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Elliott, Emma - VM - Victoria Emily Jones

Emma Elliott: Reconciliation

Golgotha, Auschwitz, and the Problem of Evil

by Victoria Emily Jones

God in Auschwitz and Auschwitz in the crucified God—that is the basis for a real hope which both embraces and overcomes the world, and the ground for a love which is stronger than death and can sustain death. Jürgen Moltmann, The Crucified God

The Roman nail. The inked needle. Each left an indelible mark on the limb(s) of its recipients, Jewish men living nineteen hundred years apart: Jesus of Nazareth, “King of the Jews,” and Eliezer Goldwyn, former prisoner 157040, survivor of Auschwitz.

When British sculptor Emma Elliott visited Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem, for the first time in 2012, the emotional weight of this genocide landed on her with a force, and she knew she had to respond through her art. During a return trip to Jerusalem the following year to visit friends on a kibbutz, she met Eliezer Goldwyn, a German-born, English-speaking Jewish scholar who had lived on the kibbutz for sixty years—and who had survived the Holocaust. A friendship evolved, and Elliott drew up the courage to ask if he’d be willing to lend his Auschwitz serial number to her developing art project. He agreed, with the request that the project be about remembrance, about being good to people and not letting suffering happen. [1]

Elliott conceived of a sculpted marble arm that would bear two stigmata: Christ’s nail wound from the Crucifixion, and Goldwyn’s number tattoo. After making several small clay models and then plaster casts, she went to a marble studio in Pietrasanta, Italy, to do the carving with the assistance of a small team. Reconciliation is the result. It was her first major project in marble.

The sculpture was first exhibited at Noho Studios in London in 2016, accompanied by a short concept film (see below) and a thirty-minute video interview with Eliezer Goldwyn.

During and following World War II, the crucified Christ was often depicted as a symbol of Jewish suffering and martyrdom by Jewish artists such as Marc Chagall, Abraham Rattner, Emmanuel Levy, Samuel Bak, and Moshe Hoffman. [2] Elliott is not Jewish; she has a Christian background but is “not particularly religious.” [3] But she joins the ranks of those who have sought to visually connect Jesus’s story with that of twentieth-century European Jews. If Jesus lived in Europe during the Nazi era, he too would have been rounded up in a concentration camp on account of his Jewishness.

The title Reconciliation was inspired by Hegel’s idea that art’s purpose is to reconcile into a concrete unity certain deep contradictions in human life, among which are ugliness and beauty, evil and goodness. There’s perhaps no better picture of such reconciliation than at the cross, where God in his perfect goodness absorbed the evil of humanity; where he subjected himself, in love, to the ravages of scourge and nail and spear, in order to redeem. Paradoxically, in the grotesque form of Jesus’s torn and bleeding body, there is what Joseph Ratzinger calls “extreme beauty,” a beauty that goes all the way to the end. [4]

There’s a famous passage from Elie Wiesel’s memoir Night, where Wiesel describes witnessing the hanging of a young Jewish boy by the SS. The boy writhed in the noose for more than a half hour before finally succumbing to death. “‘Where is merciful God, where is He?’ someone behind me was asking. . . . And from within me, I heard a voice answer: ‘Where He is? This is where—hanging here from this gallows . . .’” [5] For Wiesel, this marked a turning point, after which he no longer believed in God.

There will never be a satisfactory answer to the problem of evil in the world—but the cross is as close to an answer as theologians have come. The cross shows that God does not stand apart from human suffering; he enters it. He took on flesh in the person of Christ, making himself vulnerable, and died a horrific death. So perhaps Wiesel’s suggestion that God was hanging from the gallows at Buna/Monowitz could be looked at in another way: that, as hard as it is to see or to feel at times, God is immanently present in the pain of his created ones, not as perpetrator but as co-sufferer.

By placing the wounds of Jesus and Eliezer together on a single limb, Elliott shows, in my interpretation, how Jesus shares in humanity’s suffering, particularly that of his fellow Jews. But as much as Reconciliation comforts with its statement of divine compassion and solidarity, it also implicates us, bringing us face to face with the atrocities we humans have committed and continue to commit against one another, violations of the imago Dei.

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Emma Elliott: Reconciliation, 2016, Carrara marble, 20 × 110 × 25 cm.

Emma Elliott MRSS (b. 1983) is a British sculptor who was classically trained in painting and figurative sculpture in London, England and Florence, Italy. Concerned with “the incongruous and hypocritical aspects of humanity, and the impermanence and fragility of the natural world,” her work explores “relationships between the refined and the primitive and the physical and the spiritual, the influences of our collective past on present behaviour.” https://emmaelliott.com/

Victoria Emily Jones lives in the Baltimore area of the United States, where she works as an editorial freelancer and blogs at ArtandTheology.org, exploring ways in which the arts can stimulate renewed engagement with the Bible. She serves on the board of the faith-based arts nonprofit the Eliot Society and as art curator for the Daily Prayer Project, and she has contributed to the Visual Commentary on Scripture and the Encyclopedia of the Bible and Its Reception. Follow her on Instagram @art_and_theology.

Notes:

  1. “Emma Elliott: ‘Being human is the most important thing. Just being human and not fighting,’” interview by Anna McNay, Studio International, November 29, 2016.
  2. For more on this, see Andrew Williams, “The church’s reception of Jewish crucifixion imagery after the Holocaust,” AGON 48 (Winter 2015), and the exhibition essay for Behold the Man: Jesus in Israeli Art at the Israel Museum, Jerusalem, December 22, 2016–April 16, 2017.
  3. “Emma Elliott,” interview.
  4. Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI), “Contemplation of Beauty,” a message given at a meeting of the ecclesial movement Communion and Liberation in August 2002 in Rimini, Italy.
  5. Elie Wiesel, Night, translated by Marion Wiesel, in The Night Trilogy (New York: Hill and Wang, 2006), 82–83.

ArtWay Visual Meditation March 20, 2022