Did anyone else play cats cradle, the string game, and make Jacob’s ladders as a kid? There is a way that certain pieces Torah weave their way into life, particularly childhood games and stories, that has always felt comforting. Even though other people’s religious symbols were more prominent, mine felt (quietly) everywhere. Even so, I did always wonder at the beautiful religious artwork that lined most museum walls. Judaism existed in beautiful crafts, photographs, buildings, but rarely in oil paintings by great masters.
When I was studying in Spain, I saw this painting for the first time. Jusepe de Ribera (17th century, Spain) was a Tenebrist, a subset of the Baroque style, and dealt with stark contrasts between darkness and light. This painting felt like a contrast to me. There was something gentle in it, and it did not fit with the works around it – almost black backgrounds with bursts of light. Even in its masterful glory, displayed alongside equally elegant a perfect works this still felt close, familiar, almost like a soft string in my hands.