As well as its intermittent seminar series, Birmingham’s Centre for the Study of the Middle Ages also puts on an annual lecture. Once again I am pleased to see that I am reporting on last year’s event before this year’s has occurred, I hope for continuing improvements in this respect, but obviously that only happens if I keep writing so, here is my account of last year’s on 9th December 2013, when Professor Sara Lipton came to speak with the title “Beauty and the Eye of the Beholder: Jewish caricature and Christian devotions in the later twelfth century”.
Professor Lipton’s lecture was lively, entertaining and intriguing in equal measure, and of course very well illustrated, since she is an art historian by trade.1 Her key point was that Western medieval art goes through a change in the 1160s in how it showed Jews. Before that time, she said, Jews were rarely identified as such, but as the people among whom Christ lived they get depicted in scenes of His life, with hats and beards denoting them generally as figures of Biblical Antiquity like the prophets. From the 1160s onwards, however, we see (and Professor Lipton showed us) depictions of Jews with twisted features, hook noses, darker skin, pointed hats and so on, and at this time they replace the Romans as those torturing Christ on the Cross. Professor Lipton chose to look more deeply here than sudden prejudice, however, and saw it as a theological development. The Jews are often shown looking away from Christ: they do not see Him in His Passion. In this respect, however, as some theologians of the time indeed argued, they are no more foolish than the Christians who do not really live their faith. The Jews could have chosen to be saved, but did not, and now many supposed Christians commit the same failure of choice every day; it was for these people that such images might have been meant to serve as a warning.2
This is an attractive theory and the way that Professor Lipton married texts and image in it appealed to my sense of coherence; the same thing does seem to be going on in both. I suppose, however, that it is fair to say that with five or six 1160s images and two or three theological treatises we are not necessarily sounding the full breadth of medieval opinion. It occurred to me while Professor Lipton was speaking, for example, that this is at the peak of the period that Bob (“please, not Robert”) Moore has called ‘the formation of a persecuting society’, when many sorts of Other were becoming thoroughly marginalised in terms of hatred and impurity by a now-developed mainstream orthodox Christian society, and whether one accepts that or not, many of these manuscripts came from central Germany, an area where Jews had been slaughtered in their hundreds at the beginning of the First Crusade.3 If these texts and images are not demonising Jews, at the very least the context in which they were being produced means that they are doing something a lot edgier by using such imagery to make a different point than was necessarily exposed here. I asked about the imagery of Saracens at the same sort of time, but apparently the men at least are always distinguished by their headgear and even darker skin for the Saracens (the two groups’ women remaining indistinguishable as before until 1400 or so). So it’s not just a general Othering and Orientalising here, the depiction of the Jews is specific. It might therefore indeed have been being used to make a particular point, but if so it may have been moving against a popular stream.
While I’m coming up with reasons I mistrust art-historical interpretations… The most illustrative image by far that Professor Lipton used was from an 1166 Bremen manuscript of the Commentary on the Psalms of Peter Lombard, where a depiction of Christ on the Cross is used to illustrate Psalm 68. It has all you could require for her point: Christ is suffering (itself quite new) at the hands of Jewish tormentors with pointy hats and long beards who are otherwise spending their time worshipping a brazen serpent, arrayed on the cross-shaft beneath Jesus. This picture also contains what Professor Lipton believes is Europe’s first depiction of a hook-nosed Jew. One Jew, only, looks at Christ with what seems to be concern. He may perhaps be saved. All of this interprets quite nicely in Professor Lipton’s terms, and I would have no trouble swallowing this were it not for the fact that the whole Cross scene is arranged in front of a huge sinuous fire-breathing wyvern that is bigger than anything else in the picture. I could, if pushed, see this as the Devil-as-serpent exulting in his short-lived triumph over the Son of God, a sign that the Crucifixion was all the Devil’s work (though I’m not sure how orthodox that is given that it was also supposedly required for human Salvation…) but if so, this picture is doing something else that is a lot bigger than just an allegory of blindness! In fact, it’s hard not to see it, in fact, as a demonisation of the Jews as not just blind idolaters, but unwitting servants of Satan. In which case, Professor Lipton’s point about blindness might still work, but I think it needs saying!
There’s a wider methodological point here, I suppose. If this were hagiography, we would by now be more or less OK with raiding stories for incidental but revealing details, regarding those as much safer information than the main point of any given saint’s Life. That’s allowable, however, because in those cases we know what the main purpose of the Life is, viz. to show the holiness displayed by and through the saint and the identification of his or her friends and enemies in contemporary political terms. In doing the same thing with art, however, we run the risk when we look at details as sources for our wider theses that we have not, in fact, necessarily understood the wider thesis of the artist, and in this particular case an explanation of that picture that can’t squeeze in a huge wyvern makes me uncomfortable that we are leaving out something we should be including, as the artist obviously intended.
1. At the time of the lecture, the obvious point of introduction to Professor Lipton’s work was apparently S. Lipton, Images of Intolerance: the Representation of Jews and Judaism in the Bible moralisée (Berkeley 1999), but since then there has apparently emerged eadem, Dark Mirror: the medieval origins of anti-Jewish iconography (New York City 2014), which is where you would presumably now go for more on this lecture’s theme.
2. Professor Lipton here cited her article, “The Sweet Lean of His Head: Writing about Looking at the Crucifix in the High Middle Ages” in Speculum Vol. 80 (Cambridge 2005), pp. 1172-1208, and so so shall I.
3. Robert I. Moore, The Formation of a Persecuting Society: power and deviance in western Europe, 950-1250 (Oxford 1987, 2nd edn. Malden 2006); on Jews in the Crusades see the heart-rending contemporary texts translated in S. Eidelberg (transl.), The Jews and the Crusaders: The Hebrew Chronicles of the First and Second Crusades (Madison 1977, repr. Hoboken 1996), and for analysis not least Matthew Gabriele, “Against the enemies of Christ: the role of Count Emicho in the anti-Jewish violence of the First Crusade” in Michael Frassetto (ed.), Christian Attitudes toward the Jews in the Middle Ages: a casebook, Routledge Medieval Casebooks 17 (New York City 2007), pp. 61-82.