NDENCA Seminar | “[A] kind of miniature monument”: Visualising Anglo-Jewry and the Old Testament in The Montefiore Centrepiece
February 7 @ 11:00 am - 2:00 pm
Dr Maddie Boden, Ashmolean Museum
Maddie is a research assistant at the Ashmolean Museum, working on the ERC-funded project, Chromotope: the 19th century Chromatic Turn. Her research focuses on British Orientalist visual culture and representations of the Holy Lands in Victorian art.
“[A] kind of miniature monument”: Visualising Anglo-Jewry and the Old Testament in The Montefiore Centrepiece
In February 1843, at a party attended by leading members of London’s Jewish community, Sir Moses Montefiore was presented with a piece of silverware. The silver sculpture, three feet high and weighing nearly forty kilos, was a tribute to Sir Moses for his role in the Damascus Affair of 1840. A stockbroker by trade, he was moved to intercede on behalf of a group of Jewish men from Damascus who had been accused by the Ottoman authorities of blood libel. Montefiore worked out a deal with the Ottomans that spared the lives of the accused and put an end to the sectarian violence that had erupted in the religiously diverse city.
This paper closely reads the Centrepiece, an understudied object in both Victorian Judaica and sculpture studies, to understand the ways in which Montefiore was seen as an assimilated imperial hero but nevertheless an outsider to ‘true’ British masculine identity by virtue of his faith. Designed by the Principal Painter in Ordinary to the Queen Sir George Hayter and sculpted by Royal Academician, Edward Hodges Bailey, the Centrepiece mixes and conflates Orientalist, Biblical and contemporary imperial symbolism. I argue that this is reflective of how Jewish people were thought of in Victorian Britain: both ancient and modern, Oriental and Occidental, English and foreign. I also highlight the inclusion of Biblical heroes including David, Moses and Ezra as a means to explore Jewish masculinity as an alternative model to muscular Christianity which has dominated critical readings of religious art of the period. Unique in its style as well as subject matter, the Centrepiece, now held at the Victoria and Albert Museum, sits at the intersection between monument and craft and therefore, is an object that challenges and hybridises art historical categorisation. This paper, for the first time, offers a comprehensive critical reading of the Centrepiece and establishes its significance as a Victorian Jewish decorative object.