8 questions for MFA Boston Judaica curator Marietta Cambareri
Marietta Cambareri is curator of decorative arts and sculpture and Jetskalina H. Phillips curator of Judaica, art of Europe at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Previously, she was curator of decorative arts and sculpture at the MFA. This interview by Menachem Wecker was originally published on July 22, 2010, at his blog Iconia: Wherever faith meets art.
According to a release from the museum, Jetskalina Phillips was a retired elementary school teacher from Winchester, Kan., who despite having "no known history with the MFA," let the "bulk of her estate" to the MFA to support Judaica exhibits and research. According to the release, Phillips lived in Boston for several years and converted to Judaism.
Mrs. Phillips lived in the Boston area for several years, converting to Judaism "under the tutelage of the late Rabbi Roland B. Gittelson [sic].
Iconia spoke with Cambareri about Judaica, about her own research and about how rare her new gig is at a major museum like the MFA.
1. Iconia: Many make the distinction between "Jewish art" and "Judaica," usually suggesting that the latter is somehow kitschy compared to the former. How do you define Judaica, and why does it often have such a bad reputation?
MC: I am looking at Judaica as the objects that are used as part of the ritual and daily life in both the Jewish home and the synagogue or temple. Hanukkah lamps, torah binders, Esther scrolls, all these come under the category of Judaica. As a novice in this field, I am surprised to even hear that it does have a bad reputation as such!
This may sound disingenuous, and so I will respond that sometimes the so-called "decorative arts" may be seen in a hierarchy where they are less valued, say, than paintings or sculpture. I firmly disagree and see such works truly as works of art, which offer very important and particular insights into the life, culture and aesthetic experience of those who made, commissioned or used the pieces.
As an art museum, the MFA will seek to study, display and develop the collection of Judaica following the standards that we set for any works of art that are in or might enter into the collection.
2. Iconia: I can't think of many (or any) other curators of Judaica at other museums. How rare is this position?
MC: It is quite rare, I believe, in an encyclopedic museum like the MFA. There are of course many curators dealing with Judaica working in museums like the Jewish Museum in New York and the Skirball in Los Angeles, as well as curators of private collections.
Another encyclopedic museum that has a collection and a gallery for the display of Judaica is the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, and so they have curators working on these collections and installations, and I believe that this too is thanks to the generosity of donors and patrons who support the endeavor.
But I am also sure that there are likely considerable collections of Judaica in encyclopedic museums and dedicated curators taking care of those objects. I am going to be seeking them out as time goes on. As for "curators of Judaica," you are right. I believe it is a very rare title and indicates a degree of commitment to the area as set out by the donor and as sought by the museum. It is a mission that the MFA will warmly embrace.
3. Iconia: It sounds like the MFA's Judaica collection draws from a number of different departments. How many works in the MFA collection are Judaica?
MC: Indeed, there are works a variety of departments including Art of Europe, Art of the Americas, Musical Instruments, Textile and Fashion Arts. It will be my responsibility to coordinate the study of these objects across departments, and I look forward to collaborating with my colleagues in determining how to present this material in meaningful and engaging ways over time. I have been searching out our objects of Judaica in the last week and have a running list that now includes about eight objects, as well as a group of ancient coins. We are in the earliest stages in every way: This as a new avenue for the museum.
4. Iconia: What are some of the most important things non-Jews can learn from Judaica works?
MC: It will be fascinating to show the ways that art and life intersect in particular ways in Jewish life. These objects can provide a very vivid and engaging way for all to learn about Jewish life and faith, the feasts and practices that mark the Jewish calendar and stages of life and the importance of beautiful and beautifully made objects in Jewish life.
They are concerned with birth, marriage, family, faith, death: things that touch everyone. The way objects help mark and express important aspects of life is fascinating for all. Beautiful, engaging objects help tell the story in concrete, tactile and visual ways. They can be informative, but also extremely moving and inspiring.
5. Iconia: As someone who is trained in Italian renaissance and Baroque sculpture, what are some of the ways you think Judaica can inform our understanding of secular art and art of other faiths?
MC: I was trained quite broadly as an art historian, and conducted extensive research in Italy for my dissertation which was on the 16th century decorative projects at the cathedral of Orvieto. This encompassed works of painting, sculpture, architectural decoration and church furnishings, all made of course for a Catholic church.
I have always been interested in the ways that art could enhance religious experience, and how objects served to support ritual. This makes the study of objects used for ritual in Jewish life especially intriguing for me. My particular interest has always been Renaissance sculpture, but at the MFA, I have also worked extensively, for example, on secular decorative arts made for the home in Renaissance Italy. For me, studying Judaica as a field will allow me to make connections across cultures in new ways, and I hope that I will be able to share this with the MFA's public as our collection develops.
6. Iconia: What are some of your favorite works of Judaica?
MC: I am enjoying learning about all the different kinds of objects that comprise Judaica and have been especially fascinated by marriage contracts, which are often elaborately decorated and personalized, as well as by Esther scrolls. The MFA does not have examples of either of these kinds of objects. Then there are the splendid objects that are used to ornament and honor the Torah, which are also fascinating, from the yads, or Torah pointers, to the rimmonim, or Torah finials. I look forward to developing my eye for these fascinating kinds of objects in the hope of finding fine examples for our collection. [Note: "Rimmonim" literally means pomegranates, and refers to the bell-shape. - MW]
7. Iconia: When did you first become interested in Judaica? Who are some of the most important scholars working on the topic?
MC: The MFA recently acquired a splendid Hanukkah Lamp, and this object was fascinating to me because of the high quality of its manufacture as well as its imagery.
I have typically looked at Jewish imagery from the perspective of Christian art, and I was intrigued by how imagery is and is not used in works related to Jewish religious and secular life.
I am still pulling together my bibliography, but I can tell you that there is a lot of interesting work going on in so many fields of study. I expect to spend my summer dipping widely into Jewish history, art and culture, and especially look forward to reading recent studies of the interactions of cultures in ancient, medieval and Renaissance and modern times, as well as reading about collections and exhibitions of Judaica in specialized museums and collections as well as in broader collections.
8. Iconia: To what extent, if at all, do you foresee the MFA's Judaica collection interacting with Jewish institutions in the Boston area?
MC: The amazing generosity and vision of Jetskalina H. Phillips in creating this endowment for the study, acquisition and presentation of Judaica at the MFA makes this an important goal for us.
We very much hope that local Jewish institutions will help us on this path and will embrace the initiative. I look forward to getting to know better this community, and expect to learn a great deal from it. I look to the local institutions but to a broader community as well, from colleagues and institutions all over America and beyond, several of whom I have already been in contact with, with enthusiastic response.
I will also learn from private individuals with collections of Judaica, again local and further afield. They have the potential to teach us about the works themselves, as well as the nitty-gritty of collecting in this area. Collectors have the potential to help our fledgling collection in so many ways.
Photos: Marietta Cambareri, Nov. 15, 2001; and Hanukkah Lamp, German (Augsburg), about 1750, silver gilt. Overall: 33 x 31.4 cm (13 x 12 3/8 in.). Object Place: Augsburg, Germany. Both photos © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.