Displaced Anxiety: Medieval Christian Representations of the Jew and Christian Self-Reflection – By Deeana Klepper

Deeana Klepper on Sara Lipton’s Dark Mirror

Sara Lipton, Dark Mirror,
Sara Lipton, Dark Mirror: The Medieval Origins of Anti-Jewish Iconography, Metropolitan Books, 2014, 416pp., $37

The past few years have seen a stunning increase in violent attacks directed against Jews and Jewish institutions in Europe, leading The Atlantic to publish the provocatively titled, “Is It Time for the Jews to Leave Europe?,” in their April 2015 issue. In February of this year, an otherwise qualified Jewish candidate was nearly rejected from a seat on the UCLA Undergraduate Students Association Council Judicial Board because of some council members’ concerns about her ability to be objective and fair given her Jewish identity and involvement in Jewish organizations. Just over a year ago, Marginalia Review of Books hosted an extended discussion of David Nirenberg’s Anti-Judaism: The Western Tradition, a study of the ways in which Anti-Judaism has functioned as a central organizing principle in western culture since antiquity. The implication of Nirenberg’s book is that, unless we confront this reality, the periodic upheavals of irrational anti-Jewish rhetoric and anti-Jewish violence are unlikely to stop. Unfortunately, modernity’s Jewish question seems once again depressingly relevant.

Christian antagonism toward Jews may seem to be forever entrenched, but Sara Lipton’s new exploration of the rise of anti-Jewish iconography in western European art challenges the notion of static anti-Judaism throughout the two millennia of European Christianity. The continuity between late medieval and twenty-first-century visual caricatures of Jewishness might lead us to presume that there is something eternal about those depictions. But, in spite of a long tradition of anti-Jewish rhetoric in Latin Christianity, Lipton shows us that there were virtually no visual signifiers for the Jew before the eleventh century. When Jews were depicted in art, they looked like everyone else. The now standard depiction of the Jew as hook-nosed, angry, twisted, wearing degrading clothing, grasping at money bags, and so on emerged gradually over a substantial period of time in the high and late Middle Ages. Before the year 1000, European art did not distinguish between Jewish figures and others. Shortly after the year 1000, artists suddenly were distinguishing Jews by their hats, facial hair, and similar markers. These early representations were distinctive but not necessarily hostile or negative.

The change came about just as Christian devotional culture was increasingly using art and visual experience a s a path toward God. This turn toward the use of outward senses wrought theological discomfort in some Christian circles as expectations of faith and interior knowledge competed with the compelling draw of exterior sight. The Jew, “paradigmatic exemplar of physical vision and its misuse,” became “the primary medium through which Christians explored and expressed their changing ideas about knowledge, vision, and representation.” In other words, the first images distinguishing Jews from other figures were not primarily about Jews at all. From the beginning, Christian artists used Jewish visual markers to say something about or to the Christian viewer.

The foundational work on representations of Jews in medieval Christian art is Le juif médiéval au miroir de l’art chrétien (The Medieval Jew in the Mirror of Christian Art) by Bernhard Blumenkranz (1913-1989). An Austrian Jew who left Vienna for Paris in 1937, Blumenkranz fought in the French Army, was captured and held in a detention camp in the south of France, and escaped to Switzerland in 1942 with the help of a Swiss priest. After the war he returned to France. His extensive writing on Christian-Jewish relations bore the unmistakable shape of his experience — of both anti-Semitism and Christian benevolence — and the sense that Christian theology was primarily responsible for European attitudes towards Jews historically and in the present. As its title indicates, Le juif médiéval treated representations of Jews in medieval art as if they were a straightforward mirror of Christian thinking about Jews.

Lipton — writing in a very different historical moment and with the benefit of decades of new and nuanced research on both Christian-Jewish cultural interaction and on visual culture — reminds us that the Jew may serve as a reflection of a Christian state of being rather than a Jewish one. A central premise of this book is that Christians used visual depictions of identifiably different Jews as a “dark” reflection of all that they found troubling about themselves and their society. And while negative depictions of Jews in medieval art may not have begun as a reflection of Jews’ actual state in society, eventually perceptions of Jews came to be shaped, at least in part, by those artistic representations.

Detail from a fourteenth-century miniature Greek manuscript depicting Jewish leaders offering gifts to Alexander the Great. Image via Wikimedia Commons.
Detail from a fourteenth-century miniature Greek manuscript depicting Jewish leaders offering gifts to Alexander the Great. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Anyone familiar with Lipton’s work on the Bible Moralisée will find the multidirectional premise familiar. Although Dark Mirror clearly flows out of that earlier study, the material is far broader, covering multiple genres, pushing geographical and chronological boundaries, and presuming a much broader reading audience. Like David Nirenberg’s Anti-Judaism, this is a book not only for scholars and their students but also for the general public. And because Lipton writes so well, it will actually work for all of those audiences. But the tone of Lipton’s work is quite different. Nirenberg tells a story about continuity and tries to explain the longevity of especially pernicious aspects of Christian thinking about Jews. Lipton instead tells a highly contextualized story that is, in the end, a bit less pessimistic. She specifically wants to counter the notion 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.”

The book is organized both thematically and chronologically, with each chapter representing about a half century of time and focusing on some new element that enters into the art of that period. More than that, each chapter deals in some way with visual culture, and Lipton weaves observations on acts of seeing or being seen throughout. The structure is complex, and to get the most out of the book, the reader has to keep multiple threads in mind. The primary argument that makes its way into each chapter concerns the special role of envisioning the Jew as witness — Jews are depicted as seeing, failing to see, or being seen. The primary sources Lipton uses exhibit, for the most part, very careful planning and construction; the artists and their patrons obviously invested considerable effort and expense to bring them into being. This is a book that requires viewing as well as reading, and the publisher has admirably included images crisp enough for us to follow Lipton’s eyes as well as her words.

The earliest sign to mark Jewish figures as different is the pointed hat. If there is no evidence that the Jew’s hat reflected contemporary practice (and Lipton casts firm doubt on the notion that it did), then why assign it? In Bernward of Hildesheim’s eleventh-century Gospel, the pointed hat was used to mark out not only Jewish figures but also the non-Jewish Magi. Resembling a bishop’s miter, which of course resembles Aaron’s priestly garb, the hat here seems to indicate a position of wisdom, authority, and respect rather than any negative quality associated with Jewish unbelief. Some wearers of the hat (the Magi) see the Christ child as God. Some wearers of the hat (Jewish elders, priests, magistrates) most definitely do not. Lipton argues that the hat draws a visual bridge between Magi and Jewish authorities, encouraging the Christian viewer to note the differences and to choose the side of faith, not in place of vision, but along with vision.

Before long, the hat-wearing “gazing Jew” associated with the wisdom and authority of Old Testament prophets, patriarchs, and elders, was used to signify Jewishness in new contexts, including “an entirely new figure in medieval art — the Jew who sees but only imperfectly perceives.” The blindness of the Jews was a mainstay of Christian theological writing, so Lipton’s observation that the blindfolds come off of representations of the Jew in the twelfth century is especially interesting. The unseeing gaze of the unbelieving Jew becomes an important component of Christian teaching for Christians. Her discussion is richly illustrated and fits in well with what we know of the trope of Jewish unbelief in miracle tales in this period. How better to prove the legitimacy of a miracle than to have an unbelieving Jew witness it, either as villain or convert?

As the late twelfth and early thirteenth centuries gave rise to increasingly disturbing portrayals of Christ suffering on the cross, we start to see increasingly negative images of Jews witnessing the passion. For the first time, Jews wear distorted features, a physical representation of spiritual degradation. “No longer merely imperfect, ignorant, indifferent, or reluctant witnesses to Christian truth, Jews now take center stage as visibly and viscerally hostile enemies of the faith. Rather than simply failing to see or acknowledge the truth, they now either glare with active antipathy at Christ and Christians or deliberately and ostentatiously look away.” It is during this period that we first come to see what is now thought to be the quintessential medieval representation of the Jew: “thick lips, heavily lidded eyes, and large, thick noses.” These Jews scowl. They are angry, even threatening. Lipton is quick to point out that even with the advent of the hostile Jew, most manuscripts continue to depict Jews without any obvious markers of difference or with benign markers. The appearance of disturbing anti-Jewish imagery at this time does not mean that most art carried such depictions. An entire chapter devoted to the art at Chartres Cathedral makes that point quite well. Sometimes Jews are identifiable, sometimes not. Sometimes attributes associated with Jews as enemies of Christ and the Church are utilized explicitly to mark out non-Jewish enemies of Christ and the Church as well. And sometimes there are what Lipton calls “missed opportunities”: places where hostile visual rhetoric might have been deployed against Jews and is not.

By the mid-fourteenth century, the primary indicator of Jewish identity in Christian art was the grotesque Jewish face. Lipton links this transformation with the culture of the schools and scholastic discourse on the physiology of the Jew and Jewish difference from gentiles at the biological level. But just as Christian merchants bear signs of the Jew in Chartres Cathedral, now we find not only Jews marked by facial and bodily distortion but Christian sinners and fools as well. They wear their faithlessness not just on their sleeves, in marked out dress, but in their very form.

Having brought us through the development of anti-Jewish iconography in Christian art, Lipton pauses to consider why these depictions are applied exclusively to male figures. Lipton suggests that the Jew’s purpose in art, to serve as “a reliable figure of and witness to Christian truth and triumph and to royal power,” was an inherently gendered role: “…from the Christian perspective, Jewish ‘testimony’ rested upon Jewish scripture, law, and ceremony, which were seen as the unique province of the Jewish male.” Furthermore, medieval assumptions about the fluidity of female nature seem to have given women something of a pass; the characteristics associated with femaleness trumped characteristics associated with Jewishness. Only in the later part of the fifteenth century did that tradition begin to change, when we see Jewish women appear as full participants in crimes of ritual murder.

The final chapter on Jews and viewers in Gospel crowd scenes from 1350-1500 reinforces the argument about the role of the Jew as chastiser of the Christian viewer and the association of this process with urbanization, intellectual culture, and the transformation of medieval society. Lipton uses Leon Battista Alberti’s treatise On Painting (1435) to great effect as demonstration of the self-conscious deployment of new techniques of seeing and being seen in urban art of the period. These innovations were designed to create a sense of immersion in salvation history for Christian viewers, and this mix allows the figure of the Jew to serve even more effectively as agent for Christian introspection. More than this, though, Lipton argues that the Jew as witness in earlier medieval art created a model for this kind of “seeing and being seen” in a moral sense, something characteristic of fifteenth century urban culture.

Not many people could successfully navigate such diversity of material as Lipton does in this book. She incorporates visual and textual evidence with equal skill and mastery, she has a sophisticated understanding of the theological and ritual contexts necessary to interpret it, and she engages in conversation with relevant scholarship in Christian-Jewish encounter, interreligious polemics, and visual culture. This is obviously a work many years in the making. We need more nuanced discussion like this about the complicated way Christians have engaged with and constructed the idea of “the Jew.”

The Boston Baroque recently performed Bach’s St. John Passion, and music director Martin Pearlman arranged a panel discussion before the performance to address the question of anti-Judaism in the piece. A Bach expert on the panel argued that, by interspersing the admittedly anti-Jewish words of the Gospel account with arias in which the Christian sinner takes on the identity of the faithless Jew, the piece was not really about the evil of the Jews but the evil of humanity. I found this response highly disturbing. Even if the target of reproach is the Christian who acts or thinks “like a Jew” rather than the Jews themselves, the Jew is still serving as the vehicle for repentance. Is there no path for Christian remorse and atonement without traveling through the Jew? Anti-Semitic acts are not an inevitable outcome of formalized anti-Jewish rhetoric, visual or literary. But the undeniable return in the twenty-first century of old anti-Semitic tropes and of anti-Jewish violence, including outright murder, requires that we take the inheritance seriously. The contrast between the stunning beauty of much of the art discussed in this book and the developing hostility evident as we look across time puts the question on the table. As Nirenberg reminds us, our entire European cultural heritage is laced with anti-Judaism. Lipton’s work asks us to confront the reality of anti-Jewish imagery — to come to an understanding of how and why certain negative images were constructed, and in doing so, perhaps, to disarm them.