In a conversation with David Gelernter, the groundbreaking computer scientist, artist, and polymath, David Mikics learns what’s Jewish about Gothic cathedrals:
Gelernter and I agreed that Jewishness is in political peril these days, at least in Europe. Jeremy Corbyn is a “bigot,” he told me, “the most revolting kind of human being.” According to Gelernter, “anti-Semitism comes naturally to Europeans,” but thankfully not to Americans. That wasn’t always the case: the great medieval cathedrals were infused with Hebraic inspiration; Jewishness was, he said, the “hand inside the puppet” of Christian Europe.
“My parents took me to Sainte-Chapelle when I was five years old, and it knocked my socks off,” Gelernter told me. “I’ve never had a day since when I haven’t thought about medieval art.” The art of the cathedrals, Gelernter argued, is Hebraic, with a vast empty space at the center that resembles the emptiness in the Temple’s Holy of Holies, the most fitting image of a transcendent God. And there’s the medieval idea of gallantry, which combines military bravery with piety in a way reminiscent of the Hebrew Bible. Judah Maccabee, Gelernter reminded me, was a central example of chivalry for the Middle Ages.
Gelernter loves the Basilica of Saint-Denis, “where Gothic art was invented in 1144.” “One late afternoon the gisants [tomb effigies] were eloquent, articulate; that’s how I decided to do the Jewish paintings I modeled after them.” He said, “I didn’t set out to be a Jewish painter like Marc Chagall, but one like Amedeo Modigliani or Chaim Soutine.” But, he added, Jewish themes are a bad idea for a painter, commercially speaking. “The Israeli art market is aggressively secular; there’s more interest in my paintings in Germany.”