Representing the Jews in Medieval Iberia – By Eva Frojmovic

Eva Frojmovic on Pamela Patton’s Art of Estrangement

Pamela A. Patton, Art of Estrangement: Redefining Jews in Reconquest Spain, Pennsylvania State University Press, 2013, 220pp., $82.95
Pamela A. Patton, Art of Estrangement: Redefining Jews in Reconquest Spain, Pennsylvania State University Press, 2013, 220pp., $82.95
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This important book undertakes for the first time, at least in an English publication, to examine how Jews were represented visually in the northern Iberian kingdoms between the twelfth and the fourteenth centuries. While synthetic overviews of visual depictions of Jews exist — and since the book under review appeared, Lipton’s Dark Mirror has added another example — this book differs in that it concentrates solely on one geographical area, and a relatively neglected one at that.

My expectation was that the already well-known thirteenth-century illustrated codices of the Cantigas de Santa Maria would provide the paradigm for the whole book. The Cantigas are a collection of hundreds of songs in praise of the Virgin Mary, compiled at the court of King Alfonso X (“the Wise,” d. 1284) to include texts, musical notation, and illustrations. Of the existing four copies, all of which were created in the royal workshops, three are illuminated to varying degrees. We have come to consider the Cantigas the epitome of Iberian depictions of Jews and Muslims, but Patton demonstrates that this work was in fact exceptional in Iberia both in their ambition and their iconography. More than other Iberian manuscripts and other artefacts, this collection aligns itself with Northern (French) sources and ideas. That is what makes it different from many other Iberian works, which forge their own, local way of depicting their minorities. The accusation of Jewish image desecration, which is a notorious focus in the Cantigas, was not typical in Iberia, and host desecration stories only arrived in Iberia in the later fourteenth century, a century after the completion of the Cantigas. Northern European child murder libels were hardly taken up in Iberian art at all. The close association found in Northern Europe between Jews and money-lending was also not fully adopted in Iberia. Even in the Cantigas, which are more indebted to Northern European models than other Iberian works, money-lenders are often depicted as blond Christians. Whether the reason for this is, as Patton argues, that “The more outlandish stereotypes accepted in some parts of Europe may have stood little chance in the face of Iberian realities that repeatedly failed to bear them out,” and whether “the wider variety of social and economic roles played by Jews in Iberia must also have worked against the formation of the more exaggerated forms of anti-Judaism” of northern countries, must remain open to debate. Francisco Prado-Vilar certainly made a convincing argument that a far more complex relationship between “law, life and identity” found expression in the Cantigas.

Patton argues persuasively that we should not see the Cantigas as a direct expression of King Alfonso’s supposed attitudes to religious minorities, “instead permitting us to explore the broader question of what his famous Cantigas de Santa Maria reveal about the worldview shared by his subjects during the most active phase of the Castilian Reconquest.” At the same time, Patton always remains aware that “as both literary and artistic constructs, these manuscripts matter less for their direct reflection of the social realities of thirteenth-century Castile than for their power to signal a sea change in Christian thinking about Jews as the transformations of the thirteenth century wore on.” Patton makes valuable reference to the concept of the “hermeneutical Jew” introduced by Jeremy Cohen, that is, a theologically constructed abstract figure far removed from the sordid realities of everyday politics. As an example, Patton points out how the inclusion of Jewish female and child converts in the Cantigas functions not as a reflection of realities (did women and children really convert more frequently?), but as figures for the promise of population increase in a newly colonized conquered territory whose Christian population was initially tenuous.

I would add another aspect of the hermeneutical Jew that Patton does not address, and that is the Jew as witness to Christian dogmas, a concept developed more recently by Sara Lipton. Patton points out that the Marian miracle tradition (texts and images propagating posthumous, postbiblical miracles wrought by the Virgin Mary) was not yet well established in Iberia during the thirteenth century, and that the Cantigas contributed to its diffusion in a population that, even when Christian, was divided between hegemonic Roman Christianity at the expense of the old Mozarabic Christianity, which continued a precarious existence in Toledo, Alfonso’s capital, through the Middle Ages and beyond. In this context, the Jew as visible witness to these “new” and foreign miracles seems to me more important that the inconclusive search for supposed attitudes to religious minorities. In several Cantigas miniatures, what matters is that the Jewish figure is present to witness the miracle — thus the Jewish man witnessing an exorcism accomplished by prayer to the Virgin in cantiga 109 (fig. 78), or the Jewish midwife, recognizable by her knotted kerchief, in cantiga 89 (fig. 82). Here, the ideological implications of the “hermeneutical Jew” in a heterogeneous Christian polity seeking not only conversion, but also elusive Christian unity, could have been pursued further.

"St. Helena enthroned among Jews." Jimenez and Bernat, c. 1480. Image via Wikimedia Commons.
“St. Helena enthroned among Jews.” Jimenez and Bernat, c. 1480. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Another important aspect of Patton’s book is its attention to the Jewish body as a culturally constructed, malleable entity. Despite the growing attention to caricatured physiognomic detail, an attention that needs to be seen in tandem with other precocious forms of “naturalism” in gothic art, the Jewish body remains essentially malleable. Jewish bodies change: they become Christian bodies upon conversion to Christianity. This is a very different world from that of the late medieval and early modern ideology of “limpieza de sangre” (purity of blood), which led to the proto-racist exclusion of converts from mainstream Spanish society, and which fed the Spanish Inquisition. Clothes being extensions of culturally constructed bodies, Patton notes that the so-called Jewish hat or pileum cornutum was not adopted in Iberia, where instead recognizable depictions of the regionally worn hooded cloak prevailed. On the other hand, whereas elsewhere in Europe Jewish women remained unmarked until the Renaissance introduction of “Jewish” earrings and yellow veils, in Iberia there appears to have existed a Jewish (or Judeo-Muslim) knotted women’s kerchief. Not consistently adopted even in the Cantigas, it may have been class-specific or regional — here, further study might yield additional insights.

Patton also devotes fascinating chapters to the ambiguities of depicting Jewish as well as Muslim bodies as different from Christian bodies. Sometimes Jewish bodies were depicted as (black-skinned) Muslim bodies in order to construct them as radically different from Christians, such as in a painted Passion cycle in which Christ is persecuted by dark-skinned “Moorish” Jews. This research would complement some existing research into the literary and visual depictions of “moors” in Jewish thought and art, such as the Muslim servant at the Seder table in the Sarajevo Haggadah, or the dark-skinned “moorish” Evil Son in the Rylands Haggadah.

The great discovery of this book, for me at least, is the Bible of Vich (or Vic), British Library Add. 50003, dated 1273, which provides the disturbing image used on the dustjacket. The image glosses Psalm 25:2-3: “O my God, in Thee have I trusted, let me not be ashamed; let not mine enemies triumph over me. Yea, none that wait for Thee shall be ashamed; they shall be ashamed that deal treacherously without cause.” The illumination introduces the viewer to a man wearing the hooded cloak associated with Aragonese Jewish dress, carrying a parchment scroll. Blank, that curling parchment remains ambiguously poised between the prophetic rotulus and the financier’s instrument of debt. The image is disturbing because of the pitiless manner in which it constructs a dysmorphic profile. Is the hooded man a stand-in for the enemies and those that deal treacherously?

In other illuminated initial letters in this codex, discussed across several different chapters, we can observe an obsessive visual exploration of scribes, rotuli, books, and scholarly disputations — in brief, the preoccupations of the modern thirteenth-century universities and studia. But the Bible was not written for a Dominican studium. It was written for a cathedral chapter whose relationship with the Dominicans is yet to be explored. Some of the scholars depicted are Jews; some are clerics or Dominicans. Patton reads these images as reflections of the documented resistance among Christian townspeople against the establishment of the Jewish community in Vic during the thirteenth century, and of the royal support for Jewish settlement against the preachers’ objections to it. But might it be possible that other ideological battles were being fought in this codex, for example about the status of secular versus clerical learning and the role of literacy? And might it not also be possible that the topos of Jewish bookishness was a kind of abstracted construct far removed from the realities of whether to permit the building of a synagogue or not (it was successfully built)? The Bible of Vic, having been scantily treated in English and Catalan-language literature, certainly deserves a sustained monographic study.

Anyone who has read the book Arts of Intimacy, which has attracted controversy due to its construction of medieval culture as somehow as tolerant as modern culture, will immediately recognize in Patton’s book title a polemical response. Arts of Intimacy argued that Castilian culture has to be understood as a composite culture created jointly by Christians, Muslims and Jews, and thereby indirectly re-proposed the nineteenth-century notion of Convivencia, which posits that there once was a golden age in which Jews, Christians and Muslims shared Iberia. By contrast, Patton’s book fits into a larger group of studies of anti-Jewish stereotypes, which has grown since Bernhard Blumenkranz made the initial proposition in his Le Juif medieval au miroir de l’art chretien (1966). Although Blumenkranz was Jewish, his project arose from a Christian post-war re-examination of the share that Christian anti-Judaism had in the ultimate outrage against the Jewish people, the Shoah. Whereas Arts of Intimacy is a statement of multiculturalism which is ultimately concerned with the present “clash of civilizations” and wishes to propose a historical counter-model, Patton’s book is effectively a re-instatement of the primacy of anti-Judaism in medieval Christian cultures.