Post-classical history



Thus indeed appear the Jews regarding the Holy Scripture they carry: like the face of a blind man in a mirror. By others he is seen; by himself, he is not seen.

—Augustine of Hippo, Enarrationes in Psalmos 56, 9

For the first thousand years of the Christian era, there were no visible Jews in Western art. Manuscripts and monuments did depict Hebrew prophets, Israelite armies, and Judaic kings, but they were identifiable only by context, in no way singled out as different from other sages, soldiers, or kings. [Fig. 1] The descendants of these biblical figures—that is, medieval Jews—made no appearance at all. Then, quite suddenly, shortly after the year 1000, the Jew emerged from obscurity. Not only prophets and Pharisees but also contemporary Jews became common in Christian artworks, and a host of visual cues were developed to render them, first, recognizable, and, ultimately, despicable. By the close of the Middle Ages, the Jew had become one of the most powerful and poisonous symbols in all of Christian art. [Fig. 2]

This story is quite well known.1 But it has yet to be explained. Indeed, some might think there is little need for explanation. The pervasive and steadily intensifying anti-Judaism of medieval Christendom is all too familiar—why should we not see both the relative neglect of the Jew in early medieval art and the almost compulsive attention given Jews in later medieval art as a natural outgrowth of this trend? For several reasons, however, this strikes me as unsatisfactory. While there is clearly a general pattern of increasing artistic anti-Jewishness, not all aspects of Jewish iconography were negative, nor did the neutral and even positive attributes assigned Jews at the beginning of our period—such as antique scrolls signifying the Jews’ mastery of ancient wisdom and guardianship of divine revelation—ever definitively drop away. Moreover, not all social and theological developments make their mark in art. Christian writers had for many centuries condemned the major tenets of Judaism without articulating that critique or expressing any hatred of Jews in art. Christians also managed to mightily disapprove of a host of other groups and concepts (schismatics, pagans, atheism, etc.) without ever devising for them a visual vocabulary of infamy. Further complicating the picture is the fact that several innovative anti-Jewish visual signs seem to predate the textual polemics and anticipate the attitudes they are said to reflect. Artists devised identifying clothing for Jews decades before such distinctive dress was decreed by law, for example; Jews are shown menacing Eucharistic wafers years before the first recorded accusation of Jewish host desecration; and Jews were given a characteristic physiognomy in art well before biological racism permeated European thought.2 Finally, the vast majority of medieval Jewish images decorated artworks meant solely for Christian eyes, appeared in regions with few or no Jews, and were made by and for people (overwhelmingly monks, clerics, and secular leaders) who were far more interested in Christian society and worship than in Jewish people or practices. Simply labeling artists or patrons, or the general culture, as anti-Semitic tells us little about why these images were made or what they meant to the people who made and viewed them.


FIG. 1


FIG. 2

In this book, then, I take a different approach to medieval Christian depictions of Jews. My starting point is an observation I first made well over a decade ago: a remarkable number of these images highlight not only what the Jews look like but, even more, how—and whether—they see. It seemed clear that the new artistic emphasis on the Jew as viewer as well as image viewed was related to the traditional theological formulation of the Jews’ role in Christendom. Already in the letters of Saint Paul, who lamented that his recalcitrant coreligionists clung to the “letter” rather than the “spirit” of the law, the Jews were linked to the material, visible world and assumed to possess a purely carnal form of understanding.3 Their flesh-bound thinking, their need for concrete signs, rendered them blind to spiritual truths. Even when God himself appeared before their very eyes, they could not look beyond the humble body of a crucified convict and see the divine glory enshrined within. Paul blamed this failure on the Jews’ overreliance on external symbols and tangible proofs: “For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a scandal to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles.”4 He contrasted the Jews’ sensory-driven approach to God with the pure faith of Christians: “we are always confident … for we walk by faith, not by sight.”5

The Jews’ sight would likewise preoccupy Augustine of Hippo (d. 430), the most influential of all early Christian writers on Jews and Judaism. For Augustine, Jewish-Christian difference was crystallized in their contrasting visual encounters with and reception of Christ: “For truly how glorious is it, that he ascends to heaven, that he sits on the right hand of the Father? But we do not see this with our eyes, nor have we seen him hanging on the tree, nor have we beheld him rising from the grave. All this we hold in faith, we perceive with the eyes of the heart. We are praised, for we did not see, yet we believed. For the Jews too saw Christ. It is no great thing to see Christ with the eyes of the flesh, but it is great to believe in Christ with the eyes of the heart.”6 As we shall see in chapter 2, the contrast between the “eyes of the flesh” and the “eyes of the heart” will be a recurring theme in subsequent Christian writings about religious knowledge, revisited and sometimes reformulated as Christians modified their ideas about sensory perception.

Augustine added a significant new twist to Paul’s denigration of Jewish vision: a stress on the uses of Jewish blindness and also on the Jews’ own visibility, that is, their physical presence. In several works, most notably the City of God, he wrote that the Jews’ primary function—and the reason they should be allowed to remain in Christian lands—was to serve both as “witnesses to” and as “living signs of” Christian truth and triumph. The Jews did this in several ways. In preserving the ancient Hebrew text of scripture, Jews confirmed the authenticity of biblical prophesies about Christ (although they were blind to their true meaning). The Jews’ very bodies, sprung from the flesh of the ancient Judean deicides, were living proof of the historicity of the Crucifixion and their own people’s criminal role in it. The Jews’ defeat at the hands of the Romans and subsequent dispersal among the “nations” testified to their own error and to Christian triumph. Finally, at the end of days the Jews’ long-delayed conversion would herald Christ’s Second Coming.7 That is, Christian history and Christian doctrine were made visible in Jewish bodies and Jewish books. Or as Augustine put it succinctly elsewhere: “[The Jews] still prove useful to the church in a particular condition of servitude, either in bearing witness, or in otherwise constituting proof.”8

According to Augustine, then, the Jews’ function in Christendom was to see (or rather, to see incompletely) and be seen; that is, to bear witness in word, flesh, and status. The Jews’ failure to perceive God in Christ and to understand their own prophets, combined with their visible presence as exiled relics of an ancient and fallen people, testified to the verity of Christian faith.

For six hundred years after Augustine’s death, this conception of Jewish witness remained metaphorical, a largely literary abstraction unconnected to Jews’ actual visual practices or visual presence within Christendom. When early medieval theologians lambasted the Jews’ blindness, they were referring to their inability to correctly interpret and understand scripture rather than to their ocular encounter with Christ. When they discussed the Jews’ “particular condition of servitude,” they were referring to a theoretical status that was not markedly visible in the real world: Jews in the early Middle Ages were legally free and their lives were considerably more prosperous, secure, and comfortable than those of most Christian peasants.9 Jewish blindness and subjugation could not be seen in images either. The sole visual trace of another faith in early medieval art was likewise an abstraction: the female personification of Judaism known as Synagoga, a veiled and venerable woman standing opposite Ecclesia (Holy Church) in the shelter of the cross and gazing intently at Christ.10 Only around the turn of the first millennium did Paul’s insistence on Jewish blindness and Augustine’s conception of Jewish witness finally make their way into art. What brought about this new artistic focus on Jews’ looks and looking? What “work” did images of Jews do for the culture that created them?

A closer look at the role of sight in the thought of Paul and Augustine suggests a possible path toward answering these questions. As we have seen, both Paul and Augustine insisted that true Christians, unlike Jews, could believe without seeing. But this exaltation of pure, image-less faith did not negate—indeed, it existed in some tension with—the fundamental fact of Christian history: Christ at one point took on flesh and walked the earth in full sight of his fellow men. God Incarnate was not an intangible Platonic form but a visible being. Throughout most of the New Testament there is consequently little denigration of bodily vision. Christ performed many visible miracles, and his disciples reveled in his physical presence. Though Paul decried the Jews’ carnal perception, he did not utterly dismiss bodily experience or the power of sight, glorying in having himself been granted a glimpse of the risen Christ.11 When Paul wrote about God’s glory, he located it not in an abstract, formless void but “in the face of Jesus Christ.”12 Likewise, though Augustine warned against the deceptive and seductive nature of physical vision, he conceded that physical sight could be religiously useful. Seeing suffering in the material world, for example, helped Christians to imagine the tortures of the Crucifixion and so to pity and love the crucified Christ.

For the remainder of the Middle Ages Christian epistemology would reverberate with this tension between deprecation of reliance on physical vision as inconsonant with faith and longing for direct, visual experience of the divine. In the early Middle Ages, for various reasons (including the relative scarcity of surplus wealth; unease about depicting divinity spurred by still powerful memories of antique paganism, the debate over icon worship raging in the Byzantine Empire, and Muslim hostility to divine images; loss of technical expertise; and the ascendancy of nonrepresentational Germanic and Celtic artistic traditions), art was only fitfully and hesitantly enlisted as a way to experience God.13 This situation changed radically in the high Middle Ages, at just the time and in many of the same places where we first encounter a Jewish iconography. In the pages that follow I argue that in this intersection lies the answer to our questions. The augmented religious role afforded visual experience in high medieval Christianity largely explains the new visual prominence of the Jew. As the paradigmatic exemplar of physical vision and its misuse, the figure of the Jew became the primary medium through which Christians explored and expressed their changing ideas about knowledge, vision, and representation.

*   *   *

In this book I do not attempt to assemble a comprehensive catalog of Jewish iconography. Christian artists were remarkably creative when it came to anti-Jewish imagery, devising over the centuries numerous ways to give visual form to Jewish error and unbelief. The Jews’ mistaken adherence to the letter of scripture was displayed by showing Jews clutching round-topped tablets of the law, or knives with which to sacrifice animals, or sacrificial animals themselves. Jews’ clothing was assigned colors associated in Christian thought with evil, red and yellow in particular, or was striped, indicative of extravagance. Jewish avarice was indicated by such straightforward signs as coins or bags full of money; or via more oblique signs, such as ravens or crows, which were thought to hoard shiny objects; or frogs, whose swollen form mimicked the usurer, bloated with greed; or by depicting Jews worshipping idols. At various points in the Middle Ages the Jew’s affiliation with the devil might be signaled by placing him in hell, perching a demon on his shoulder, giving him subtly beast-like features, wrapping a snake around his eyes, having him give an obscene kiss to a cat, or depicting him with a goatee, tail, and/or horns.14 Rather than surveying all of the many signs and symbols of Jewishness, then, I focus on moments that signal a significant new conceptual stance. The starting point for each chapter is the introduction of one or more new visual devices associated with Jews. I thus explore, in turn, the establishment of the hat and beard as identifying signs of Jewishness in the eleventh century (chapter 1); the proliferation in the first half of the twelfth century of images featuring Jewish witnesses, both prophetic and contemporary (chapter 2); the ascription to Jews of contorted and hostile facial expressions (chapter 3); the creation of new signs drawn from social life and the natural world and their deployment in new narrative genres (chapter 4); the development of the physiognomic caricature (chapter 5); the changing appearance and meaning of the figure of the Jewess (chapter 6); and the situating of Jews among large and diverse crowds (chapter 7).

In analyzing this imagery I cast my interpretive net wide, for many factors influenced the making and reading of images of Jews. The first issue to be considered is the artistic models and patterns that influenced, or found echo in, each artwork. Medieval art was by and large quite conservative: change happened slowly, and many motifs and compositions recur countless times in myriad media. For every image examined, we must investigate the visual models on which it relies, not because visual sources fix or dictate the meaning of their offspring but because each new use of an image, whether by artist or by viewer, necessarily draws upon and is informed by existing connotations, even when they are rejected or changed. Meaning often lies in the decision to retain or to modify, even minutely, received patterns. Such models and patterns are the primary subject ofchapter 1, in which I explore the visual sources for the signs that came to identify Jewishness; these basic signs formed the background against which all subsequent changes in Jewish iconography were read.

The second domain informing the making and reading of an iconographical sign is the physical and social context in which the image appears. Each manuscript, monument, carving, or painting was used in one or more specific settings, for one or more specific occasions or purposes. A small-scale scene painted in a private book for a noble lady, for example, would be read in the light of the other images in that book, as well as of the lady’s own devotions, and might thus take on very different meaning from a similar image chiseled on the wall of a cathedral, viewed by a vastly broader audience and surrounded by utterly different scenes and sounds. The evolving patronage, media, styles, and uses of medieval artworks will be a major theme throughout this book. As images featuring Jews move from monastic biblical illustration to cathedral windows to royal picture books and tax accounts, the appearances and meanings of Jews evolve accordingly.

A third area that needs to be considered is contemporary Jewish behavior and appearance. The relation of Jews’ looks and habits to their representation in art was hardly straightforward: in almost no cases are images of Jews based on actual Jews, nor can the vast majority of images be considered accurate reflections of the looks or practices of living, breathing Jews. Nonetheless, medieval images of Jews were not wholly arbitrary; they drew upon some aspects of Jews’ communities, beliefs, lives, or reputations (as Christians understood them), albeit often in a distorted or highly schematic fashion. We must consequently cast our own gaze in that direction. As it turns out, Jewish life and looks often do linger under the surface of our images, though the details are so skewed as to provide an enigmatic picture indeed.

A further field to be considered, which may or may not be related to actual Jewish behavior and appearance, is Christian perceptions of contemporary Jewish behavior and appearance, as well as attitudes toward Jews as a historical people and toward Judaism as a faith. Throughout this book I examine Christian images of Jews in relation to Christian ideas about Jews as expressed in texts and as acted out in life (to the extent that we can access the latter through the documents left behind). Although as very different means of expression art and texts frequently voice their ideas in different keys, as products of the same culture they do not tell fundamentally different stories. Careful attention to the ideas underlying textual rhetoric can help illuminate the thoughts motivating visual signs.

Finally, but most importantly, I explore the purely internal Christian concerns, preoccupations, and ideology that might have been addressed through the use of Jewish iconography. In the vast majority of the images I examine, the most pressing and central message is only tangentially related to Jews and Judaism and the qualities they embody. They are driven, instead, by topics as apparently unconnected to Jews and Judaism as monastic reform, religious aesthetics, natural lore, royal monetary policy, philosophical speculation, gender relations, and civic morality. There is a unifying theme to these disparate subjects: each in its own way and at that moment touched upon the issue of vision and knowledge. The presence of the Jew helps us connect the dots and trace the path by which each new generation of Christians grappled anew with the vexed question of the relationship between physical perception and spiritual truth.

*   *   *

It is perhaps more than a little ironic that a book that often seeks to modulate the too-blackened canvas of medieval Jewish history with shades of gray should be entitled Dark Mirror. I have chosen this title, overworked metaphor and all, in part because it acknowledges that Christian images of Jews were indeed often dark and hostile. But it is also intended as a warning that these images provide only a distorted view of the period—that Christian art must not be seen as transparently “mirroring” either prevailing Christian attitudes or actual Jewish status. Indeed, I argue throughout this book that anti-Jewish imagery was a significant factor in the creation of the attitudes and conditions it is often held to reflect. Art can be a powerful force in shaping the way we see and think about the world. This has become dangerously clear in our own image-saturated, commercialized culture, where pictures teach us to despise bodily imperfections and crave glamorous pleasures we didn’t know existed until we were shown them. Much the same was true in the Middle Ages. Medieval people were exposed to far fewer pictures than we are, but art seemed to them all the more powerful for that—it was rare, precious, and mysterious and revealed unseen, perhaps unimagined things.15 Images of Jews made Christians look at Jews with new curiosity and interest (and hostility), drew their attention to previously unnoticed aspects of Jewish life and looks, and in the process generated new ideas about Jews. No one seemed to notice that the hair of German Jews was, on the average, darker than the hair of their Christian neighbors until Jews’ coloring became a focal point in art, for example. And though Christian texts had long associated evil with darkness, it was art that made the linkage between perfectly normal dark hair and the darkness of evil.16

Finally, the title, following the Pauline verse from which it is drawn, signals one of the main themes of this book and a guiding principle of medieval Christian imagery: recognition of the simultaneous importance and imperfection of bodily vision. Christians worshipped the Word made flesh, a God once visible and tangible but now only discernible (except by the blessed few) through faint traces, pale comparisons, and indirect witness. Paul had contented himself with pointing out the gap between the dark and clouded “now” and the more perfect, illuminated future. In the high Middle Ages, though, Christians used art to try to narrow that gap and provide a glimpse of future glory and ineffable truth.17 But they knew this was a risky business, that sensory experience, and especially physical vision, could lead one astray. An image could be mistaken for a deity, a beautiful face could hide a cankered heart, a broken body could induce scorn rather than compassion. Images of Jews graphically seeing and looking “wrong” vividly illustrated this point and so simultaneously demonstrated and helped contain the danger inherent in images themselves. Christians living in the high and later Middle Ages confronted a massive challenge: how to live spiritual lives and embrace spiritual values in an increasingly prosperous, inventive, complex, and vibrant secular society. It is this challenge—medieval Christians’ urgent need to reconcile age-old suspicion of the visible world with the beauty-filled and burgeoning civilization they themselves created and loved—that, more than anything else, explains the darkening depiction of the Jew in medieval Christian art.



If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at Thank you!