It’s easy to wander the halls of a museum — particularly a world-class comprehensive one like the Art Institute of Chicago — convinced that the masters whose works are represented on the walls were perfect. After all, when every blade of grass and every hair has been so carefully rendered, with painstaking attention to the exact colors and shades, surely the artists have done their research about the other content in their paintings, right?
But as two works currently hanging at the Art Institute demonstrate, even artists make sloppy mistakes.
When the 17th century Dutch artist Boetius à Bolswert created an engraving in 1631 (find the work on the second floor, near the Grand Staircase), based on a prior work by the Flemish artist Sir Peter Paul Rubens, he included three languages — Greek, Hebrew, and Latin — on the so-called titulus. (See a full version of Rubens’ painting here, although the coloring is a bit suspect.)
Per Luke 23:38 and John 19:20, Pontius Pilate affixed some sort of sign to the cross which contained parallel Greek, Latin, and Hebrew (or Aramaic, according to some translations) iterations of the phrase, “Jesus the Nazarene, King of the Jews.” Whether the Roman governor meant that inscription to literally pin the crucifixion on the Jews or as yet another installation in the mockery of Jesus is the matter of some dispute. But that inscription is what launched the artistic tradition of Greek, Latin, and Hebrew/Aramaic texts affixed to the cross.
Those who can read Hebrew will immediately see that Bolswert ought to have failed his biblical Hebrew grammar class for several reasons. For one thing, the Hebrew (which is actually Aramaic) is upside down. And for another thing, he has placed the words out of order. Taken literally — if one ignores the typographical, spelling, and other errors in Bolswert’s inscription — the Aramaic reads: “The king, Jesus of Nazareth, the Jews.”
It’s hard to imagine why Bolswert so butchered an inscription that Rubens appears to have gotten mostly correct (see Rubens’ Crucifixion [Le Coup de Lance], 1620, in the 3D-Rubens room page on the website of the Royal Museum of Fine Arts, Antwerp).
To be sure, some of Rubens’ spelling errors (like writing the Aramaic Micah instead of Malkah for king) can be seen in Bolswert’s version as well, which just shows that cheaters (or at least copiers of poorly conceived inscriptions) never prosper. But Rubens’ Aramaic appears in the proper order, and he includes the necessary preposition “of the Jews.”
I have written elsewhere on Hebrew typos in Zurbarán’s work, and the one at the Art Institute appeared to be no different. (Although it is very difficult to view the inscription given the height at which it is hung on the wall, as well as the lighting.)
A glance at the Art Institute’s webpage for the painting reveals no Hebrew inscription at all, although a panorama of the room on the AIC website clearly shows Hebrew atop the titulus. One wonders if the work has gone through disruptive cleanings, or whether the Art Institute holds several versions of the work, some of which have Hebrew and some of which do not.
Either way, one of the lessons that viewers can take out of this is that expertise at wielding the brush doesn’t necessarily translate into literacy of ancient languages or sound research and copy-editing skills.