Post-classical history



Surveillance and Civic Vision, CA. 1350-1500


Watch, watch well, watch!

Bernardino of Siena1

In a painting of the Raising of Lazarus (ca. 1445) by the Dutch artist Albert van Ouwater, we meet two starkly differing sets of people.2 [Fig. 1; see also color insert] They are grouped on either side of Saint Peter, symbol of the institutional church, who stands in the exact center of the canvas and gestures toward the resurrected Lazarus emerging from a tomb in the floor. Christ stands to the left of Peter; directly behind him two demurely elegant women and three simply dressed male disciples look upon the miracle with awe, concern, and compassion, their faces radiating humility and faith.3 On the right side of the picture, strongly contrasting with the calmly authoritative Christ and his reverent followers, huddle six gaudily dressed and apparently agitated Judeans.4 A Levitical priest in a blue and gold miter and liturgical robes turns his back on Saint Peter and draws away as if to avoid contact with the resuscitated corpse;5 two youngish men, each wearing pointed red hats swathed in white scarves, ostentatiously cover their noses in disgust;6 a dark-bearded figure in a brocaded gold hat looks on with a weary (or perhaps grim) expression; a round-faced, double-chinned, bald-headed man, dressed more simply than the others in a loose blue tunic, wrinkles his forehead in perplexity; and the last, the most elaborately attired of all, stands with his back to the viewer and his hand on his hip, turning his face from the savior as he points toward the risen Lazarus.7 Collectively, these figures vividly embody Jewish blindness, materialism, literalism, and recalcitrance, drawing the eye far more powerfully than the quietly contemplative Christians, or even the miracle-working Christ. This painting, then, seems a classic embodiment of one of the more troubling aspects of late medieval art: a sharply intensified, almost obsessive anti-Judaism. As many scholars have noted, even as Jews disappeared from view in cities across western Europe—either hidden behind ghetto walls or expelled en masse from towns, regions, entire countries—they became more prominent, and more vilified, than ever in Christian imagery, standing in for all that is evil and alien, utterly incompatible with an ideal Christendom.


FIG. 1

The visual vilification of the Jew is not the only subject of this painting. To leave our analysis of Ouwater’s canvas here would be to offer a very incomplete reading indeed. For though the anti-Jewish implications of the Raising of Lazarus, as of so much later medieval art, are indisputable, it concerns itself with more than condemnation of Jewish unbelief. Anti-Judaism alone cannot account for another striking characteristic of this painting and of much other fifteenth-century religious imagery: the inclusion in the sacred scene of a sizable and by no means starkly dichotomous onlooking crowd, consisting of almost every imaginable kind of person responding to events in almost every possible way. In the Ouwater painting, such spectators occupy the exact center of the work, behind Saint Peter, where we see a diverse gathering of laity peering through the grille into the choir. Unlike the groups flanking Saint Peter, these figures are neither obviously good nor bad, skeptical nor saved, and they display both exotic and perfectly ordinary garb.8This gazing crowd has analogues in a wide range of religious paintings created across western Europe in the late Middle Ages.9 From crowded Calvaries, to face-filled Arma Christi (that is, icons of the instruments of the Passion), highly public martyrdoms, and biblical scenes presented as urban pageants, myriad artworks include in addition to obvious saints and sinners numerous “in-between” figures, visually identifiable neither as Christian nor Jew, dressed according to local fashion and practice, and apparently extraneous to the central event.10

My question in this chapter, then, is: What is the role of the Jew in the context of these dynamic and diffuse but also deeply ambiguous witnessing crowds?11 What was the impact of including figures of “obvious” or vilified Jews among or alongside so many and such diverse onlookers? We have already seen (in chapters 4 and 5) the extent to which high medieval art expressed concern about faulty sight and deceptive appearance. Similar concerns permeate the art of the fifteenth century as well.12 But in addition to such general moral and theological considerations, late medieval religious tableaux—many of which were highly visible public commissions as well as statements of faith—bear social and civic meaning.13 In forcing art viewers to consider how members of a crowd look and act in the face of sanctity and sin, in reminding viewers that many people who lack the requisite faith and virtue—not just Jews but similarly flawed Gentiles—reside in the medieval town, and, above all, in highlighting the extent to which observing crowds (and also art observers) are themselves the objects of observation, such paintings prompted late medieval urban dwellers to become witnesses to their own appearances and behavior, to be attentive to those of their neighbors, and to be conscious that their neighbors may likewise be attending to them.14 The ultimate end was not merely to reform individual Christian souls (though this was certainly desired) but to train citizens to police one another and themselves. Just as art helped turn an entire city into a visible sign, an outward manifestation of internal civic Christian virtue,15 so art helped turn city residents into vigilant monitors of that virtue.16 But I do not want to underplay the anti-Jewish implications of this strategy. In investing so much in the act and art of surveillance, the new urban approach to perception, observation, and appearance redounded upon actual Jewish existence in tangible (and harmful) ways.

1. Background: Late Medieval Anti-Jewish Art

The virulent anti-Judaism of late medieval imagery has often been remarked. This trend is especially, though not exclusively, evident in images of the Passion. The number and ferocity of Christ’s tormentors increase, and they display multiple and vivid signs of Jewishness, deviance, otherness, and sin. Costume, physiognomy, gesture, color, facial expression, hairstyle, objects, and animals are all enlisted to single out and defame Jewish characters.17 Sometimes late medieval artworks perpetuate familiar and long-established anti-Jewish symbols. The toad or frog used in thirteenth-century art to symbolize the rapaciousness of Jewish usurers, for example, appears in a fifteenth-century painting on the shield of a turbaned figure leading Christ toward Calvary, its gaping mouth pointing toward a Jewish figure nearby.18 The dogs that appeared in one or two early medieval symbolic illustrations of the Crucifixion to symbolize Christ’s enemies become the regular companions of Christ’s Jewish tormentors, whose features and expressions rival those of their beasts in ferocity and brutality.19 In other cases late medieval artworks update anti-Jewish symbols or invent new ones—blindness is displayed through eyeglasses, Easternness through Turkish-looking attire, and evil via the scorpion. Pilate is replaced by the Jewish high priest or the Sanhedrin as the main mover in the Crucifixion, and enemies shown spitting at Christ in Arma Christi images are explicitly labeled Jews.20 Such images elaborate many of the functions we have encountered throughout this book: they model blindness and heartlessness, the wrong way to see; they demonstrate the confusion, hypocrisy, and deception of the City of Man; they embody the fallen, fleshly world that needs to be corrected. It is important to add that the more positive aspects of Jewish witness do not disappear from later medieval art: Jewish villains are as often as not balanced by protagonists also identifiable as Jews, or at least Hebrews and Judeans: scroll-wielding prophets, the Pharisee who proclaims Christ the Son of God, the Jewish elders who lovingly cradle Jesus’s dead body all play prominent roles in later medieval art.21 In spite of the frequent presence of these “believing/witnessing” Jews, however, scholars who study this imagery tend (understandably) to downplay the bifurcated nature of Jewish representation in favor of the ever darker and more hostile, often citing the exaggerated distortions of Christ’s tormentors and executioners as evidence for a late medieval propensity for the cruel and the macabre.22

Various explanations have been offered for this intensification of anti-Jewish imagery. Art historians have, not surprisingly, tended to look to artistic developments, citing the growing artistic interest in portraiture, physiognomy, human types, and the portrayal of emotions.23 Other scholars point to devotional trends, arguing that the more personal, vocal, affective religiosity of the later Middle Ages created an intense desire for more detailed and emotionally charged pictures of the Passion and martyrdoms.24 Others still relate the violence of late medieval religious imagery to the brutality, chaos, and anxiety generated by contemporary political and demographic crises.25 All these suggestions are valuable and in many ways convincing. But none directly addresses the fact that demonized and caricatured Jews appear in the midst of large and often ambiguous crowds in late medieval religious tableaux.

2. Lots of Looking

Let us start with the explosion of onlookers in religious scenes. Van Ouwater’s gazing layfolk are hardly unique: in picture after picture of Christ carrying the cross, raising the dead, giving up the ghost, mocked by the mob, showing his wounds, or rising from the grave, he is surrounded by a large and diverse crowd.26 Saints, too, increasingly work their miracles and suffer their tribulations before many onlookers. In some cases groups of two or three persons stand debating on the margins of the main action.27 In other cases spectators peek over ramparts and battlements,28 look up from the streets,29 or gaze down from high towers.30 At times the central actor is all but overwhelmed by peripheral viewers. And for every exotically attired or grotesquely caricatured (and so implicitly Jewish) tormentor or mocker shown glaring sadistically at Christ or the central saint, there are several or even dozens of others quite mundane in aspect, who gaze blankly or turn away, seemingly oblivious to the drama or pain before them. [Fig. 2]

The complications posed by the onlooking crowd are crystallized in an early example of a densely populated religious scene: the fresco of Christ Carrying the Cross (The Road to Calvary) in the lower left corner of the vast Passion narrative decorating the chapter house of the Dominican priory of Santa Maria Novella in Florence.31 [Fig. 3] Hunters of Judaicized villains will have no trouble finding their quarry here: the skullcap-wearing dark-bearded man in profile carrying a rolled-up scroll and gesturing toward Christ on the left edge, the figure on horseback with a beard exotically divided into two pointed braids who is seemingly directing the proceedings; the sword-wielding man in profile with the dark, pointed beard stalking purposely forward to the right of Christ, the woman (or perhaps effeminate man?) shown in dorsal view in the midst of the marchers wearing a turban with a single braid trailing down her back;32 the man in the tall, pointed hat and dark, pointed beard hovering above the city so that he seems to lead the procession—all of these figures display stereotypical Jewish signs and in this context may presumably be regarded as Jewish deicides. But the fresco hardly promotes the notion that Christ’s death can be entirely displaced onto alien “others,” for these “marked” characters constitute a small minority of the crowd. Surrounding them are many more figures displaying no signs of iniquity or otherness. The man holding the hammer and nail, for example, is clean-shaven; the veiled female face nestled just above the S of the SPQR is fair and elegant; the man in red just below and to the left of the small, pointing figure on the right is young and golden-haired.


FIG. 2


FIG. 3

A second interesting feature of the crowd is the fact that, while the majority of people peering and pointing from the city ramparts or walking behind Christ are focused on the soon-to-be-executed savior, other figures very conspicuously look elsewhere. One woman on a balcony is more interested in her potted plant than in the drama unfolding below. A man in a turban at the city entrance turns to look at an unseen distraction behind him. The woman in the veil seems engrossed by the figure to her right. An elderly man toward the front of the procession has turned around as if to retrace his steps for some reason; a man in a striped headdress likewise faces the oncoming crowd; and above him an older man with a covered head looks off to his right.

A similar mixture of apparently Jewish, presumably non-Jewish, quite ambiguous, and evidently distracted characters likewise characterizes the figures peering through the grate at the back of the choir in Ouwater’s Raising of Lazarus (see fig. 1). The spiky-turbaned curly-bearded man in the center of the group is exotic enough (the colors of his hat echo the blue and gold headdress of the Jewish priest), but the curly-haired rustic and the white-veiled woman who flank him could have walked the streets of Haarlem, Albert van Ouwater’s hometown.33 The onlookers’ gazes are notably diffuse: some glance down toward the seated Lazarus; one—a man wearing a white headband—looks right and upward toward window, sky, or heaven; one—the turbaned man—seems to regard the priest he so resembles; and one—a brown-bearded man on the left wearing a yellow cap and red tunic—gazes straight out toward the viewer. Is this an unbelieving Jew, a foil to the downward-peering balding elder on the right?34 Is he perhaps to be construed as a potential convert? Or are we to see him as Everyman, any resident of the city, poised uncertainly between the Jewish priests’ disgust and the reverence of the Christian saints?35

The expansion of the observing crowd in later medieval art has long been remarked. The Renaissance artist and art historian Giorgio Vasari (d. 1574) traced a steady increase in the number and significance of attentive figures over his three phases of painting, dubbing Raphael (d. 1520) the “maestro” of attention.36 Contemporaries offered both artistic and religious explanations for the practice. Leonardo advised artists carefully to observe the behavior of people on the streets (talking, quarreling, laughing, or fighting together), including bystanders who in turn look on at the action, in order to perfect mastery of gesture and expression.37 Attentiveness, at least to spiritual scenes, was also a religious virtue: the fourteenth-century Meditations on the Life of Christ advised the reader to “look” (in his or her imagination, but probably also in regard to a picture) “at the disciples as they gaze on Him [Christ] with reverence, humility, and all intentness of mind.”38

But spectating crowds do not serve merely to commend spiritual attentiveness: as noted above, quite a few painted onlookers fail to gaze with uninterrupted attention. The art historian Robert Gaston likewise remarks that the bystanders in many quattrocento images are often not looking at the sacred figures at all but rather seem to be looking elsewhere. [Fig. 4] Gaston compares such behavior to that of courtiers who were allowed to chat while the lord was conducting business; he concludes that this practice added naturalness to artworks, helping to make the entourage of the Magi, for example, that much more convincing.39 But in the context of highly charged (and by no means courtly) settings such as the road to Calvary or the raising of Lazarus, such distractedness, not to say determined inattention, no matter how “natural,” must surely bear further meaning.


FIG. 4

The issue of inattention is very vividly raised in one of the stranger images to survive from the late Middle Ages, a so-called Man of Sorrows from Verona. [Fig. 5] Here we see a dead and bloodied Christ perched on the edge of his tomb and surrounded by a gallery of disembodied faces.40Together with the hammer, nails, pincers, bucket, etc., these faces constitute the Arma Christi, the tools of Christ’s torment, frequently shown in later medieval art surrounding the suffering savior. Most of the figures in the image are characters associated with the Passion—we can recognize the white-bearded Saint Peter; Malchus, whose ear was cut off by Peter; the woman who pointed Peter out as a follower of Christ; and Herod in his crown, among many others who cannot precisely be identified. But though the theme itself is not new, its treatment here is striking. Whereas in the previous century comparable images had surrounded the Man of Sorrows with material objects and at most one or two tormentors glaring or spitting at him, here we have well over a dozen faces, friend and foe alike, overlapping one another in a weird and jostling human tapestry.41 Although all but one of the male faces are bearded, with the exception of the crowned Herod none of the men are endowed with signs that convey any kind of exoticism or social specificity.42 Far from being marked by evil or difference, much less identified as Jews, they resemble almost any resident of the city.43


FIG. 5

Oddest of all, though, is the fact that these “instruments of the Passion” are not tormenting Christ: in contrast to most versions of this theme, none of the faces is spitting at or in any way abusing Christ. In fact, not one of these faces is paying the savior the slightest heed—with the sole exception of the Virgin Mary, all the figures in the painting glance away from his corpus and look instead toward the heavens, the earth, or one another. Many of them conduct an apparently animated dialogue with their immediate neighbors. One figure (Saint John), stares straight out at the viewer, wielding the most piercing gaze of all.

How then are we to understand this lack of attentiveness among so many painted viewers? One function of their distraction is, it seems clear, to signal a spiritual lack. Together, the unfocused gazes of Christ’s tormentors in the Verona Man of Sorrows graphically realize not the first, more commonly quoted half of the Man of Sorrows biblical verse (Isaiah 53:3), “He was despised and rejected by mankind, a man of suffering, and familiar with pain,” but rather the second half, which indicts the arrogance and indifference of his fellow humans: “Like one from whom people hide their faces, he was despised, and we held him in low esteem.” Our diverse, disembodied, and distracted heads thus suggest that the instruments of Christ’s suffering are not just those who inflicted upon him bodily pain but also all who saw and did nothing … or who simply preferred not to see. But there is a civic meaning as well as a moral one in the variously focused, crisscrossed trajectories of these gazes. It has been noted that the interlocking eyes of two conversing figures show those persons’ consciousness that they are in a mutual relationship.44 I would add that the Verona painting’s elaborate multiplication of such interlocked pairs vividly conveys the fact that civic life consists of countless such relationships, all conducted under the gaze of others. The overlapping interactions of these human “instruments” of cruelty and indifference, like the people peering down from the Florentine ramparts at the distracted marchers in the Road to Calvary and the jostling gawkers viewing the viewers in Ouwater’s Haarlem choir, remind the residents of the late medieval town that no individual functions in isolation, that the choices and actions of each person are observed by others, and that these watchers in turn are themselves subject to being seen and judged.

3. Portrait of a City

Various visual cues helped impress this message on the audience, instill a sense of immediacy, and provoke art viewers to relate the painted spectators to themselves. Perhaps the most obvious such cue was the practice of locating ancient or even timeless religious events in the contemporary city, in the shadow of familiar buildings and under the eyes of familiar figures, rendered as contemporaries rather than as historical actors.45 In the Low Countries, Germany, and Italy fifteenth-century artists included “portraits” of actual buildings in their works.46 So, for example, Andrea da Firenze’s Road to Calvary directly faced another work by the same artist known as the Via Veritatis (the Way of Truth or Salvation). The fresco, which is located in a Dominican church and underscores the central role played by the friars in leading their fellow Christians to salvation, boasts a detailed and highly accurate portrait of the Duomo, then under construction. [Fig. 6] The knots of people collected alongside the building include a wide range of recognizable figures and types. Some are exalted personages wearing badges of office (pope, emperor, cardinal, king, bishop), some are identified as infidels by their dark complexions and exotic headgear (turbans and pointed hats), but most are characters commonly seen on the streets of Florence (knights, monks, clerics, civic officials, learned academics, mendicant friars, listening laymen and -women, wretched beggars and cripples). The portrayal of so many and such different people displaying so many and such differing reactions to Dominican preaching—and the linking of these reactions to ultimate salvation—presumably served to encourage personal penitence, a key goal of the Dominican order. But in launching salvific history from the most prominent site in central Florence, the image also reminds its viewers that the way to salvation and the road to Calvary both begin at home, on the city street, and that inner virtue is embodied and displayed in public and civic comportment. Christ’s gaze may be able to penetrate the individual human heart, but no figure in either painting stands alone before his God. Each is a member of a group, and each is exposed to the scrutiny of Christ’s and of many other eyes.47


FIG. 6

Second, many of the gazing faces in fifteenth-century religious artworks belong to actual, identifiable people.48 The Via Veritatis contains portraits of Brigitte of Sweden, Queen Joan of Naples, and other well-known figures. At least seven prominent citizens appear in Masaccio’s Raising of the Son of Theophilus in the Brancacci Chapel (ca. 1425). In Domenico Ghirlandaio’s frescoes in the Tornabuoni Chapel of Santa Maria Novella, the Annunciation to Zacharias, the Birth of the Virgin, the Visitation, and the Birth of the Baptist are observed by famous Florentines, distinguished from the biblical/historical characters by their fashionable dress.49 Filippo Lippi’s Funeral of Saint Stephen (1460) in the Prato Cathedral includes almost two dozen portraits. John Pope-Hennessy calls the frescoes in the Sistine Chapel a veritable “Who’s Who of 1482” and notes that the choirs of many churches were “in effect a civic portrait gallery.”50 In northern Europe, Geertgen tot Sint Jans, a younger Haarlem contemporary of Albert van Ouwater, featured collective portraits of local notables in two of his surviving works, and Petrus Christus, Rogier van der Weyden, Hugo Van der Goes, and Nicolas Froment all included portraits in their works.51 In Iberia, the various panels of the Altarpiece of Saint Vincent by Nuno Gonçalves (1467–69) show the saint surrounded by members of the Portuguese court.52

This inclusion of known figures and structures in biblical and other religious scenes served a variety of artistic and spiritual purposes. It was, of course, and perhaps above all, a form of flattery and advertisement on the part of the artists, and of self-promotion and family or institutional aggrandizement on the part of the patrons. Nevertheless the quattrocento artist and intellectual Leon Battista Alberti, while no doubt recognizing these functions, preferred to emphasize affective and devotional benefits, writing in his treatise On Painting (1435) that the viewer was more likely to contemplate a religious scene deeply when it included a known face: “The face that is known draws the eye of all spectators” and “can best move the emotions.”53 Aby Warburg explained that this form of portraiture expressed and promoted a sense of connection between the people shown and the sacred figures. Eckart Marchand likewise noted that the practice helped draw the history beholder into the religious narrative, adding that it was a way for patrons to express in visual terms the values and social identity of their city.54 I would extend the civic implications of inserting secular figures into sacred scenes further still. These paintings achieve in art what was not fully realized in life: in laying so much stress on the appearance and behavior of urban residents and highlighting the importance of well-ordered space, they model a method of governance. They visualize, and so offer a way to think about, what city life is actually like and how it might be improved.55

What has not yet been considered is how this aspect of later medieval art gives entirely new meaning to the images of Judeans and Jews appearing in the midst of these Christian cities and citizens. Whether Jews are grossly caricatured (as in much northern painting), singled out as “other” through exotic costume (as with the infidel auditors of Peter Martyr and Thomas Aquinas in the Via Veritatis), only subtly identified by a beard or cap, or identifiable as Jews only from context (as is often the case in Italian painting), their appearance among recognizable crowds in familiar city scenes significantly lessens the physical, social, and conceptual distance between Jew and Gentile. For all their differentiated complexions and headgear, the infidels peopling the streets of Florence in theVia Veritatis of Andrea da Firenze mix easily with their orthodox neighbors, and they display the same broad range of reactions to Dominican preaching as the Gentiles among whom they mingle—members of both groups display piety and humility, as well as pride and rejection. [Fig. 7] It is tempting to see the luxurious attire of the rabbis in Pinturricchio’s fresco of Christ among the Doctors as signaling their materialism, and so literalism, but in fact their outfits are no more opulent or exotic than those of the dignitaries depicted by the same artist attending the coronation of Pope Pius III.56 The fur hat, pointed beard, profile presentation, orb, and scepter with which the Duke of Milan is endowed in Masaccio’s Raising of the Son of Theophilus, manifestly without negative implication, could easily appear on Herod, Pilate, or any hard-hearted Judean authority. (It is worth repeating that the existence of putative “Jewish” clothing, in art and in life, hardly served definitively to identify Jews or to distinguish them from Gentiles—again, in art or in life.)57 So rather than simply encourage viewers to compare themselves morally, spiritually, affectively with unbelievers, as earlier artworks had, these crowded scenes force viewers to imagine themselves as Jews’ neighbors, sharing the same streets and squares. The images concede that Christians are tested by the same challenges as the Jews of Christ’s generation and that Christians too might display qualities so often labeled “Jewish.”58 Once they have been prompted to recognize their own possible kinship with the New Testament–era Jews upon whom they gaze, and whom they are urged to condemn, viewers must also face the fact that they too may be gazed upon, and condemned, by others.59


FIG. 7

4. The Viewer Espied

It is not just the painted spectator who is visibly exposed to the gaze of others. In picture after picture, a face is depicted staring straight out toward the viewer of the image. In van Ouwater’s Lazarus it is the gold-turbaned man on the left edge of the peering group whose eyes directly engage the viewer. Similar figures appear in (to cite just a few examples) Rogier van der Weyden’s St. Columba altarpiece (1455), where a member of the Magi’s entourage engages our gaze while pointing to his right (our left); Derick Baegert’sChrist Carrying the Cross (ca. 1477), where the woman pointing at the shroud with Christ’s image looks straight out toward the viewer [Fig. 8]; in the Ecce Homo of Quentin Massys (ca. 1515), where a man in the lower right corner slides his eyes left and outward [Fig. 9]; and in Piero Perugino’s 1492 fresco of the Baptism of Christ, in which a young man in a red cap stands sharply out from the surrounding figures in directly facing the viewer.60 [Fig. 10] Sometimes the staring figure is an unknown bystander, sometimes a shadowy figure in the background, sometimes the artist himself, sometimes a holy figure (such as the Virgin in Masaccio’s Holy Trinity fresco), and sometimes even Christ himself.61 Perhaps the most startling such character is the soldier who aims his crossbow directly at the viewer in a mid-fifteenth-century Bavarian Calvary.62


FIG. 8


FIG. 9


FIG. 10

Alberti, again, discussed this practice, recommending it as a powerful way to engage the viewer and intensify the emotional impact of the image: “In an istoria [that is, a narrative painting] I like to see someone who admonishes and points out to us what is happening there, or beckons with his hand to see, or menaces [us] with an angry face and flashing eyes, so that no one should come near, or shows some danger or marvelous thing there, or invites us to weep or to laugh together with them.”63 Indeed, in at least one case the invitation is explicitly articulated by the image itself: an inscription on a predella to a Man of Sorrows image in Florence exhorts the viewer: “O! All you who pass by, consider and see whether there be any sorrow like unto my sorrow!” Millard Meiss cites this inscription as an example of the fourteenth- and fifteenth-century tendency to draw together image and spectator, divine and human realms.64 Patricia Rubin describes the effect of a figure who stares straight out at the viewer as calling attention to the viewer’s own act of looking, “reminding the viewers … of their positions as witnesses.”65 I would add that the staring faces remind viewers of their positions as witnessed as well. In directly addressing the viewer, the direct gaze, like the inscription, instills self-consciousness, creates a sense of being seen, and reminds the viewer that he or she, too, is visible and legible to others.66

Moralists explicitly exploited this potential power of art in their attempts to instill such self-consciousness. When the puritanical preacher Savonarola condemned the wearing of extravagant dress and cosmetics in church, he warned the women of Florence: “I tell you that [the image of the Virgin of the Annunciation] doesn’t want to see [you] dressed like that!”67 Bernardino of Siena instructed women to imagine that a picture of the Virgin was watching their behavior when they were in their bedrooms.68 During urban crises the Virgin of Impruneta was marched through the streets of Florence that she might be seen by all but was then set up on a dais so she could in turn “watch” the townspeople marching before her.69 Many of our painted gazes seem more challenging than inviting: in the deeply strange Man of Sorrows/Arma Christi image from Verona, Saint John seems to demand of the viewer: “Which of these characters are you—tormentor, denier, questioner, or believer?!” Through such stares the viewer is made aware that he or she is beingwatched and warned to police him- or herself accordingly.

5. Behind Closed Doors

The final visual element expressing a new concern with visibility and surveillance is the multitude of partially effaced walls, open windows, agape doors, arcaded loggias, and pierced barriers through which spectators peer and/or into which the viewer can gaze (see fig. 1). The barred window at the back of the choir in van Ouwater’s Lazarus is an unusually central and prominent example of such unexpected or oblique viewpoints, but it is by no means rare. In such paintings as Dieric Bouts’s 1464 Altarpiece of the Blessed Sacrament, Hans Memling’s 1471 Scenes from the Passion, Nicolas Froment’s Martyrdom of Saint Mitre, Rogier van der Weyden’s St. Columba altarpiece, and the anonymous northern French Presentation in the Temple now in the Musée de Cluny, walls fall away or gaps open up at improbable places.

Of course, such architectural elements serve a clear painterly function: they were the primary mechanisms by which artists achieved visual perspective and conveyed an illusion of three-dimensional space.70 But artistic technique (perspectival arrangements included) cannot be divorced from ideological import.71 Alberti wrote that in creating a sense of “the picture as window,” perspective helps connect the viewer to depicted space; this, in turn, helps promote the self-reflexivity I have been suggesting.72 Moreover, in many artworks the primary purpose of including these pierced and porous structures seems to be to highlight the act of viewing73 and to draw attention to—often literally to “frame”—these spectators so that they in effect become subjects of their own image. They also would have recalled to the urban viewer the collective experience of watching urban drama, as theatrical stages were often divided by curtains into a series of compartments reminiscent of our painted spaces. At the same time, the oblique, blocked, or partial nature of their viewing perforce suggests both the limits of visibility and the possibility of concealment. [Fig. 11] So, for example, the voyeuristic quality of Petrus Christus’s Saint Eligius as a Goldsmith has often been noted: the fascination of the image comes from the fact that both the passersby reflected in the mirror and the viewer of the painting are allowed glimpses into intimate, interior space.


FIG. 11

These many pierced walls and apparently extraneous and excluded pairs or groups of peering viewers thus highlight what was considered a deeply problematic aspect of late medieval urban life: the disjunction between inside and outside, private and public, internal morality and outward appearance.74 Christian theologians had long been preoccupied by this dangerous disjunction, of course,75 but it was rendered considerably more pressing by late medieval social and political developments. In particular, the rise of the domestic household as a political unit and a site of spirituality magnified both interest in what went on within newly significant private spaces and concern about their inaccessibility.76 In various Italian cities, for example, the civic government tried (often unsuccessfully) to prevent or reverse the privatization of space by elite families, who closed off streets in order to turn their neighborhoods into family compounds.77 The dissolution of walls and barriers in late medieval painting helped acknowledge and address such anxieties. Art became a key tool in signaling the need to consider what was hidden from view. It also, interestingly enough, helped sanctify interior (hidden) space: the presence or absence of religious art in a private home became a primary marker of family piety.78

6. Sight of the City: Pageantry and Public Ritual

The artistic strategies outlined above underscore the visibility and emphasize the visual significance of the city and its residents. They therefore also express a need for social legibility—allied to considerable apprehension regarding how easily external appearance, allotted so much importance in civic life, could be manipulated to mask and mislead—and promote surveillance of neighbor and of self. The same concerns permeate contemporary urban laws and mores: the increasingly centralized and ambitious polities of the later Middle Ages harbored a powerful desire to make the appearance of the city display its honor and piety and to make the dress of its residents align with their inner qualities, whether virtuous or shameful.79

The most obvious manifestation of this late medieval urban concern with outward display is the heavy investment of civic governments and urban confraternities in pageantry, art patronage, and ceremony.80 Religious processions were choreographed so as to present in visual form the urban social structure.81 Urban saints were ostentatiously displayed to residents and visitors in theatrical settings and with carefully choreographed gestures on major feast (and fair) days.82 Florence addressed adolescent violence by channeling youths’ energy into civic-sponsored theatrical and processional spectacles.83 The fourteenth-century Venetian jurist Jacopo Bertaldo wrote that the doge displayed himself to the people in precious and splendid trappings and ornaments so that the people of the city might learn to “shun evil” and “strive for good.”84 Town officials adopted distinctive garb with which to proclaim their status and authority, as in the red gowns reserved for Exeter councillors and urban officers and the liveries listed in the expense accounts of the town of Bristol.85 Chambers of Rhetoric charged with mounting theatrical productions spread across cities in the Lowlands, northern France, and northern Germany.86 In some cities in the Lowlands almost the entire urban community participated in the preparation and staging of civic dramatic festivals, which involved decorating the city itself.87 Various historians have applied the anthropologist Clifford Geertz’s term theater state to fifteenth-century Burgundy, the Habsburg realm, Florence, and elsewhere, and early modern Venice has been dubbed a “republic of processions.”88 Not all the civic dramas were happy ones, of course. Executions became more public and spectacular (that is, visually striking).89 Public penance returned with a vengeance, in Iberia in the form of the rituals of humiliation known as autos-da-fé.

This concern with appearance was not restricted to rulers and municipal leaders: a host of rules and practices invested the outward aspect of common citizens and the urban fabric itself with meaning. The humanist Leonardo Bruni opened his Laudatio Florentinae Urbis (ca. 1430) by extolling the physical beauty of the city, and Leon Battista Alberti regarded the city as an “object of aesthetic contemplation by an educated elite.”90 Urban processions incorporated all levels of society; tableaux vivants turned average people into extraordinary pictures.91 Religious confraternities created their own costumes and insignia and commissioned renowned painters to design portable banners with which they might proclaim their particular piety when beyond the confines of their own precincts.92 Private citizens proudly displayed family, guild, and personal emblems on their clothing, which painters then faithfully replicated in their portraits.93 Members of political factions in northern as well as Italian cities adopted badges and signs by which they could identify one another.94 Respectable professions voluntarily adopted distinctive uniforms and markings, and artisan groups commissioned special livery to wear on feast days.95 As fourteenth- and fifteenth-century newlywed Italian women were publicly paraded to their new conjugal homes, they were accompanied by dowry chests painted with scenes of virtue, marital accord, or civic triumph for well-wishers, gapers, and passersby to see and scrutinize.96 A Florentine father advised his son to “make himself visible” by strolling the streets “day and night” to parade his qualities and attract the attention of potential patrons.97 When Michel de Montaigne traveled to Rome in 1580–81, he was struck by the theatrical nature of Mediterranean urban life, writing that Romans “displayed themselves to each other, both from balconies and when strolling,” adding that they seemed to go out walking for no other purpose than to see and be seen.98 Across urban society there was a consensus that the outward aspect of cities and citizens generally was, and ideally should be, an important indicator of inner worth. Savonarola acknowledged and lambasted precisely this situation and sought to stigmatize it as un-Christian, when during his brief rule he warned Florentines that “the demon of idolatry always seduced citizens into mistaking the form for the substance, into following the external law of the Jews rather than the internal law of Christ.”99

Appearance, therefore, was too important to leave to chance, and few municipal authorities were willing to do so. From the late thirteenth century, the behavior, attire, rituals, and emblems of Christian urban residents, both respectable and vilified, were subjected to notice, regulation, and control.100 Although distinguishing clothing and other visible markings were most notoriously imposed on Jews, most of the laws relating to clothing were aimed at Christians (especially Christian women), not Jews or conversos.101Prostitutes, former heretics, and members of various vilified professions were forced to wear many of the same conspicuous and humiliating signs and fashions assigned to Jews.102 In fifteenth-century Venice, for example, prostitutes, pimps, and Jews were all ordered to wear the color yellow, that they might be clearly visible.103 In fifteenth-century Italy the wearing of earrings was restricted to Jewish women and prostitutes.104 A late-fourteenth-century set of rules for Bristol ordered that “no common woman wander about the town without a striped hood.”105 The Spanish Inquisition required convicted heretics to wear special smocks marked with crosses known as sanbenitos.106 But it was not just marginal figures that civic government sought to mark and control. The clothing and comportment of mainstream and elite men and women were also regulated. Cities throughout Europe passed sumptuary laws intended to limit excessive or otherwise inappropriate display.107 Sumptuary laws sought to ensure not only that God, taste, hierarchy, and/or economy were not offended by excessive luxury but also that the outward appearance—of individual persons and of the entire city—projected strong inner morality.108 In fourteenth-century Flanders and Artois, aldermen withdrew clerical status from anyone who didn’t maintain his tonsure or who wore frivolous clothing (stripes, for example).109 Manners and gestures, too, were regulated. In many Italian towns proper behavior for weddings, betrothals, and funerals was prescribed and enforced.110 The city council of sixteenth-century Augsburg came to see itself as a “watchful father” of the community, issuing manifold instructions for the ordering of the sober household.111

Nor was this concern with appearance limited to town authorities; it was internalized by a wide swath of urban society, which also awarded great significance to external looks. The residents of fifteenth-century Florence and many other cities expected and encouraged their government to scrutinize comportment and ensure public embodiment of the civic ideal.112 The biographer Vespasiano da Bisticci made a point of describing in detail what his subjects looked like, as, he said, looks revealed the qualities of their city as much as of themselves.113 In Barcelona, Jesuit teachers instructed their students how to “walk with visible circumspection,” recommending a moderate pace and condemning close physical contact, laughing and horseplay, or looking too intently at windows and balconies.114 Comments on prospective brides in family letters show how closely women’s clothes, bodies, and manners were scrutinized and how important were their physical appearance and public deportment.115

7. Behind Closed Doors

This concern with appearance and deportment introduced a newly pressing problem: what of those places that were out of sight? As I noted in regard to the artistic practice of peeling away walls, fear of the hidden and concern to reveal what was indoors are detectable everywhere in the late medieval city. Privacy was a source of power, and so also of danger. Whereas moralists and authorities initially had focused their attention on public comportment (most especially in church), from the later fourteenth century we see increased worry about how residents behaved in their own homes, in what we would call private spaces. Sumptuary prosecutions lament the fact that people accosted by public officials for violating the law fled into their own or friends’ houses to avoid giving their names and getting fined.116 Legislators tried to reduce the conducting of affairs in private. A statute from fifteenth-century Ala, situated between Trent and Verona in northern Italy, insisted that if underage heirs wanted to sell property they had inherited, the transactions had to be done “openly and not secretly [palam et non occulte] … or else they will be presumed to be fraudulent.”117 The term palam (openly) became a byword for legitimate and trustworthy; deeds done behind closed doors were by that very fact suspect.

Because doors had the potential to shield all kinds of vice, they became major focal points of anxiety and anger: attacks on and defacement of the doors of people targeted for abuse, reproach, or revenge became familiar urban rituals.118 Horns and phallic images were fixed on the doors of alleged adulterers and cuckolds, giving form to the unseen outrages committed behind them.119 In Bologna the house of a man accused of resorting to pimping in order to redeem a cloak he had pawned to a Jew was decorated with pornographic drawings, horns (symbolic of lust), and red sand (presumably, like the mud or earth that was also sometimes smeared on doors, a reference to filth and perhaps to blood).120 Nor could fleeing the city or even dying save one’s domicile from defacement: executed prisoners and escaped criminals had their pictures painted on their own houses.121All these acts were designed to achieve precisely what artists effected by the visual dissolving of walls: to make visible the invisible and to nullify the dangerous power of disguise and dissemblance by proclaiming the penetrating power of artistic (or civic) vision.

8. A Culture of Surveillance

The ordering of appearance and behavior both within doors and without was too important to be left to chance. Perhaps the most striking effect of this heightened visual significance was an increase in governmental surveillance, which became one of the most important characteristics of late medieval urban society.122 The first permanent secret police in Europe was founded in 1378 in Florence.123 The Venetian Council of Ten employed over three hundred officers to patrol the streets; according to David Nicolas, these patrols “amounted to a secret police.”124 Other towns relied on existing public officers. In Perugia a statute ordered that a notary be sent to all funerals “ad videndum et scribendum”—to watch for and record infractions of the laws guiding behavior.125 Notaries’ documents began to include careful physical descriptions of the increasingly numerous slaves, presumably so that they might be captured if they tried to escape, perhaps also to preemptively discourage any escape attempts.126 Florentine court officers boasted that they were “watching with unceasing diligence” for evidence of sodomy and in 1432 set up a special governmental bureau for the policing of sodomy called the Office of the Night.127 In Florence the wool guild set up its own spy network to enforce its statutes and regulate the behavior of workers.128

But the most common and effective means found to promote the probity of a city was to enlist urban residents to examine, surveil, and police one another.129 The main method for enforcing sumptuary laws, for example, was secret denunciation by neighbors, servants, and other witnesses.130 In Perugia boxes were set up around the city into which citizens could anonymously place pieces of paper accusing another of sodomy.131 Urban statutes insisted that citizens were required to denounce to the authorities any crime of which they were aware and punished the failure to do so.132 A law code from Bologna dating to 1288 ends with the statute “We order that whoever is inclined, can and ought to accuse and denounce everyone and anyone who acts against the aforesaid ordinances and statutes.”133 Nuremberg required citizens to inform authorities of anyone who cursed; innkeepers had to inform on the activities of their guests.134 The preacher Bernardino of Siena warned his hearers that “if anybody had information on any man or woman who practices [witchcraft] and did not report them to the authorities, he or she would be guilty of the same sin.”135 The list of “six men who have come out of your house” flourished by a man who accused a woman of prostitution demonstrates the nature and uses of “neighborhood watchfulness.”136 Across Europe, as countless court documents affirm, the main forms of testimony in all criminal cases were eyewitness reports and public opinion; in Italy prosecutions came to be based on fama (reputation) and “unanimous clamour.”137 Municipalities rewarded people who informed on their neighbors by awarding them a portion of any fines subsequently levied.138 Confraternities and guilds required their members to oversee the actions and appearances of their fellows and to report any derelictions.139 Residents were enrolled to spy on their neighbors.140 Nor could one count on privacy within the bosom of the family: Bernardino of Siena exhorted mothers of daughters to “watch, watch well, watch! Watch over her with her brother, watch over her with her brother-in-law and her cousin; watch over her with however many relatives you have; even with your father you should watch over her.”141

In some cities urban space was reorganized to facilitate such mutual scrutiny.142 Beginning in the thirteenth century Florence supervised the construction of outdoor benches, often in shapes that echoed theatrical seating, helping to turn the city into a stage and residents into a vast and permanent audience.143 Alberti praised the erection of open porticos, claiming that the presence of elders strolling in the portico would restrain wild youths, making them aware that they were being watched.144 And Bernardino made his public sermons occasions for mutual scrutiny, telling a Perugian audience, “I will show you many devils. Turn and look at each other, and then you will see the Devil, for you who do the work of the Devil are yourselves devils.”145 Italian civic processions were organized so that viewers would understand that they too were being viewed.146 In the Lowlands urban dramas often included characters offering sardonic commentary on the dramatic events, reminding the audience of the artificial nature of the spectacle and also of their susceptibility to similar critical scrutiny.147

In sum, in the later medieval city visibility and legibility were all-important: internal spiritual states and moral status were to be externally displayed, and the invisible—whether absent, hidden, or immaterial—was to be visually conjured.148 Urban law sought to regulate and discipline appearance, and urban residents were required to participate in this “scopic regime” by surveilling themselves and one another.

9. Training the Gaze

Art played a powerful role in this scrutinizing society. Medieval urban laws have been described as creating “pictures of order and disorder, virtue and vice, reasonableness and craziness.”149 Later medieval religious art quite literally does the same.150 If all urban residents were to participate in the great endeavor of ordering their city, if they were successfully to observe, judge, and control themselves and others, their gazes as well as their behavior had to be directed and trained. We have seen many tools used in this program: preaching and exhortation, spectacle and pageantry, denunciation and prosecution, humiliation and defacement, even urban planning and architectural design. Images were among the most useful of all tools in promoting proper discernment.151 Jan van Eyck’s painting The Lamb of God took center stage in the tableau vivant created by the town of Ghent to celebrate the entry of Philip the Good in 1458, drawing and schooling the eye even as its perfectly symmetrical groups of rapt worshippers modeled ideal comportment for the townspeople and proclaimed the town’s devotion to the duke.152 The Confraternity of the Holy Blood in Bruges expressed its dedication to Christ’s lineage by commissioning a painting of the Tree of Jesse from Petrus Christus and then annually parading it through the city.153 Sculptures and paintings were placed strategically along town streets, and the reactions of passersby to these images were taken as gauges of piety.154 Altars and images were erected on battlefields to reorder the moral horizon of conquered territory and hung on city walls to sanctify them and the city they enclosed.155 Images of saints taught what was beautiful; depictions of sinners, criminals, infidels, and enemies showed what was to be despised.156 Florentine parents were advised to hang pictures in their homes and teach their children how to look at and pay reverence to them.157 A fifteenth-century Florentine preacher explicitly credited frescoes with expressing and forwarding civic morality.158

Artists were naturally attuned to this urban investment in display. As already noted, they played a central role in its creation—indeed, their livelihoods depended on it. Our images of onlooking (or not-looking) crowds suggest that artists were equally aware—perhaps only intuitively, but more probably, I think, on a conscious level—of the moral and civic importance assigned urban observers. The artistic techniques surveyed in this chapter strongly contribute to the overall project of highlighting and training the moral gaze. Familiar costumes, buildings, and landscapes reminded urban audiences that their own streets and bodies were the objects of scrutiny. Diverse observing crowds underscored the social and public nature of urban life. Direct stares provided startling reminders that the art viewer, too, was watched—by other viewers, by unseen spies, by urban authorities, by overseeing saints, by God. Symbols of iniquity embodied, and so warned against, disorder, vice, and madness; their presence in familiar scenes brought such dangers very close to home. The porousness of painted structures called attention to the possibility of hidden sin and reminded of the presence of hidden watchers.

It is impossible to document the extent to which art viewers registered these artistic techniques or the functions or lessons I have envisioned for them.159 But we can certainly document widespread awareness of the extent to which the behavior of urban viewers was in turn observed and weighed by others and taken as a measure of the city’s worth. Boy actors in confraternal dramas playfully linked audiences’ spiritual quality to their attentiveness: “Be devout and don’t make any noise!”160 The late-fourteenth-century Florentine chronicler Naddo di Ser Nepo di Ser Gallo was vaunting the piety of his city when he noted that twenty-five thousand children, men, and women crowded the streets of Florence and gazed from their houses “in devotion” to see the painted image called “Our Lady of Impruneta” pass by.161 An artistic expression of this concept is Sano di Pietro’s painting of San Bernardino preaching in Siena’s Campo: the impressiveness of the scene derives not from the appearance of the saint himself, who is small, pale, and even insignificant looking, but from the comportment of the crowd, which is preternaturally still, uniform, and attentive.162 In a letter sent to the Emperor Maximilian in 1519, Jan van Coudenberghe lauded the high spiritual level of the city of Mechelen by describing the comportment of residents during a play of the Seven Sorrows of Mary presented in the town’s marketplace. “And although the play lasted five hours,” he wrote, “no one, not adult or child, fidgeted or was unruly or tried to leave, but rather pitied and grieved … and indeed the citizens compelled the actors to perform the spectacle a second time!”163 That is, the idealized residents of Mechelen (for I beg leave to be skeptical about the devoutly undivided attention of the children over the course of five-plus hours) knew how tolook; their gazes matched those of the group on the left of Albert van Ouwater’s Raising of Lazarus, not the group on the right. And, I would add, pictures of diverse and distracted crowds, looking at one another looking at—or failing to look at—Christ, saints, infidels, and fellow lookers, not only taught art viewers how to look at one another but also and above all, in a process that anticipated the discipline-inducing self-consciousness instilled by Bentham’s panopticon, reminded them that just as Jan van Coudenberghe observed and assessed the play-viewing residents of Mechelen and Naddo observed and assessed the art-viewing residents of Florence, so various other watchers—neighbors, spies, saints, even artists—were looking at and judging them.164

10. The Jew in the Crowd

This brings us back, finally, to the Jew in the crowd. Readers may have been wondering for some time now: how do Jews figure into this picture of an obsessively surveilling city that I have been painting?165 In this way: just as rulers first and most effectively practiced “modern” methods of governance—the imposition of direct royal law, the extraction of direct taxation, the regulation of residence—on Jews,166 so almost every technique discussed here for ordering external appearance, and teaching subjects how properly to assess it, was also first or at least most effectively tried out on the Jew. The first identifying clothing in European history was (notoriously) imposed on Jews by the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215; this provision was reissued by royal authorities in England, France, and Spain in the thirteenth century and then adopted and elaborated by Italian, Netherlandish, Flemish, and German cities in the fourteenth and, especially, fifteenth century.167 The first medieval physiognomic caricature of an identified individual was a cartoon of a Jew drawn in 1233.168 The participation of Jews in public processions and festivities was from very early on a carefully choreographed aspect of civic ceremony; their pointed and highly “visible” exclusion from some ceremonies beginning in the later fourteenth century were harbingers of more severe and ostentatious forms of exclusion to come.169 The most intensely surveilled people in the late medieval world were Jews who had been forcibly converted to Christianity—faced with a set of people whose commitment to the faith must, in light of its origins, be suspect, church authorities were determined to seek out and eradicate any deviance from prescribed ritual and behavior.170

Just as Jewish policy anticipated broader urban policies of control, marking, and surveillance, so anxieties attached to Jews crystallized and concentrated broader anxieties. The fear of secrecy and hiddenness was most obsessively expressed in regard to Jews.171As we saw in chapter 5, the very fact that Jews’ outward appearances were not distinct generated accusations of duplicity. The near-countless anti-Jewish libels and allegations of ritual crimes hurled against Jews in the later Middle Ages conjured nightmares of secret conspiracies and clandestine councils. We saw in chapter 6that the “sanctification” of family and household generated gender-related anxieties; it also directed attention toward (and heightened fear of) Jews, whose religious practices were overwhelmingly household-based and who were increasingly construed as “aliens” in the midst of the Christian community. So, for example, in sixteenth-century Modena the Inquisition gained unannounced access to Jews’ homes in order to check on their domestic conduct.172[Fig. 12] In fact, the most vivid example I know of an artist using architecture to highlight concern about hidden harm is—not coincidentally—one of the most famous of all anti-Jewish artworks: Paolo Uccello’s 1468 depiction of an alleged host desecration by a Jewish pawnbroker, in which the darkened doorway, windowless chamber, and closed entry underscore a fear of what Jews (and others) do indoors and out of sight.173 (The miracles and acts of devotion all take place out of doors.)


FIG. 12

Indeed, Jewish secrecy became something of a byword. Jews were feared to possess occult knowledge and to practice occult rites, to wield a secret language, to read secret texts, to communicate through secret channels, and to hide their wealth in secret places.174 A French royal ordinance of around 1360 ordered Jews to wear the pointed hat “according to the custom of Montpellier … that their secrets might be heard and seen.”175 The Hebrew—or more typically, pseudo-Hebrew—lettering decorating the garb of many Jewish characters in Passion images evokes these “occult” aspects of Judaism. Of course, in places like fifteenth-century Iberia, where forced conversions created the phenomenon of the crypto-Jew, or sixteenth-century Italy, where Jews were herded into locked and walled quarters, fear of Jewish secrecy and hypocrisy was intensified by Christians’ own actions and policies. The walls within which Jews were enclosed, beginning with the establishment of the first Jewish ghetto in Venice in 1516, were not just the boundaries to their area of residence. They were explicit expressions of anxiety about unseen deeds: the order establishing the ghetto insisted that its high gates be locked at sunset to prevent the Jews from “going around all night” and presumably committing outrages under the cover of darkness.176 By the later Middle Ages, then, the most tightly regulated and readily identifiable, but paradoxically most feared and suspected, urban residents in many parts of Europe were Jews. Likewise, the artistic characters endowed with the largest and most vivid assembly of iconographic identifiers were Jews. Christians knew what Jews looked like—or what they were supposed to look like—and were determined to keep watch over them. And to watch themselves keeping watch: the sermons that some Italian and Spanish authorities forced Jews to listen to and the humiliating public rituals they were forced to undergo (such as being ritually stoned by an orchestrated mob as part of Holy Week celebrations) were less conversionary tools than theatrical performances through which the city’s Christian character was displayed to spectating Christians.177

This long history of fearing, enforcing, and then policing Jewish appearances explains why, when authorities sought more intensively to regulate Christian appearances, Jews provided visual cues and served as visual touchstones.178 In both art and life Christian renegades were marked with Jewish signs. As we have seen, the clothing imposed on prostitutes, heretics, and other notorious characters, licit and illicit (such as yellow-colored veils, earrings, striped hoods or hose, etc.), was modeled on clothing worn by or at least associated with Jewish women and men. Bernardino of Siena likened the insignia adopted by political factions to the badges imposed on Jews.179 The sumptuary laws regulating behavior at funerals banned the tearing of beards, a practice that was long associated with heroic grief but that in Christian art, and so in the Christian visual imagination, was a gesture particularly associated with Jews.180 Hangmen were required to wear pointed headgear similar to the pointed hats of Jews.181 Particularly nefarious criminals were marked as Jews.182 In 1377 the painting of a treacherous condottiero displayed on the Bargello in Florence depicted him wearing a large miter: Samuel Edgerton calls this a foolscap, but it is more familiar to art historians (and probably to medieval viewers) as a “Jew’s hat.”183 A man accused of treachery in Avignon in 1401 was “mitered” before he was paraded through town on horseback, and in Florence in 1472 a convicted sodomite was likewise made to wear a “miter” as he was marched through the streets.184 A woman charged with witchcraft in Todi in 1428 was led through town “on a donkey with a paper hat on her head”; one strongly suspects that the hat was pointed.185 Leonardo da Vinci records in a contemporary drawing that Bernardo di Bandino Baroncelli, the attempted assassin of Lorenzo de’ Medici, was hanged in the clothes he had worn in Constantinople in order to affiliate his treason with infidelity. [Fig. 13] Although Baroncelli’s wardrobe came from a Muslim land, to late medieval viewers the skull cap, hooked nose, and long robe would have appeared equally Jewish, and in fact Lorenzo appended to a different painting of the assassin the inscription “I am Bernardo Bandini, a new Judas.”186


FIG. 13

At least one late medieval Christian explicitly articulated how central was the sight of the Jew to his city. In April 1487 a resident of Carpentras, Antonio Arboris, gave a public speech exhorting the pope (the lord of the region) to reverse an order issued earlier that year confining the Jews to a chained-off area on the outskirts of town. He argued that, far from being pushed out of sight, the Jews of Carpentras should mingle among Christians and even accompany them to the Good Friday feast. His reason? He desired that Jews be made visible in the heart of the city so that the “memories of [and emotions spurred by] the Passion of the Redeemer should be sharpened.”187 Whereas for 250 years it had been held essential to Christian honor for the Jews to be hidden during Holy Week festivities, here, at the end of the Middle Ages, for at least one man, the holiest week of the year was incomplete without the sight of the Jews.188


FIG. 14

This, then, helps explain the role played by the Jew in the painted crowd. If urban residents were to be taught to observe and judge themselves and their neighbors, they needed a standard by which to measure virtue and vice. And they needed regularly to be reminded of the constant process of looking, judging, and being judged that civic life entailed. Including flamboyantly clad Jews and humbly devout saints among the throngs of onlookers in painted tableaux provided the two extreme poles of that standard of measure. But situating such sinners and saints among diverse and ambiguous crowds offers a more pointed lesson, reminding the viewer that such extremes are the exception rather than the rule. And these onlookers’ own often ambiguous gazes, appearances, attitudes, and reactions underscored the wavering and uncertain nature of most human beings. If the hard-hearted and exotically attired Jewish figures on the right of Albert van Ouwater’s Raising of Lazarus represent the far end of a spectrum of vision, sin, and faith, then the peering figures in the center, some of whose garb and gazes echo those of the iniquitous Judeans and one of whom stares directly out toward the viewer, constitute vivid reminders that marking, segregating, and expelling Jews is not tantamount to marking, segregating, and expelling sin. [Fig. 14] This truth is vividly conveyed in the Killing of the Unicorn tapestry of around 1500, a thinly veiled allegory of the Crucifixion of Christ. The rough-faced, grimacing, presumably Jewish killer in striped hose shown in profile view in the upper left clearly embodies evil. But other, presumably non-Jewish figures display many of the same attributes: the purse-lipped woman with the jeweled veil whose profile exactly echoes that of the Christ killer, the heavy-lidded tower watcher whose glance mimics that of the woman who betrayed the unicorn in the previous tapestry, and the scepter-bearing, expressionless lord with the glazed eyes in the center, whose striped hose are identical to those of the Christ killer … all observed by the semiobscured but oddly outsized faces gazing from the tower. Such mixed and peering crowds warn viewers that they must be ever vigilant for the sinners in their midst—and for the evil in their own habits and their hearts. And that their neighbors, like their patron saints and ruling authorities, surely will be watching too.

*   *   *

Patricia Rubin has written that quattrocento Italian paintings “worked to fashion the ideal viewer through a process of invitation and identification.”189 To that I would add that “Jewish” figures in religious paintings worked on the imperfect (i.e., human) viewer by creating a parallel process of recognition and rejection. For four centuries, Jews had helped train the Christian gaze. By looking at Jews in art, Christians had successively learned to value matter, then to look beyond the material world, to recognize sin, to pity suffering, to question outer appearance, to suspect deceit. At the dusk of the Middle Ages and the dawn of modernity, they now helped inculcate in late medieval Christians a heightened self-consciousness, a sharpened sense of their own visibility. Even as they became such significant actors in Christian art, however, Jews had become expendable in Christian life: in the later fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, in city after city across western Europe, living Jews were either concealed behind ghetto walls or forcibly expelled.190 But presumably it mattered little that they could no longer be seen in life, for they could always be seen, and Christians could be seen to see them, in art.191

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