper at Ammaus, by the great 17th century painter Vermeer. Initially, various experts had authenticated his claim, but after Van Meergeren admitted to having forged other works, these authorities revisited the supposed Vermeer and pronounced it, too, a fake.

The picture has not changed. What has?

At his subsequent trial for forgery (at which he was ultimately convicted and sentenced to prison), Van Meergeren asked the following pointed question of the court: "Yesterday, this picture was worth millions of guilders, and experts and art lovers would come from all over the world and pay money to see it. Today, it is worth nothing, and nobody would cross the street to see it for free. But the picture has not changed. What has?"

Van Meergeren's question, to which no answer was forthcoming, is essentially the same as that about the newest Michelangelo: What's all the fuss?

The intuitive answer, of course, is that when it comes to things of great value, origins matter. There's a real, albeit intangible, special quality with which geniuses like Michelangelo infused their creations. It's something that lesser talents, however similar their work, can't possibly hope to replicate.


For nearly two centuries now -- due to societal forces not entirely of their choosing -- large segments of the Jewish people have had a masterpiece for the ages languishing in their collective attics, awaiting momentous discovery. In recent times, some of that treasure's rightful owners have rummaged about, and in so doing, came upon the utter ness of this heirloom -- its truthfulness, its incomparable beauty, its power to transform lives.

Some of that treasure's rightful owners have rummaged about and discovered a Jewish heirloom.

This masterpiece's multi-splendored ness enabled these individuals to unlock the door to its origins, behind which they found, patiently awaiting them, its creator, known also as the Creator. Also discovered there was an unbroken chain of a hundred generations of Jews, fiercely truthful and uncommonly wise, whose very lives and deaths testified as one that a Divine Torah is a fact of their -- our -- history.

That's better verification than a Michelangelo could ever expect.

At the same time, other Jews, equally rightful owners of that heirloom, haven't yet taken the trouble to search for it, or, having glimpsed it, hesitate to truly reclaim it and restore its luster. They hear other voices saying: Divine, man-made, what's all the fuss? Or, as Leonard Fein, the writer, recently opined: "[W]hether there was... a revelation at Sinai is... not an especially interesting question, and it is surely not a question with moral implications."

Let's see, now: Whether or not Michelangelo sketched a little candelabrum 500 hundred years ago has the art world in a frenzy; whether or not it was Shakespeare who penned the obscure 578-line poem, "A Funeral Elegy" (to cite another recent controversy), has preoccupied dozens of brilliant scholars for years; But whether the Torah is a God-given instruction manual for that exquisitely complex item called life, or alternatively is the product of a faceless cabal of all-too-flawed men -- is "not especially interesting"?!

Sir Timothy Clifford and the happy folks at the Cooper-Hewitt have brought us full-circle to a truth the Jewish people have known since standing at Sinai 3,3000 years ago: authenticity matters.

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