The work of Maurycy Gottlieb, the spiritual father of Jewish painting in Central Europe, became a brilliant high point in Polish-Jewish artistic relations. The artist left behind an abundance of excellent works despite dying at the very young age of 23.
He grew up in an affluent Jewish household in the town of Drohobycz and maintained strong emotional ties with Orthodox Judaism while also being fascinated with Polish history and art. He considered himself equally a Jew and a Pole, which he expressed in the famous words I am a Pole and a Jew and, God willing, I want to serve both. This attitude was manifest in the artist’s eagerness to portray themes that identified and demonstrated honourable moments in Polish-Jewish co-existence and the common roots of Judaism and Christianity.
The main link between the two religions and cultures became the figure of Jesus Christ, whom Gottlieb strove to inscribe into Jewish tradition. In this painting, as he gives the sermon in Capernaum, Christ is shown wearing a tallith, a shawl worn by Jews during prayer. He addresses the synagogue looking like an Orthodox Jew, though, out of respect for Christianity, the artist placed a halo above Christ’s head. The indifferent expressions worn by many of the listeners and the artist’s self-portrait in the crowd with his arms hanging low in a gesture of powerlessness seem to imply that most of the artist’s religious peers remained unconvinced by any suggestion of Jewish-Christian unity.
Gottlieb began work on the painting in Rome in 1878, not long before he returned to Poland on the invitation of the great painter Jan Matejko. Sadly, the painting remained unfinished as the artist died a mere six months later, in July 1879, in Krakow of complications following a throat illness.