Post-classical history




Woman is indeed like melting wax, always ready to assume fresh shape and to be molded to the imprint of anyone’s seal.

—Andreas Capellanus, De Amore, 3.83

In the preceding chapters we have seen a dizzying array of images of Hebrews, Jews, and Jew-like figures. They are hatted and hatless, hostile and friendly, foolish and wise. They grieve, they teach, they witness, they mock, they murder, they die. But for all this diversity, they have one thing in common: they are all men.1 My illustrations are not unique in this respect. In contrast to the thousands of iconographically identifiable Jewish men in medieval manuscripts, objects, and monuments, there are almost no visually distinguishable Jewish women in high medieval art.2 This is not to say that no female Jewish characters feature in the imagery of the period. There are manifold depictions of Old Testament heroines such as Ruth, Judith, and Esther; New Testament saints and sinners such as Mary Magdalene and Salome; and of course the nearly ubiquitous Virgin Mary herself. Women are occasionally included among the Israelite worshippers of the Golden Calf, the godless crowds who distress Jesus by cluttering the temple forecourt with profane business, or the Jewish auditors of Paul’s preaching.3 Illustrations of miracle tales include such female Jewish characters as the mothers of converts or the wives of host desecrators.4 But in all these images, the Jewish women can be identified only by context or by very superficial external cues: delete the setting, eliminate the male companions, or efface the inscriptions, and they could be Christian matrons or nuns. [Fig. 1] No distinctive symbol, costume, gesture, or physiognomy was devised for Jewish women in high medieval art. (There are one or two apparent exceptions to this general rule, but they do not hold up upon close inspection. I cannot agree with Bernhard Blumenkranz that the Jewish woman in the late-fourteenth-century book of hours now in Copenhagen is “lightly caricatured.” Her face seems to me to express only grief, not difference, her head is far less outsized than the heads of the Jewish men, her complexion is fairer, and her body, unlike their bodies, is not in any way distorted. And an essay ostensibly about Jewish women in medieval “anti-Semitic” art and caricature discusses no iconographically identifiable medieval Jewish women. Of the images analyzed there, one from the fourteenth century depicts a visually unmarked Jewish woman; the rest either depict the abstract personification Synagoga or are postmedieval.)5


FIG. 1

The failure of high medieval Christian artists to create a visually distinct Jewess is clearly not because Jewish females are somehow inherently resistant to visual “marking.” Women can be given hooked noses as easily as men, and the variability of female hairstyles, headdresses, and clothing would seem to make them at least as suited to iconographic manipulation as their male counterparts. In fact, an array of visual cues did come to be associated with Jewish women in later centuries. In quattrocento Italy the earring was used as a “sign” for Jewish women; the Jewish women painted by Rembrandt and his contemporaries are distinguished by their jewels and the deep, rich colors and luxurious textures of their clothing; and the exotic eastern Jewess of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Orientalist painters was a well-known and very recognizable type, combining lustrous thick, curly dark hair and eyes with pale skin, full red lips, gleaming jewels, and richly colored burnished or diaphanous drapery and veils; she is also often endowed, in addition, with a come-hither look or an enticing décolletage.6 [Fig. 2]


FIG. 2

Indeed, by the opening of the twentieth century, the symbol of the Jewess had become such a staple of the Western artistic vocabulary that it could be used as a byword in art criticism. In the 1907 issue of the Burlington Magazine, Lady Saint John described a depiction of Queen Esther in an eighteenth-century tapestry as “a beautiful example of the Jewess type at its best.”7 In the previous issue of the same journal, the critic Andrew Lang (author of the much-loved fairy tale collections) displayed equal confidence in the transparency of the Jewess type, though his estimation of her looks was less positive. Bitterly criticizing the restoration of a portrait of Mary, Queen of Scots, he wrote: “To Cripps the restorer we probably owe the aquiline hag with thick, arched eyebrows, round eyes, and a Semitic beak, who does duty for the ever unfortunate Queen of Scots.… Not even five years of [the Protestant reformer] John Knox could have converted her into [this] middle-aged Jewess.”8

The relative anonymity of the Jewish woman in medieval art is likewise striking in light of her prominence in other media. Whether as seductive femme fatale (ancestor of la juive fatale beloved of Romantic playwrights), virtuous Christian convert (prototype for Shakespeare’s Jessica), or grieving mother of a tender, Marian-loving son, the “Jewess” was a familiar and vivid figure in myriad medieval fictional and historical texts. The devout young Cistercian convert featured in a thirteenth-century collection of moralizing tales who at the moment of her baptism suddenly notices her Jewish father’s stench; the murderous siren of The Ballad of Sir Hugh, or, The Jew’s Daughter, who lures a Christian boy to his death (Chaucer’s “Prioress’s Tale” draws in part from this ballad but omits the villainous Jewess); the promiscuous hussy who convinces her gullible father that she is pregnant with the Messiah until she gives birth to a girl; the Jewess of Toledo whose affair with Alfonso VIII of Castile was (much later) said to have brought rebellion and disorder upon the kingdom; the “Estherke” of Polish legend with whom King Casimir the Great (1310–70) was obsessively in love—these are but a handful of the dozens of Jewesses who haunted the medieval Christian literary imagination.9 If high medieval art never created a visual vocabulary for these readily recognizable literary prototypes, it was not through lack of interest.

How, then, can it be explained? It is, of course, a tricky proposition at best to argue from absence, to account for a nonevent. One way to approach the problem is to carefully examine an artwork with enough images of (marked) Jewish men and (unmarked) Jewish women. The great luxury codex of the Cantigas de Santa Maria made for King Alfonso X of Castile is just such an artwork.10 Of the 195 songs in praise of the Virgin Mary in this manuscript, several dozen contain textual references to Jewish characters.11Two different songs in the collection recount a drama that takes place in the heart of a Jewish family, providing the artists with a rare opportunity to portray Jewish domestic life; two others focus on Jewish women.12 By comparing the depiction and function of the male and female figures in their illuminations, we can begin to think about the larger issue of the contrasting representation of the Jew and Jewess in medieval art.

1. Unhappy Families

The two cantigas centered on Jewish families present two strikingly incompatible couples. In each, the villainous father immediately captures the eye. [Fig. 3] In cantiga 4, one of the oldest and best known of all Marian tales, a Jewish glassmaker from the French town of Bourges, enraged with his son for having joined his Christian classmates in church and received Communion from the Virgin Mary herself, throws him into the furnace.13 The boy is miraculously shielded by the Virgin from all harm and is rescued by the townspeople, who cast the evil father into the furnace in his place. In the illustrations, the father flaunts a dark and virulent visage and displays a rich array of visual signs (pointed hat, dark hair, long and pointed beard, large and ostentatiously hooked nose, profile view) that by the year 1280, when the manuscript was made, would unmistakably mark him as a Jew. Our second iniquitous father is the Jewish alfaquin Cayphas, who likewise displays the typical features of the Jewish caricature (see ch. 5, figs. 4–6).


FIG. 3

The wives of these men bear no resemblance to their dark and ungainly husbands. In the third panel of cantiga 4, the glassmaker and his wife are seated side by side at the dinner table as their son comes home from church. In contrast to her husband (and like the wife of Cayphas in cantiga 108), the wife displays no signs of Jewishness, iniquity, or aggression. Her hair is fair and her facial features are small and even, indistinguishable from those of any of the hundreds of Christian women depicted in the manuscript.14 She wears an elegant, scalloped headdress of white—the color of purity, or perhaps just of blankness. And just as her appearance differs from that of her husband, so does her manner. She hears about her son’s reception of the sacrament with evident shock, but her open-palmed gesture is employed in medieval art to express submission and acquiescence.15The father, by contrast, stretches his arm out, palm down, signaling rejection and disapproval. In the next panel, in which the boy is cast into the furnace, the contrast between husband and wife is even starker. The husband is a portrait of aggression, cruelty, indecency, and fury. He has hiked up his robe and tucked it into his belt, revealing his black laced or striped hose and providing a glimpse of his undershift. He is bending so far forward as to appear almost hunchbacked as he shoves his son into the fire with iron tools grasped tightly in his hands. Two women look on. One, presumably a relative or domestic, wearing a scalloped headdress but also a white kerchief that modestly covers her neck, wrings her hands in a gesture redolent of helplessness and distress. The second, most likely the mother, inflicts pain not on her child but on herself, as she tears at her own blond locks with both hands—a vivid and time-honored expression of grief. In sum, there is nothing antique or alien, aggressive or transgressive in the looks or behavior of this Jewish woman. Rather, she fulfills familiar and archetypically female roles: she sits or stands while watching passively; like the patient Griselda of Chaucer’s “Clerk’s Tale” she is a helpless victim of fate and her husband’s will; she loves her child. And finally, at the end of the song, she exercises the ultimate female prerogative: she changes. For although the artist eschewed this scene in favor of the more dramatic image of the father thrust into the fire, the last stanza of cantiga 4 tells us that the mother believed in Mary and was baptized. An analogous episode does appear in the illustration to cantiga 108, whose final panel embodies the “many Jews” said to have been converted by the sight of the deformed boy in the person of a single Jewish woman immersed in a baptismal font; this is almost certainly the child’s mother (see ch. 5, fig. 6).

Similar gendered differences appear in another song in the collection, a tale devoted to a Jewish woman. Cantiga 107 tells the story of a Jewish woman of Segovia sentenced to death for an unspecified crime.16 According to the song, just as the woman was about to be thrown from a cliff to her death, she cried, “O misery! How can anyone live who falls from here, unless God wills it? But you, Queen Mary, in whom Christians have faith, if what I have heard is true, that you come to the help of wretched women who commend themselves to you,… come to my aid, for I am in great need! If I live and stay well, I shall immediately make myself a Christian before tomorrow comes.” The Virgin did, indeed, come to her aid, and the Jewess miraculously landed unharmed. Praising God, she made her way to a church, told the assembled Christians of the miracle, and asked to be baptized.

[Fig. 4] In each of the first two panels of the illumination, the Jewess is surrounded by a crowd of men, presumably the Jews who decreed the harsh sentence of death. The crowd is relatively diverse: some of the men are young and clean-shaven, while one or two are bearded. But at least two figures in each of the first three panels are clearly marked as Jews: they are either very dark or elderly and gray-bearded, wear pointed hoods or hats, are drawn in profile, and/or have long or curved noses. The punishment they are about to inflict follows neither medieval Jewish nor Christian practice but is modeled on biblical and perhaps Talmudic texts.17 The poem censures this death sentence not because of its brutality (there are many instances of Christian judicial brutality in the manuscript, not to mention in medieval life) but because (as Christians understood it) the Jewish judges allowed no scope for penance and forgiveness, the chief concern of the Cantigas. Judaism is thus presented as the antithesis of Alfonso’s merciful, penitential, Marian Christian ideal: antiquated, rigid, and unforgiving—precisely the qualities encapsulated in the appearances of the marked Jewish men. Jewish men again bear crucial, though negative, witness. In the fourth panel, the dark and bearded Jewish male on the cliff points in wonder at the miraculous survival of the woman, yet for all his curiosity he sees not. Like the deformed boy in cantiga 108, he can only look backward, remaining utterly blind to the Virgin emerging behind him from the clouds. In spite of the marvel he has witnessed, he is steadfast in his recalcitrance: there is no indication in the song that any Jew other than the condemned woman converts.


FIG. 4

The condemned Jewess shares none of her male coreligionists’ exaggerated features or vivid coloring.18 The veil wound around her head, which at first glance may seem somewhat to resemble a turban, is identical to the headdresses of the Christian women who stand sponsor at her final conversion. The only distinctive aspect of this woman’s appearance is the fact that she wears a simple white shift—a consequence of her condemned status, presumably, but also a visual sign suggestive of purity or passiveness or, again, perhaps just blankness. (Although it has been suggested that the shift serves to reveal the woman’s “voluptuous nude body” and is intended to signal her sexuality, I do not see this image as embodying Jewish seduction.19 The outline of the woman’s legs is visible but her breasts and pudenda are not, and her body remains modestly covered even when she is completely upside down. By contrast, the breasts and belly of the abbess accused of fornication in cantiga 7 are very blatantly exposed. Moreover, the German Christian woman who in cantiga 136 is condemned to be dragged through the streets for abusing a statue of the Virgin is similarly dressed in a white shift. A more salient analogy for both these women is the white, lightly clad, suffering body of Christ himself, surrounded by tormenters. As Caroline Bynum and others have argued, women were thought able to approximate Christ through passive suffering.)20Indeed, if there is any unifying quality to the depictions of Jewish women in the cantigas, it is indeterminacy. Their faces are neutral, their clothing is indistinct, their gestures are listless, and their social positions are weak. [Fig. 5] There is something particularly flat and lifeless in the portrayal of this woman: aside from her hand gestures, she is remarkably static—her shift hardly even flutters as she falls, and she seems more akin to the baptismal vessel in which she is eventually immersed than to the active, colorful, vibrant male Jews who menace her. Like the blond heroines favored for that very reason by Alfred Hitchcock, this pale woman is a blank slate, waiting to be written upon. And she is, indeed, acted upon in the most violent imaginable way: she is turned completely upside down, utterly reversed. It is this passive, Christ-like suffering that cures her “blindness.” Moreover, if the appearances of Jewish males and Jewish females contrast, so does their vision. In diametric opposition to the Jewish male above her, who sees but does not believe, this Jewess believes without having to see. That is, she displays faith in the mother of God without the stimulus of any visual proof: it is not until after her prayer is completed and the miracle effected that the Virgin materializes to bless her.


FIG. 5


FIG. 6

The same visual and conceptual qualities characterize the sole other cantiga featuring a female Jewish protagonist. Cantiga 89 tells the tale of a Jewish woman who converted to Christianity after the Virgin Mary helped her safely through a difficult labor.21 [Fig. 6] The Jewish woman is distinguished only by her swollen belly; her skin and hair are fair, her veil is white, her costume is unremarkable, and her features are small and even.22 The same is true of her small daughter, the Jewish midwives or neighbors in the middle panels, and the (presumably Christian) women who observe the baptism in the final panel. Throughout the visual narrative, the Jewish woman’s posture and gestures express passivity and weakness: she throws her hands up in pain and despair, she leans helplessly upon her attendants, she lies prone beside her newborn baby, she stands a hesitant petitioner before the door of the church, she sits naked in a baptismal font as the holy water flows over her head.

Image after image from this manuscript and other high medieval manuscripts and monuments is formed in the same mold: crowds of nameless Jewish men, with nary a female in sight, or, alternately, dark and distorted Jewish men, contrasted with pale or neutral Jewish women. A particularly vivid example is Jaime Serra’s altarpiece for the monastery of Sijena, Catalonia (ca. 1400) depicting the first recorded accusation of host desecration, which allegedly occurred in Paris in 1290. The husband, shown stabbing the host, is elderly and bearded, has a downward sloping nose, and wears a dark cloak and hood, whereas his wife is young and has a straight nose. Her round, golden headdress and bright, light eyes—like her young son’s golden hair and bright eyes—echo the shining hair, halo, and eyes of the Christ Child rising from the cauldron, whom both mother and son see and wonder at. The husband/father, by contrast, keeps his eyes resolutely fixed on the bloody table before him, utterly oblivious to the miraculous apparition.23 Nor is it just good Jewesses, the loving mothers or Jessica prototypes, whose looks are so much less distinctive and disturbing than those of Jewish men. The obdurate Jewish midwives of cantiga 89 who flee in disgust at their neighbor’s invocation of the Virgin are as fair as she or, for that matter, as the Virgin Mary herself. The Israelite women in a Regensburg Bible manuscript of around 1200 mimic their spouses in engaging in misbegotten worship, but not in displaying distinctive hairstyles or headgear.24 Even the truly notoriously evil Jewesses who very occasionally make an appearance in high medieval art display no distinctive visual traits. Salome, whose deadly dark beauty so inflamed the imaginations of Romantic artists, is in Gothic art as pale and delicate as any noble lady: lethal in act but visually benign. [Fig. 7]

The illuminated tales of the glassmaker of Bourges and of Cayphas the alfaquin in the Cantigas de Santa Maria can help us understand this contrasting high medieval artistic approach to the Jewish man and the Jewish woman. I argued in chapter 5 that the caricatured Jewish males in the images we have looked at, for all their vivid corporeality, must be considered first and foremost symbols, iconographical expressions of certain ideas about Judaism and about the physical world. Transformed into a visual sign, the Jewish male becomes a visible, fleshly embodiment both of the Augustinian doctrine of “Jewish witness” and of royal sovereignty. Augustine of Hippo explained that Jews were allowed to continue to reside in Christendom because in preserving the true ancient text of scripture they testified to the truth of prophecy (although they were blind to its true meaning), because their flesh was living proof of the historicity of the Crucifixion and their own criminal role in it, because their defeat at the hands of the Romans and current dispersal among the nations testified to Christian triumph, and because they would convert at the end of days.25Alfonso X’s own law code, the Siete Partidas, acknowledged that the actual Jews living in Christendom by no means consistently looked or acted as this doctrine held they should, all too often projecting neither subordination nor stasis. So, for example, partida 7.24.2 laments that “we heard that in some places the Jews reenacted derisively—and continue to do so—on Good Friday the Passion of Our Lord”; partida7.24.8 implies that an unacceptable amount of social mixing takes place (“no Jew shall dare to have in his house Christian servants … to bathe together with Christians”); partida 7.24.9 proclaims that “Jews who lie with Christian women are guilty of great insolence and presumption”; and partida 7.24.11 notes that “many errors and offensive acts occur.” But though the king apparently could not fully eradicate Jewish trespasses from his realm, in the idealized world of Christian imagery, in this manuscript made at the king’s command and according to his own design, the Jew could be forced back into his proper role.26 Headgear indicative of archaic authority displays the Jewish glassmaker’s affiliation with an obsolete law and the outmoded past; his coarse and ugly visage proclaims his misunderstanding of that law and consequent carnality and perfidy, even fiendishness. The failure of the glassmaker of Bourges and the judges of the Segovian Jewess to see the miracles worked by the Virgin graphically demonstrates the male Jew’s exegetical and spiritual blindness. By heightening visible distinctions and highlighting the importance of proper vision and visual response, the illustrations of the Cantigas present a “corrected” image of a recognizably erring Jew who, when daring to challenge Christian superiority, to insult Christian sacraments, or to question Christian truth, is properly punished for his presumption—cast into his own fiery oven. Dominated on the Gothic page as he was not always in life, the caricatured Jew, now passive object of the Christian viewer’s controlling gaze, indeed became a reliable figure of and witness to Christian truth and triumph and to royal power.


FIG. 7

This was not a part the Jewish woman was expected to play. This is in large part because of the nature of the issues at stake: from the Christian perspective, Jewish “testimony” rested upon Jewish scripture, law, and ceremony, which were seen as the unique province of the Jewish male. Jewish women neither preserved nor distorted the words of scripture, they did not dispute about Christian image worship, they exercised no inappropriate religious or political authority, and they did not inscribe the law’s superseded and bloody ceremonies on their own bodies. Some aspects of medieval Jewish religious practice may have reinforced this view among Christians. A thirteenth-century Jewish anti-Christian polemical text stated that Christians did not believe that female converts could really enter the Jewish faith, as women couldn’t be circumcised.27 Jewish women were not required to fulfill all the religious obligations imposed on men.28 Women were in some situations exempt from fasting and were not always expected to fast as rigorously as men,29 to enforce Jewish law as strenuously as men,30 or to attend synagogue as regularly as men (in contrast to Christian women, who were apparently considered more regular churchgoers than men—note that no women are ever depicted in synagogue interiors or participating in Jewish rites in the Cantigas, whereas Christian women are frequently shown in church).31

2. A Leaky Vessel

But there is an even more basic reason why Jewish women could not embody the Jewish relationship to law and scripture: the hierarchically gendered nature of medieval Christian religious and social thought. In the clerical imagination, at least, the true faith was most perfectly enshrined in the Christian male, and especially the male cleric.32 Although all human souls were potentially equal, women were handicapped by their bodies. The Christian woman needed to be subordinated to and controlled by men because, though a receptacle of grace, she was at best a weak and leaky vessel.33 She was mutable and fluid, open and vulnerable, and her faith was feared to be no firmer than her flesh. Thus, much of the thirteenth-century Rule for Women Recluses “focuses on entry and impermeability, enclosure and leakage, sealing and opening.… The recluse’s bodily experience in the cell is represented as a constant struggle for regulation of these permeabilities.”34 Female weakness was feared to make Christian women susceptible to Jewish manipulation, as is suggested by all the many later medieval host desecration tales depicting Jewish men successfully convincing Christian women to bring them consecrated hosts.35 A similar assumption led a monastic chronicler to explain that a powerful French countess punished Christian debtors for defaulting on loans from Jewish moneylenders not because it was financially beneficial to her (which it was) but out of “female lightness.”36 Or as the priest Andreas Capellanus put it in a treatise about love: “Woman is regularly found inconstant, because no woman is strengthened by so much firmness regarding any matter, that her conviction cannot be changed by anyone’s light sweet talk in a short space of time. Woman is indeed like melting wax, always ready to assume fresh shape and to be molded to the imprint of anyone’s seal.”37 If she is changeable herself, still more ominous is her ability to change men. As an abbot of the monastery of Saint-Victor de Paris warned, “a woman’s beauty can make even a wise man apostatize”; this warning is embodied in an image in a Christian devotional manuscript known as the Rothschild Canticles (ca. 1320) depicting a beautiful woman enticing a man away from veneration of the crucifix.38 (Jews shared many of these gendered assumptions. They, too, worried about their women’s susceptibility to sexual seduction and saw them as vulnerable soft spots in the Jewish communal body, chinks in the armor of Jewish purity and solidarity.)39

If the carnality of the Christian woman was inimical to spiritual fortitude (whether her own or that of her male viewer), this was even more true of the Jewish woman, who could not escape her sexuality through celibacy. Perception of female fluidity could work in Jewish women’s favor (from the Christian perspective): Steven Kruger has observed that “Jewish women, unlike the obdurate men of their ‘race,’ seem particularly susceptible to Christianity’s truth.”40 Anna Abulafia has noted that “pliable Jewish women … were considered an easier prospect for conversion than men.”41(Note, however, that this assumption seems to have been based on gender stereotypes rather than actual experience—a study of twelfth-century Jewish conversions to Christianity concluded that “males appear to have constituted the vast majority of voluntary and individual converts.”42 And the great twelfth-century Talmudic commentator Rabbi Jacob Tam wrote that “it happens every day” that apostates divorce their Jewish wives, suggesting that in his experience the typical voluntary convert to Christianity was male.)43

Missionaries saw hope in female solidarity as well as female susceptibility: the thirteenth-century monastic chronicler Matthew Paris wrote that the wife of a Jew who had slimed feces on an image of Mary rescued it “out of pity for another woman,” and the condemned criminal Jewess of cantiga 107 explicitly spoke to the Virgin Mary “woman to woman.” But in other cases the femaleness of the Jewess exacerbated her threat, as in The Ballad of Sir Hugh; or, The Jew’s Daughter, which tells the tale of a little Christian boy murdered by a young female Jewish neighbor who lured him into her father’s house by offering him an apple—an echo of Eve’s original sin that connects her crime less to her Jewish faith than to her fallen female state.44

Thus, although the murderously seductive juive fatale of preachers’ nightmares might seem the moral obverse of the innocent and impressionable Jewess of the missionary’s dreams, both Jewess types share an essential feature: each in her own way signals religious instability. The sexual and/or romantic liaisons into which Jewesses draw their Christian lovers sometimes end in the corruption of the Christian men and sometimes in the salvation of the Jewish women, but in either case the Jewess is a powerful and disruptive force for change. The Jewish wives and mothers in theCantigas de Santa Maria and other miracle tales exist only to transform, usually through conversion, sometimes through death. Even one of the most notorious Jewish women in literature, a woman suffering from hunger during Titus’s siege of Jerusalem who kills, roasts, and eats her own child, was, according to the ancient Jewish historian Josephus, motivated by bodily weakness and uncontrollable impulse, and she was as false to her own people as she was to God and her maternal duty. As Josephus put it: “She consulted only her passion and the necessity she was in.… Snatching up her son, who was a child sucking at her breast, she said, ‘O thou miserable infant! for whom shall I preserve thee in this war, this famine, and this sedition?’”45 In their inconstancy, then, these literary Jewesses embody the quality most frequently assigned to women in medieval antifeminist literature. Gender ideology, so often detrimental to Christian women, thus worked in the Jewish woman’s favor. In the Christian imagination, for better or for worse, the Jewess’s femaleness trumped her Jewishness, just as the Christian woman’s sex was often feared to engulf her faith.

This, I believe, is why high medieval art had no need to invent a sign for the Jewish woman. Carnal she might be, yet hers was not the carnality of Jewish materialistic literalism and bloody ritual but the pliant, susceptible, and (when unbridled) dangerous carnality of all women. (On the rare occasions when high medieval artists attempted to express the more obdurate and dynamic carnality of Jewish law in gendered terms, they did so by means not of the Jewish female but of the female personification of Judaism, Synagoga. Though this figure is generally shown as an elderly female holding round-topped tablets of the law and/or a sacrificial knife to indicate her embodiment of outdated “materialistic” Jewish law and “bloody” Jewish rites, in a few cases she is depicted in a sexualized manner, as if to concede the attraction that some Christians nevertheless might feel for Judaism.)46 And Christian artists already had a venerable sign with which to signify the pliant, unstable female form of carnality: the female body. From the eleventh century on, artists conveyed the softness and flexibility of a woman’s body by means of curving lines and soft shading, and they underscored her freshness and fragility through delicately colored skin and long, wavy hair. These visual signs could then be endowed with either positive or negative force—when a woman’s stance is passive, her glance is downcast, her body is modestly clothed, and her hair is veiled, she embodies appropriate submission; when she appears active and her hair or skin is flagrantly bared, she projects unbridled passion.47

There is one other facet to the religiously unmarked representation of Jewish women in the Cantigas and across high medieval art. I suggested above that in the Cantigas, as in other artworks examined throughout this book, the iconographically marked male Jew epitomizes crucial aspects of Jewish “testimony”: its rigid obsolescence, its blind literalism, the severity and intractability of its law, its carnal culpability crying out for subjugation—all qualities that female flesh was ill-suited to convey. But to recognize the inability of the figure of the Jewess to embody Jewish ritual, exegesis, and law is not to assert that in the Cantigas (or beyond) this figure has nothing to say about Judaism. The negative qualities associated with the marked male Jew encompass only one dimension of the Christian theological and legal approach to Judaism. The other component of the doctrine of “Jewish witness,” which after all served to justify the continued presence of Jews within Christendom, insisted on protecting Jews who respected Christian primacy, and it held out hope that they might ultimately turn to Christ. These are notions effectively embodied in the sign of the Jewish woman, whose face and body encode weakness and pliability, receptivity to dominance, and potential for change. The apparently divided Jewish family that inhabits the pages of the Cantigas is, in fact, a prerequisite for the continued toleration of the Jewish minority. In Christian theology the particularized, exclusive obstinacy represented by the father had to be balanced by the universalized, fluid compliancy of the mother.

3. Becoming Visible

The benign visual neglect of the Jewess did not last. Around the turn of the fifteenth century, artists began to direct their attention and apply their visual imagination to female Jews. (This process paralleled civic legislation. In 1443 the senate of Venice realized that, while Jewish men had long been forced to wear a distinguishing mark on their clothing, Jewish women had not been subject to any such regulation and ordered that the situation be rectified.)48 They inserted female Jews into scenes in which they had not previously appeared, gave visual form to Jewesses who had formerly existed only in texts, and endowed these Jewesses with faces, costumes, and poses that clearly distinguish them from their Christian sisters and graphically proclaim their religious difference. (Their inclusion and marking in this way was part of a broader trend of focusing on female power and iniquity: Judith, Eve, and witches take the place of Simon Magus in depictions of harmful sorcery, Saint Anthony’s demons become women, and femmes fatales of many sorts feature more prominently in fifteenth-century art.)49

The first hint of this trend may already manifest itself as early as the 1330s. [Fig. 8] An English manuscript known as the Holkham Bible (ca. 1327–40) contains a very unusual image: an illustration of the apocryphal legend of the smith’s wife.50 According to the story, the Jewish blacksmith assigned the task of forging the nails for the crucifixion of Jesus was reluctant to do so and falsely claimed to have an injured hand. When the smith was forced to show his hand to the executioners, it miraculously became truly incapacitated, whereupon the smith’s wife immediately volunteered to take his place and proceeded to forge the nails. Although this maleficent Jewess first emerged in literature in an Old French vernacular Passion dating to about 1200, she did not make an appearance in art until the fourteenth century.51 [Fig. 9] In the Queen Mary Psalter of around 1310, she looks much like the other high Gothic Jewish women we have encountered: graceful, fair, small-featured, and utterly bland, indistinguishable from any Christian lady, even as she forges the instruments of the savior’s death. (By way of contrast, note that even within the confines of the manuscript’s very courtly style there is an attempt to visually mark the more nefarious Jewish men: the man kneeling to the right of Christ in the crowning of thorns scenes has a scraggly, pointy beard and displays a toothy grimace; the Jew holding the book while supervising the seizing of Simon the Cyrene is drawn in profile and has a bulbous nose.) Twenty years later, in the Holkham Bible, the blacksmith’s wife looks very different. Although her clothing is still in no way distinctive, her face now reflects her iniquity: in the dark brows, which she pulls down furiously over glowering eyes; in the full lips, curved downward in a fierce grimace; and, above all, in the crooked and bulbous nose, drawn in sharp profile, a grotesque deformity indicative of her inner ugliness.52 I hesitate to label this figure a full-fledged feminized anti-Jewish caricature, because her most distinctive mark—the bulbous nose—cannot be labeled a specifically “Jewish” feature: it does not conform to the shape that had by 1300 become the distinctive “Jewish nose,” and it is shared by many nefarious characters in the manuscript, Romans and yokels as well as Jews. But I nonetheless see this hideous Jewess as significant, in that she is the first painted Jewess not to look utterly generic, even in the midst of villainy. This suggests that some Christians, at least, were beginning to see Jewish women as sharing the negative religious valence of their menfolk. I shall postpone consideration of the possible reasons for this until later, but for now it is worth noting that this first-ever visually distinctive Jewess appears in one of the earliest extant examples of manuscript illumination intended for middle-class consumption.53


FIG. 8


FIG. 9

A few years later, far to the south, a very different Jewish woman, diametrically opposed in spiritual status to the blacksmith’s wife, is also visually singled out in a new way. [Fig. 10] As Diane Owen Hughes has shown, in 1342, in an altarpiece of thePurification of the Virgin, the Italian artist Ambrogio Lorenzetti endowed the Virgin Mary with new and innovative distinguishing signs.54 Up to this point, Mary and also the women accompanying her had been portrayed as Christian matrons or nuns. In this painting, however, Mary and her attendants wear embroidered Byzantine or Islamic silk head coverings and dangling golden earrings. Since Christian women in the new populist communes of central and northern Italy had apparently given up the wearing of earrings in the twelfth century (perhaps because of their association with the aristocratic past and imperial Byzantine East), only Jewish women in these regions continued to wear earrings (as did Christian women in more southern, Byzantine-influenced areas).55These items, like the Eastern textiles, would thus have looked old-fashioned and exotic, even “Jewish” to contemporary Sienese viewers. Here then, for the first time, an artist visually associates the Virgin Mary and her sisters with qualities (antiquity, Easternness, luxury, materialism) traditionally assigned the Old Law. There is, of course, no derogatory intent: Lorenzetti was using these signs to display the Virgin’s humble obedience to the Old Law, following accepted theological rationales for her performance of this Hebrew rite. But the use of iconographic signs to grant these Judean women qualities previously associated only with male Hebrew prophets and their male Jewish descendants nevertheless signals a clear change in how female roles and identities were imagined. Women were apparently now seen as more closely affiliated with, and identified by, religious law and practice.


FIG. 10

If the Lorenzetti altarpiece uses Orientalized, feminized signs to highlight the antiquity and alienness of Hebraic law, an image from about six decades later conveys these same qualities with far more negative imagery. [Fig. 11] A folio from an illuminated manuscript of the Pèlerinage de Jésus-Crist by Guillaume de Deguileville (a vernacular verse retelling of the life of Jesus) illustrates the circumcision of Jesus.56 The circumcision was a rare subject in medieval art, though it began to be more popular in the fourteenth and, especially, the fifteenth centuries, due largely to the increased devotional emphasis on the humanity of Christ.57 It was rarer still (though not unprecedented) for the circumciser (the mohel [m.] or in this case, mohelet [f.]) to be depicted as a woman (though, interestingly, the circumcision is also performed by a woman in the Holkham Bible).58But this is what we see here. In the center of the image the naked Christ Child is laid out awkwardly on a hard wooden table. He seems to strain his torso upward as a darkly scowling woman in profile fully swathed in a white kerchief roughly grasps his right thigh with one hand and snips the foreskin off with clippers held in the other. Who is this elderly, veiled, grim-faced woman?


FIG. 11

The poem provides an explanation: “Before the kings arrived, and while the child slept, an old woman in a mantle, all withered and wrinkled, carrying large tablets [of the law] in her hand, showing a knife to all, approached the child, and grasped him, and put her hand to him, and circumcised him, so roughly and rudely that his blood flowed copiously and spread on the ground, so that the place was reddened.”59 When the Virgin Mary cries out at this cruel treatment of her son, the woman responds, “I am the Old Law, and I have a commandment from the King [of Heaven] to circumcise boys on the eighth day. It is a sign of God’s alliance with man, a sacred sacrifice. You should rejoice at this mark, for it is that of the Sovereign King, who should never be disobeyed.” Mary continues to object that such a mark is not necessary for the Son of God, but, remarkably, the Old Law has the last word: “I know that this newborn is the Son of God. But good woman, consider that God has made the child, the perfect man, to show the way to his brothers, in keeping the commandments of the Father. Obedience is the reason that it leads to freedom.”

The veiled woman, then, is the Old Law. The presence of the law is in perfect accordance with Catholic theology, which explained Christ’s circumcision in terms similar to those of Mary’s purification: as a sign of the holy figure’s humility, obedience, and humanity.60 But if the text of thePèlerinage provides ample explanation for the crone’s presence, it explains rather less well her appearance. The veil rolled above her brow and gathered under her chin is not the “great mantle” or cloak mentioned in the text and worn by the Virgin Mary and also frequently depicted in art on Synagoga or on male circumcisers.61 It resembles instead the headdress of serving women.62 Her instrument, moreover, is all wrong: it is not the knife mentioned in the text, generally seen in circumcision images, or traditionally associated with Synagoga. It is, rather, a set of clippers, pincers, or pliers, tools much more typically associated with instruments of the Passion than with the circumcision. [Fig. 12] Or, I might add, with ritual murder.63 [Fig. 13] And what are we to make of the other two grim-faced women standing to the right of the mohelet? There is no precedent for the Old Law to be accompanied by female attendants. They serve, therefore, to move our image from the realm of religious abstraction or personification to the realm of community; as attendants of the Old Law, they presumably are to be understood as Jewish women.64 Like the law they accompany, their faces and clothing bespeak age and servility. But they also express, even more than the moheletand far more than is authorized by the text, hostility; the face of the last woman to the right, in particular, is gruesome and distorted, glowering with hatred. If the furrowed brow, dark scowl, and distorted nose of the Holkham blacksmith’s wife may signal only generalized evil, there can be no doubt that this woman’s ugliness relates to her perfidious law. These Jewish women have joined their brothers in embodying the recalcitrance and enmity of Judaism. Their grotesque faces emanate in part from the style of the manuscript, but that is largely the point: a culture that has begun to use faces and bodies to express value feels the need to impart value to faces and bodies and develops the artistic means by which it might do so.


FIG. 12


FIG. 13

The two forms of difference associated with Judaism and displayed by Jewish women that we have encountered so far—exotic luxury and carnal deformity—come together in a series of panels painted in 1435 by Jacques Daret for the altarpiece of the Benedictine monastery of Saint-Vaast in Arras. [Fig. 14; see also color insert] In the foreground of the panel of the Nativity, we see a woman who, like the blacksmith’s wife, is an apocryphal figure rarely seen in Western art before the late Middle Ages. She is the midwife Salome (Zebel in the thirteenth-century Legenda Aurea), who, according to the Protoevangelium of James, refused to believe in the virgin birth and insisted on examining Mary’s body herself. As soon as she laid her hand upon the Virgin, however, it withered. An angel instructed her to touch the Christ Child and be healed; she did so and believed.65

This painting focuses on the moment just before the miraculous healing and accordingly endows the still-doubting midwife with signs of materiality and infidelity. Her red and gold brocaded dress is encrusted with gems and surmounted by a scalloped, fur-trimmed mantle—odd attire indeed for an attendant at a birth. Her hair hangs down her back in a single long braid—a hairstyle not attested in fifteenth-century Flanders and probably conspicuously alien.66 On her head is an equally foreign-looking turban, and a golden earring dangles from her ear. The connotations of this latter, feminized sign of Jewishness had shifted since it was (apparently) first used by Lorenzetti in 1342, following a trajectory similar to that of the masculine sign of the Jewish hat. Just as the hat had originally signified neutral or even positive qualities (antiquity and authority) but eventually, by virtue of its association with Jews, had become a negative sign, so the earring’s association with Jewish women came to contour its cultural meaning. A fifteenth-century preacher endowed earrings with near-religious significance, telling his audience that Jewish women “wear them in place of circumcision.”67 Franciscan moralists insisted that Jewish women (who began to eschew earrings in imitation of their Christian neighbors and perhaps in order to avoid being visually distinctive) be forced to wear earrings as signs of Jewish difference; they also began to associate the adornments with luxury, lust, and prostitution. Indeed, in early-fifteenth-century Umbria, ring-shaped earrings (as well as a cape “in the antique fashion”) were the form of distinguishing clothing imposed on Jewish women.68 A copy of Lorenzetti’s painting made in around 1447–49 omitted the Virgin’s earrings, presumably because they were by that time considered inappropriate for such a holy figure.69 The earring, then, marks Salome not merely as an adherent of an outdated law but as morally corrupt. And, of course, the midwife’s face is the most alien accoutrement of all: drawn in sharp profile, it displays the same strangely sloping nose, full lips, and heavy-lidded eyes seen on de Deguileville’s distorted Jewesses. That is, in her antique and grotesque otherness, Salome the midwife, the first Jew reluctantly to testify to the divinity of Christ, has finally acquired visual attributes analogous to those of the glassmaker of Bourges and Cayphas the alfaquin, and appropriate to the more negative dimension of the doctrine of Jewish witness.


FIG. 14

The spiritual significance of these signs is amply confirmed in the panel of the Purification and Presentation [Fig. 15], which includes a remarkable number of female participants—four women in addition to the Virgin Mary. As Penny Howell Jolly has noted, these women embody in their dress and hairstyles the contrast between the Old Law and the New.70 Indeed, one can trace the passing of the old dispensation in the gradual dropping of the signs of the law, from the outlandish dress of the turbaned, earring-wearing young woman on the far right; to the more sedate, Hebrew-inscribed garb of the elderly prophetess Anna; through the bareheaded, red-robed woman in the center; to the left of the altar, where the Virgin Mary and a second woman appear as respectable Christian matrons, dressed in sober, conservative Flemish garb.71

Finally, I turn to one of the most notorious of all late medieval images: the famous 1493 print of the ritual murder of Simon of Trent (or Simonino) included in Hartmann Schedel’s Weltchronik, or World Chronicle. [Fig. 16] On Easter Sunday in 1475, a Jewish cook in the northern Italian city of Trent found the body of a small child in the sewer that flowed through the basement of his Jewish employer’s house. In hope of staving off suspicion, the tiny Jewish community of the town immediately informed the authorities but to no avail. Caught up in a complicated struggle for power between the German-speaking bishop and the Italian-speaking regional authorities and exposed to the heightened religious sensibilities that characterized the Easter season, all twenty-two members of the Jewish community were arrested and accused of murdering the boy and using his blood in their Passover observances. After extensive torture during which some of the Jews confessed and at the conclusion of a trial that lasted a little over two months, the male Jews were executed.72 Posthumous miracles were immediately attributed to Simon, and the bishop moved swiftly to declare him a martyr. Over the objections of both the pope and the Doge of Venice (the secular authority of the region), both of whom disavowed the accusation and deplored the cult, narrative and devotional images of Simon’s “martyrdom” were quickly distributed. The 1493 Weltchronik print is based on a woodcut made in Nuremberg in around 1475–76, testifying to the rapid spread of interest in the tale and the cult. The print has been much studied; many scholars have examined its artistic resonances, noted its devotional aspects, and traced its nefarious influence.73 But so far, no one has fully explained one of its most significant features: the inclusion of a woman in the scene.74 This is, to my knowledge, the first time a woman has been shown participating in a ritual murder. Why is this woman here, and what does her appearance tell us?


FIG. 15


FIG. 16

There is nothing “documentary” about the inclusion of a woman in this scene. Although many aspects of the print faithfully replicate the “crime” as it was understood by Christians, the presence of “Brunetta” (her name is Brunetta, not Gruneta: the printer has mistakenly replaced the B with a G) is not among them. Some women, including one named Brunetta, were implicated in the “conspiracy,” but even after considerable torture none of the accused Jews, male or female, would concede that women were present at the murder.75 The worst that was ever alleged of the women in the community was that after the child’s death they used his blood in the preparation of Passover matzoh. We must assume, then, that Brunetta is here for a specific reason, and most likely for an ideological, artistic, even devotional one rather than a historical or documentary one. And that reason is clear enough when her figure is viewed in light of the later medieval images of Jewish women we have just seen. In this one figure is condensed all the signs of Jewishness elsewhere dispersed among various disparate figures. Her age and veil invoke the obsolescence of the Old Law. Her scowl, full lips, and beaked nose, now identical to those previously displayed only by Jewish men, signify her perfidious carnality. The bag and keys hanging from her belt associate that carnality with material greed. The nails she offers with her left hand signify her eagerness to participate in this re-creation of the original Crucifixion and remind us that that crime, too, was facilitated by a Jewish woman—the notorious wife of the blacksmith. And the candle in her right hand, which recalls the candles held by the Virgin Mary and her attendants in scenes of her postpartum purification in the temple (see fig. 15), highlights the extent to which this crime, like the Crucifixion, reenacts and distorts every important ritual of the law that Jews claim to follow: sacrifice, circumcision, purification, and presentation. We see a similar pattern, though visually manifested in a different way, in a painting in the provincial museum of art in Trent (ca. 1520), where a Jewess holding a goblet in which she catches the blood of Simonino has the single braid and wrapped cloth of the exotic siren-like midwife Salome, but also the hooked nose of the fleshly Jew. In such images, the Jewess is a weak and leaky vessel no longer. Into the capacious visual sign of the murderous Jewess has now been poured all the eternal, unchanging, ever-repeated carnality and perfidy of the Jews.

*   *   *

At the close of the Middle Ages the Jewish woman finally began to display visual tokens connoting antiquity and perfidy, very much like her male counterpart and unlike her high medieval predecessor.76 These images suggest that, in a startling reversal of earlier ideas, the Jewess’s religion was beginning to overshadow her femaleness. And, indeed, contemporary texts echo this trend. Whereas thirteenth-century preachers had seen the Jewess as ripe for conversion, the sixteenth-century Jesuit Philip Nerius warned that Jewish women were much more difficult to convert than men.77Although Nerius did not specify the source of the Jewess’s stubbornness, Inquisition interrogations of suspected crypto-Jews help point the way: they locate Jewishness not in texts, teaching, and public ritual—as high medieval scholastics had—but in diet, daily habit, and the rites associated with birth, marriage, and death.78 “Did you eat pork, did you light candles, did you wear clean clothes on Saturdays?” the inquisitors repeatedly wanted to know. Neighbors were asked about suspects’ attendance in church, but even more obsessively about how they acted at home. In other words, the site of Jewish expression and the source of Jewish recalcitrance were now located in the domestic realm: the realm of women. An early-sixteenth-century Iberian chronicler is quite explicit. Referring to the (alleged) crypto-Jews of fifteenth-century Spain, he says, “They had Jews who preached to them in their houses, in secret, especially to the women.”79 Likewise, in the images we have looked at, Jewish women serve to unite two disparate realms: family and household on the one hand and religious ritual on the other. The blacksmith’s wife injects a strangely homely, domestic note into an otherwise solemn judicial ritual. The three old crones in the de Deguileville illumination offer an ugly counterimage to the Holy Family, whose domestic peace they shatter with their bloody and outdated rite. The introduction of the two midwives into Daret’s Nativity and of the four female onlookers into his Purification and Presentation serve to “feminize” both events. It has been suggested that this feminization reflects the importance and the concerns of the altarpiece’s lay female viewership and also the Church’s desire to control and regulate the behavior of those viewers.80 This explanation helps us understand the changing iconography of the Jewess.

By the opening of the fifteenth century, the shape and practice of Western Christianity had changed. Learning was no longer the monopoly of priests, or even of men. Sanctity could be found in city streets, urban courtyards, and family homes as well as in monastery cloisters. Art was made by and for laypersons and hung in living rooms as well as churches. Devotional texts in the vernacular, many of which were owned by women, were read aloud in the family sitting room.81 Later medieval lay-oriented Christianity highlighted the spiritual role of household and father, and so naturally also of wife and mother.82 A host of devotional and artistic developments testify to the new religious significance accorded household, women, and families. Writers became increasingly interested in the domestic life of the Holy Family, while artists began to depict sacred scenes in domestic settings, such as in the famous altarpiece of the Annunciation by Robert Campin (ca. 1425) in which the Virgin is shown seated in a middle-class living room.83The Master of the Hours of Catherine of Cleves (fl. ca. 1440) likewise stressed the domesticity of the Holy Family, which he depicted as “the ultimate hard-working nuclear family.”84 Also related to this trend are the rise of the cults of Saint Anne and Saint Joseph, the explosion of devotions to female saints, and the elaboration of the iconographic theme of the Holy Kinship.85 The clerical compilers of the “household books” that guided domestic practice in Brabant saw women as their most important partners in fostering a Catholic and moral civic culture and considered the “good housewife” to be the primary personification of Christian morality.86 Women’s augmented symbolic significance made them the main targets of the hundreds of sumptuary laws issued in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries and a major preoccupation of urban governments, which saw it as their duty to safeguard the honor of resident women.87 It likewise explains why Christian legislators began to take more care to impose and/or enforce distinctive clothing regulations on Jewish women as well as Jewish men. In 1450, for example, the town of Viterbo imposed a red badge on Jewish men but ordered Jewish women to cover their heads with a yellow veil, at risk of being publicly stripped.88 As we have already seen, in Venice in 1443 the government revised earlier instructions regarding distinctive Jewish signs to make it clear that women as well as men were to wear the yellow badges.89 In 1499 Jewish women were ordered by the town of Recanati to wear yellow bands around their heads, a feminine version of the yellow hat that was imposed on Jewish men.90 Women’s symbolic significance endowed their actions with considerable political, even international, import.91 The images examined in this chapter, illustrations of vernacular devotional texts and depictions of such female-centered rituals as purification and presentation, grow out of these trends. So does the new iconography of the Jewish woman. As the spiritual and moral significance of the Christian wife rose (thereby rendering Christian society more similar to Jewish society: home and family, even more than the synagogue, had always been the center of Jewish tradition and ritual),92 the significance of the Jewish wife rose as well. The “marked” Jewess may be exotically seductive, carnally extravagant, or hideously decrepit, but in all cases she now fully partakes of the rites and crimes of her husband and presents a dark counterpart to the ideal Christian woman, sober, modest, obedient, and chaste.

This reading of the sign of Jewess bears implications for our understanding of how medieval Christendom imagined Jewish “otherness.” It has become common to define the “other” as “that which I am not.” So, we are frequently told, Jews, as the stereotypical other, are rendered dark, ugly, literal, material, etc., because these qualities constitute the opposite of what Christians claimed to be. The later medieval images of visibly marked Jewesses seem to be in accord with that usual formulation, insofar as these Jewesses are manifestly different from the Christian ideal of woman. But “different” is not quite the same thing as “opposite,” and the signs used to signify Jewish difference are by no means arbitrarily chosen indicators of otherness. Throughout this book I have argued that Jews serve a central function in medieval Christian art and thought not solely because they are “not Christian” but because they and their law, rituals, lives, and, increasingly, households were powerfully related in specific ways to Christian law, ritual, society, and identity. Similarly, specific historical developments led to the creation of the “Jewess” as an iconographic sign. Jewish women came to be marked with extravagant and ostentatious clothing and jewels at just the time when, and in just those places where, Christian moralists were most concerned with condemning extravagance and ostentation among Christian women. Jewish wives and mothers become significant religious symbols at just the time when, and in just those places where, Christian wives and mothers were claiming a religious status alongside that of their celibate sisters.93 We later generations of viewers of medieval art must keep in mind the historically contingent and culturally constructed nature of the distance between Jew and Christian. Jewish difference had to be concretized, magnified, and given meaning by continuous repetition and reiteration, before the perfidy of the Jew, or of the Jewess, could become visible. Andrew Lang was right about one thing: it was not five years of Protestant haranguing by John Knox that made Mary, Queen of Scots “look like” a middle-aged Jewess. It was six centuries of Christian art, as seen by all too effectively indoctrinated viewers’ eyes.

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