Post-classical history


It is all too easy to read the path I have traced in this book—from the introduction of a Jewish iconography, to the proliferation of Hebrew and prophetic imagery, through the elaboration of inescapably anti-Jewish visual devices—as a steady progression from positive to neutral to negative portrayals of Jews, spurred by and reflecting growing intolerance in high medieval Christendom. This is far too simple a narrative. We can draw no straight line from young to old, fair to ugly, or good to bad in the medieval representation of the Jew. There are always exceptions, reverses, and even contradictions, and these, too, are part of the tale: an observer at the end of the Middle Ages looking for a portrait of Hebrew wisdom and dignity would have no trouble finding one. I have repeatedly suggested that rather than view depictions of Jews simply through the lens of Jewish-Christian relations, much less of anti-Judaism, we need to situate the medieval artworks examined here within the devotional, intellectual, political, and even legal cultures of medieval Christendom. And that the primary realm in which these images must be understood is, simply, the realm of religious imagery. At almost no point, I believe, did medieval Christian clerics or artists consciously set out to create an anti-Jewish visual repertoire, much less to inspire anti-Jewish violence or retribution. Rather, when they needed to think about how to see and understand the material world, they turned to a figure that had long stood for materialism and fleshly ritual. Artworks that are often read as reflecting a heightened and even “racialized” anti-Judaism are, in the first instance, a byproduct of Christian thinking about whether and how the visible world could be used to learn about and come closer to an invisible God.

But the meaning and power of an artwork does not end with its original inspiration. The images we have seen appeared on material objects and in physical monuments made in and for a complex society. Though created to serve specific purposes, they were viewed, internalized, reimagined, and reused by a dynamic public. This process eventually affected broader Christian ideas, including perceptions of actual Jews, and influenced the subsequent history of Jewish-Christian relations: many of the representational changes anticipate later attitudes and restrictions. Distinguishing clothing appeared on Jews in art many decades before it was finally imposed in law. The assignment of specific features to the hostile Jew preceded and may well have encouraged the development of a science of physiognomy. The stereotyping in art of Jewish men and, eventually, Jewish women paved the way for the visual stigmatization of another despised group—witches.1 And by the end of the Middle Ages the punishing judicial fire depicted on the Stavelot Triptych became all too real. These pictures, then, became part of the history of the medieval West—they acted upon their makers and viewers as much as, or perhaps more than, they reflected preexisting ideas of their makers and viewers.2 The irony, or perhaps tragedy, of this story is that images made specifically to condemn imperfect sight were themselves misunderstood by their viewers. Although the main goal of Christian art was to help sharpen Christians’ moral perception and cleanse Christians of sin, this, of course, was never fully achieved. Instead, the gradual emergence of the Jew as sign and witness in medieval Christian art paralleled—even helped cause—the gradual disappearance of the Jew as sign and witness from the medieval Christian West.

Does recovering the largely internal theological and pastoral concerns underlying images that, intentionally or not, came to be seen as indicting Jews somehow mitigate their damaging effects? Obviously not. But that does not mean that the task is not worth doing. Like any other scholar, I cling tenaciously to the belief that knowledge leads to understanding. The processes that led to the formation of anti-Jewish stereotypes, as of most forms of visual ethnic categorization, are extremely complex. It is not good enough to dismiss the troubling images by saying “they were always like that.” They have not always been like that. So if this journey through the history of the medieval representation of the Jew will do little to absolve medieval Christendom of the charge of anti-Semitism, perhaps it will help lay to rest a few other persistent idées fixes—that anti-Semitism, “the longest hatred,” was somehow static and unchanging, that religious or ethnic hatred is inevitable, and that pictures merely reflect the world around them. None of these assertions is true. Neighborliness can turn to toleration, toleration to suspicion, and suspicion to hatred … or, in the right circumstances and with a little luck, suspicion and hatred can even transform back into toleration or even friendship again. And pictures have a powerful role to play in that process. Whenever we create images of a stranger, alien, foreigner, or even the unknown person across the street, we should bear in mind that we are also creating an image of ourselves. Let us hope that we will like what we see when we look in that mirror.

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