United States Holocaust Memorial Museum

De Profundis, 1943
The Art and Politics of Arthur Szyk
action -
not pity

Exhibition tour
[USHMM #93831/Irvin Ungar through the Arthur Szyk Society;
Original materials: Graphite and ink on board;
Original dimensions: 15" x 20"]

De Profundis, 1943
Like other Jewish artists, Szyk repeatedly alluded to the Bible and Christian iconography in his Holocaust imagery. In 1943 he made use of several different allusions to biblical passages and even the figure of Jesus for De Profundis, a work that dramatized the mass murder of Europe's Jews and raised the issue of the painful legacy of Christian antisemitism. Szyk was drawn to Psalm 130: "Out of the depths I call You, O Lord. O Lord, listen to my cry; let Your ears be attentive to my plea for mercy." On one level, the image, with its gripping picture of dead and dying Jews, is a cry for divine, or perhaps Allied, aid to end their tragic suffering.

Detail showing the question Where is Abel?
The biblical passage "Cain, where is Abel thy brother?" (Genesis 4:9) is God's question to the murderous son of Adam. Dating back at least to late antiquity and continuing through the Middle Ages and after, Christian writers and artists frequently compared Cain to the Jews, as a people rejected and cursed by God. They likened the killing of Abel to the crucifixion of Jesus. In De Profundis, Szyk turns this analogy on its head, pointing the finger at the non-Jewish world.

Detail showing Jesus Detail from De Profundis
Szyk included Jesus and the symbolic Wandering Jew among the mass of dead and dying in De Profundis. The artist seems to be reinterpreting how audiences should view the two, investing them with new meaning. Since the late nineteenth century, Jewish artists had depicted both Jesus and the Wandering Jew in far different ways than had Christian iconographers or rabbinic authorities. Painters as diverse as Maurycy Gottlieb, the gifted Polish Jew who died at age 23, and Marc Chagall reclaimed Jesus for the Jews, seeing him not as the messiah but as a representative of his people who maintained Mosaic traditions. Szyk's Jesus, shown holding the tablets bearing the Ten Commandments, certainly fits into this tradition. Yet the artist also wanted to remind his audience that Jesus was a Jew whom the Nazis would have murdered just like the two Jews he holds. He wears the crown of thorns and bears the marks of the cross on his hands, the traditional symbols of his torture and death.

[Exhibition tour:
De Profundis

Playing time 1:09

Narration from audio tour produced by Antenna Audio.]

Listen to the description of De Profundis from the audio tour produced to accompany the Museum's exhibition.

Jewish Artist
Wartime Caricaturist
Szyk resources
Szyk resources