Post-classical history




By [Job’s] example, we may now see as in a mirror, more bearably and with more certain understanding, than in the blinding light of the truth.

—Rupert of Deutz, De Trinitate

In the first decades of the twelfth century, images of Jews began to spread across Christian art. Hebrew prophets, only occasionally encountered in earlier imagery, became nearly ubiquitous. Their appearance was standardized, and their gestures and especially their gazes were accorded deep significance. These prophets were joined by a broad range of previously undepicted Jewish characters, often displaying the signs applied to Judean elders by Bishop Bernward and to Hebrew prophets by Brother Goderanus. By the middle of the century, these signs—the pointed hat and the beard—had become familiar and consistent enough to serve as identifying marks of Jewishness.

These developments were part of a larger trend: a new emphasis on the Jew as witness in Christian art. As we have seen, the theological concept of “Jewish witness” was age-old. Already in the late fourth century Augustine of Hippo had asserted that Jews bore witness to essential Christian truths: their books preserved the word of scripture (though they failed properly to understand it), their bodies confirmed the historicity of the Crucifixion, and their subjugation proved their own error and the triumph of Christianity.1 So influential was Augustine’s articulation of Jews’ testimonial value that 750 years later it was echoed almost verbatim by Bernard of Clairvaux: “The Jews are indeed for us living letters of scripture, constantly representing the Lord’s Passion. They have been dispersed all over the world for this reason: that in enduring just punishments for such a crime wherever they are, they may be witnesses of our redemption.”2 However, one aspect of the doctrine of “Jewish witness” underwent a fundamental reorientation in the first half of the twelfth century. Although the Jews traditionally had been characterized as “blind,” in the twelfth century Christian images began to highlight Jewish sight, and “seeing” Jews became central objects of the Christian gaze. By the second half of the century, the figure of the actively witnessing Jew had become a primary means through which Christian art and Christian thinkers sought to reveal Christian truths. Though this initially granted Hebraic and Jewish figures considerable authority, it also led to a new stress on the limits, misuse, and abuse of Jewish vision.

1. The Spread of a “Jewish” Iconography

The painters of the Lobbes Bible used archaizing depictions of Jewish prophets to organize and display the passage of time, to visually codify the relationship of the Old Testament to the New, and to distinguish the “apostolic” era of renewal (that is, both New Testament times and the reformers’ own day) from the pre-Christian past. This new Judaic iconography and the many other stylistic and iconographical innovations evident in the Lobbes Bible and related contemporary manuscripts were early blossoms of a major artistic flowering: in the first decades of the twelfth century, there was a veritable explosion of figural images. Large-scale sculpture returned to church facades and interiors after an absence of many hundreds of years, far more colorful and elaborate stained glass adorned church windows, the art of enamel making was revived and applied to a rich selection of liturgical objects, altars were faced with carved or painted figures and scenes, and a broader range of manuscripts than ever before received sumptuous and elaborate illustration.3 Many of these artworks reflected and expanded Brother Goderanus’s interest in and representation of the Hebrew scriptures, with archaizing depictions of Hebrew prophets and patriarchs featuring prominently in their decorative programs.4 Beards, scrolls, and pseudoclassical draperies were widely adopted as typical “prophetic” garb, rendering Old Testament figures readily recognizable. So, for example, the prophets on the western portal of the cathedral of Modena (consecrated 1106) are bearded and scroll-bearing, as are the famous sculpted prophets at the monastery of Moissac (ca. 1100), the nine prophets at Verona (1139) [Fig. 1], and many more.5 Early-twelfth-century Hebrew prophets and Judaic elders often display, in addition, variations on the peaked and pointed caps assigned them by Bishop Bernward and Brother Goderanus. Wide-brimmed pointed hats appear, for example, on the heads of Hosea, Jonah, and Daniel in the earliest stained glass windows to survive intact, the south nave windows of Augsburg Cathedral (ca. 1100 or 1130) [Fig. 2],6 scroll-bearing and bearded Old Testament prophets wearing peaked hats identical to episcopal miters gaze on Saint Paul in an early twelfth-century liturgical prayer collection from the reformist Benedictine Zwiefalten monastery in south Germany,7 Abraham and various other Judaic figures wear pointed hats on the twelfth-century bronze doors at San Zeno, Verona (ca. 1100–35), and Jesse wears a peaked cap in the mid-twelfth-century stained glass Tree of Jesse window in the western wall of Chartres.8 Examples of New Testament Judaic priests and elders displaying hats include Saint Joseph, Simon the Pharisee, Joseph of Arimathea, and Nicodemus in the Saint Albans Psalter (ca. 1120–30), all of whom wear knobbed or peaked caps.9As in the Lobbes Bible, the archaizing appearances of all the above-mentioned figures seem designed primarily to convey the dignity of priesthood and invoke the authority of Hebrew precedent, while also signaling the distance of that antique Hebraic history from the “modern” Christian present.10


FIG. 1


FIG. 2

Starting around 1130, however, these visual signs began to be applied to a broader range of Judaic figures than just Old Testament prophets and patriarchs and respected New Testament elders. The iconographically marked Jew, moreover, was often as important for what and how he saw as for how he appeared (I use the masculine pronoun advisedly; women were not similarly singled out).11 The gazing Jew can be found in at least three guises in a range of innovative settings: as a nonprophetic ancient Israelite in the newly popular typological programs (that is, artworks that present scenes from Hebrew scripture as prefigurements of Christian history),12 as a Gospel-era antagonist of Christ and the apostles, and as an entirely new figure in medieval art—the contemporary Jew who sees but only imperfectly perceives. (By and large before about 1160 Jews do not appear in the role one might assume to be most typically assigned them: killers of Christ. These executioners are typically bareheaded and dressed as yokels in short tunics. Though they occasionally wear pointed headgear that has been taken for Jewish hats, the form of that headgear is different from the hats assigned to antique Hebrews and would most likely have been read as Roman helmets.)13

Moreover, in an astonishing turn, in the mid-twelfth century Synagoga, that notoriously blind personification of Judaism whose veil-swathed visage adorns so many great Gothic cathedrals, regains her vision. As we have seen, in the eleventh century Synagoga had been deprived of her sight: in various images and objects her view is blocked, her eyes are closed, or her head is turned away from the sight of the crucified Christ.14 Yet around the year 1140, a very different depiction of Synagoga emerged: Synagoga unveiled. [Fig. 3] She appears in two scenes in the stunning English manuscript known as the Lambeth Palace Bible (ca. 1140), in a window in the great Abbey Church of Saint-Denis (ca. 1145), in a sacramentary manuscript from Tours (ca. 1150–1200), and on a baptismal font from the church of Sélincourt in northern France (mid-twelfth century).15

The expanded Judaic presence in visual imagery parallels an expanded Judaic presence in contemporary Christian exegesis. The late-eleventh-century attempts to “fix” the text of Hebrew scripture discussed in chapter 1 led in the following decades to reconsideration of the meaning of this text.16 Around the year 1100, biblical commentators began to devise sophisticated new methods for teasing out the relationship between Old Law and New, underscoring their status as embodying, respectively, matter and spirit, sign and meaning.17 These scholars affirmed the ongoing value of the Old Testament but also increasingly emphasized the extent to which Jews, misled by their “carnal” attachment to the “letter” of scripture, though able to “see” the word of God, were “blind” to its true spiritual import.18 Castigation of the Jews’ “superficial” and “material” understanding, linked to their alleged greed and carnality, thus intensified considerably, becoming a major component of twelfth-century Christian scholarship.19


FIG. 3

These intellectual developments are often cited to explain the new prominence of Old Testament visual imagery. Just as the Jews’ language, texts, and heritage were rendered ever more central to Christian study, scholars have assumed, so naturally their scriptures and persons figured more centrally in Christian art.20 This is surely to a large extent correct; there can be no doubt that there is a linkage between contemporary exegesis and our imagery. Typological visual programs draw on typological biblical commentary, and verses from the so-called Quodvultdeus “Sermon against the Jews” (a collection of Old Testament texts that ostensibly prophesied Christ’s coming) were inscribed nearly verbatim on several twelfth-century monuments.21 Nonetheless, simply pointing to parallels between exegesis and art does not satisfactorily explain why the new intellectual trends were so rapidly and widely reflected in visual imagery, much less account for the spread of a specific “Jewish” iconography or illuminate how it was understood. After all, Christian commentators had criticized Jewish literalism for centuries with no corresponding artistic expression of such sentiments. To begin to explain the new iconography we need to pay careful attention to the full range of issues addressed in text, image, and object and ask what work art and its representations of Jews were designed to do. A surprising story of a witnessing Jew penned around 1120 furnishes some clues.

2. Good Testimony from Those Who Are Outside

The story appears in a remarkable and largely overlooked text written by an art-loving monk and scholar named Robert de Liège, who was born and educated in Lotharingia, not far from Lobbes and Stavelot.22 Robert moved to the Abbey of Deutz near Cologne in the Rhineland, and eventually became its abbot; he is thus now known by his German name, Rupert of Deutz (d. 1129). In addition to being a lifelong Benedictine monk (having been “donated” to a monastery in Liège when he was a small child), he was an intellectual, known for his biblical and liturgical commentaries; a controversialist who became embroiled in several doctrinal disputes; and a mystic whose visionary experiences were often stimulated by art.23 Around the year 1120 Rupert was asked by his abbot to rewrite the hundred-year-old Vita (biography) of the abbey’s sainted founder, Archbishop Heribert of Cologne (d. 1021).24 Though he remained largely faithful to his eleventh-century source, toward the beginning of the Vita Rupert added one novel and curious detail. In the original version, a miraculous heavenly light shone down on the birth chamber just as the future saint was being born, and was seen by Heribert’s mother and her midwives. In Rupert’s version, this miracle was witnessed by two additional people: Heribert’s father (Count Hugo of Worms) and a Jew. According to Rupert, the Jew happened to be visiting the household on the night of the saint’s birth. After the family went to bed, Rupert writes, “an immense heavenly light shone [in the birth chamber], which some sleeping people saw with the eyes of the heart, and some waking people saw with the eyes of the body.” The waking people who physically saw the light were Heribert’s mother and her midwives, while the eyes of the heart belonged to the Jew and Heribert’s father:

The father of the infant was sleeping, and with him a certain one of his friends (though a Jew), who had come to him for customary conversation or friendly business. Sleeping together at that hour in which in the light of the happy birth came forth, each saw the same dream. Awaking, they spoke immediately to one another, each … recounting his own dream.25

The Jew speaks first. He relates that in his dream the bed in which Heribert was born split open at the front and “a radiance bright as the midday sun” shone down upon it. The Jew then interprets the dream as an omen of Heribert’s glorious destiny, telling the boy’s father: “Surely [by this light] you may know that [he who] is born to you will fill you with joy, and he will make his family shine with the great splendor of his name.”26

This is a highly surprising, not to say confusing, passage. As I discussed in the introduction, Augustine had criticized the Jews’ materialist perception by noting that “it is no great thing to see Christ with the eyes of the flesh [i.e., the Jewish way], but it is great to believe in Christ with the eyes of the heart [i.e., with Christian faith].”27 Yet here it is a Jew who sees with the eyes of the heart. Though the phrase has been given a downgraded meaning (seeing something in a dream rather than in person), it is still remarkable that Rupert would describe Jewish vision in such positive terms. In doing so, Rupert seems to disregard, or even invert, the standard Christian characterization of Jewish perception as mired in carnal error. The Jew is granted a share of the heavenly vision, if only in a dream, and although Heribert’s own father also saw the dream, the Jew is the first to relate it and to voice its meaning.

Why did Rupert invent this witnessing Jew? What purpose is served by introducing an infidel family friend into a Christian saint’s life? Why is he allowed to see a miracle in a dream and to foretell the saint’s future glory?

Rupert was well aware that such questions might arise and that his fellow monks would be startled by his casting of a Jew in such a pivotal role: “A Jew may well seem to be an unworthy sharer of the same luminous dream that the Christian father deserved to see.”28 He therefore hastens to explain: without the Jew’s testimony, he claims, the miracle witnessed by the mother and midwives would have been doubted.29 This assertion may seem somewhat surprising, but it was very much in accord with contemporary trends. In the later eleventh century, church reformers began to apply the evidentiary rules of ancient Roman law (which had only recently been rediscovered) and the newly revived discipline of dialectic to canonization procedures.30 Standards of proof changed and tightened; both the type of testimony that could be adduced and the type of person that was allowed to testify were subject to more rigorous regulation.31 In a significant procedural shift, mere rumor, secondhand testimony, and even written depositions were no longer deemed adequate forms of evidence. Witnesses had to be personally present at the hearing, there had to be at least two witnesses to any event, they had to have direct, sensory experience of the facts to which they were testifying, and they had to be of respectable social rank, unimpeachable character, and demonstrated impartiality.32 Women were disparaged as unreliable, open to persuasion, and prone to fancy.33Personal visions were considered a particularly suspect source of knowledge. A report of the 1131 canonization of Saint Godehard of Hildesheim explains the reasons for such caution: “it was decreed at that time that on account of the illusions of demons which frequently happened … in these matters, no one should be canonized except by apostolic authority and after his life had been examined by duly qualified persons.”34

This, then, suggests one motivation for Rupert’s revision: the testimony regarding the miracle recorded in his early-eleventh-century source no longer satisfied twelfth-century legal requirements. As servants, members of the subject’s household or family, and, especially, as women, the midwives and even Heribert’s mother failed to meet the standards for suitable witnesses. (The fact that canonists’ disapproval of female testimony seems often to have been ignored in practice does not negate the basic point. Rupert would have wanted his account to reflect the ideal.) Only disinterested male witnesses could provide convincing testimony. Since men were generally excluded from birthing chambers, the miraculous light accompanying the birth could not be directly perceived by a male witness—hence its reception in dream form. Heribert’s aristocratic father could not be the sole male to receive the miraculous dream, however, because plural witnesses were needed, and in any case as a close relative he was an overly partisan and therefore less than ideal witness.35 The best possible confirmation of the heavenly grace conferred upon Heribert was the simultaneous revelation of the dream to a figure with no such intimate ties. And who could be more disinterested on the subject of Christian sainthood than a Jew? The visitor may have been a friendly familiar of the household, but as a Jew he was still inevitably an outsider (as Rupert put it:amicus, Iudeus tamen—“a friend, though a Jew”). Hence his usefulness. As a canon law collection compiled in the 1070s stated, “it is necessary to have good testimony from those who are outside.”36

3. Truth through Material Things

The significance of the Jew in Rupert’s narrative goes beyond mere forensic convenience. There was another reason that the Jew was well suited to testify to Heribert’s glory. What the Jew saw with the eyes of the heart was a very worldly vision: “he will make his family shine with the great splendor of his name.” After conveying this prediction, Rupert comments:

Who, indeed, does not know the splendor of the great church of Cologne, how … it glittered also in temporal resources…? Since therefore [Heribert] was destined to be so preeminent in rank, and [to be] exalted upon so great a candelabrum … it ought not seem unworthy that a Jew, too, should have received the portent of his future brightness.37

Heribert’s status as the prince of a powerful and prosperous ecclesiastical province, of which Rupert is palpably proud, vindicated the Jew’s worldly interpretation of the miraculous light, as heralding future fame and fortune.

This, then, is the point of the Jew’s presence: to ratify the birth and testify to the worldly wealth and glory of Saint Heribert. That Rupert should have associated a Jew with material wealth is hardly surprising. From Christ’s ejection of the money changers from the temple forecourt, to Paul’s equation of Jewish literalistic reading with materialism, to the sermons of the fourth-century church father John Chrysostom, which accused the Jews of greed and ostentation, Christian texts had long associated Jews with wealth and worldliness.38 In Rupert’s day, moreover, specific circumstances reinforced and gave particular resonance to this rhetoric. These were decades of rapid commercial expansion in Lotharingia, the Rhineland, and northern and northeastern France. Though Christians dominated this activity, including the nascent market for credit, Jews were also deeply, even disproportionately, involved. Jewish as well as Christian merchants transported foodstuffs, wine, textiles, furs, housewares, slaves, medicines, and luxury goods up and down the roads and rivers of northern Europe, and Jews as well as Christians acted as money changers, minters, lenders, and toll collectors.39 But because Jewish merchants were (like any other minority) more conspicuous than members of the majority, because some ecclesiastical writers worried about the morality of the new monetized economy, and because Jews had long been polemically linked to lucre, a perception began to form that commerce and the money trade were characteristically “Jewish” and distinctly unsavory endeavors.40 It is in this period (the first decades of the twelfth century) and for these reasons that the stereotype of the Jewish usurer first appears.41

That Rupert also associated his monastery’s sainted founder with worldly wealth and glory might seem harder to understand, given the traditional Christian, and especially monastic, commendation of poverty and humility. But as the career of Bishop Bernward of Hildesheim vividly demonstrates, in the eleventh century even the most devout prelates felt few qualms about enjoying—and displaying—power and prosperity. For many clerics, the commercial revolution of the early twelfth century simply provided augmented opportunity to amass and spend great sums in God’s honor. Even as some churchmen condemned commerce and finance, others—including many bishops and abbots—encouraged, engaged in, and profited from them.42 The famous autobiographical work of Abbot Suger of Saint-Denis (r. 1122–51) was written, Suger tells us, because his monks asked him to record “the [story of] the riches which the munificence of almighty God had conferred on this church during our abbacy [namely]: the acquisition of new properties, the recovery of those which were lost, an increase in the number of those restored, the construction of buildings, the laying up of gold, silver, precious stones and the finest vestments.”43

Abbot Suger poured such energy into acquiring, creating, and displaying precious artworks because in his view most people, Christians included, were more easily moved and convinced by their senses than by abstract ideas. As he wrote in a verse inscribed on the door to his abbey church: “the dull mind rises to the truth through material things.”44 Rupert agreed. The Jew’s usefulness thus was not solely due to his outsider status. He also served as a stand-in for ordinary Christians. After explaining why the Jew’s testimony was necessary, Rupert added, “For it would, perhaps rightly, have seemed unbelievable to anyone, if only the light of spiritual grace, which Judaic blindness knows not, had been fit to be conferred on [Saint Heribert].”45 That is, people would have questioned the miraculous light had it remained a purely spiritual vision. A dream so vivid that it could even be experienced by a Jew was far more convincing. Apparently many Christians (even Rupert’s fellow monks, the main readers of Rupert’s text) were like Jews, blind to spiritual grace and in need of concrete signs.

Not all churchmen shared Suger’s and Rupert’s enthusiasm for wealth and display or their readiness to employ concrete signs, bodily vision, and luxurious artworks as spiritual aids. The benefits reaped by so many monasteries from the economic flourishing of the period generated a strong reaction, known as the “monastic crisis of prosperity.”46 New monastic orders arose (particularly the Carthusians, founded in 1084, the Cistercians, founded in 1098, and the Premonstratensian canons regular, founded in 1120) that sought a return to the emphasis on poverty. These reformers promoted greater simplicity in lifestyle, liturgy, art, and architecture and decried the excesses of traditional monks. Their critiques often focused on just the kind of material display and ostentatious artistry so beloved of Rupert of Deutz and Abbot Suger and cast the reform project as a contest between the pure spirituality of the New Dispensation and the corrupt, overly ritualistic materiality of the Old.47 In his Apologia of around 1125, for example, Bernard of Clairvaux, greatest of the Cistercian reformers, famously lamented: “Churches are decorated not simply with jeweled crowns but with jeweled wheels illuminated as much by their precious stones as by their lamps. We see candelabra like big bronze trees, marvelously wrought, their gems glowing no less than their flames.… [These things] seem to me in some sense a revival of ancient Jewish rites.”48 Bernard went further still in decrying the “Jewishness” of church decoration. Rhetorically tying the penchant for ecclesiastical ornamentation to the new money economy, Bernard attributed the love of golden ornaments to “the service of idols” and regarded the desire to attract donations by means of artistic splendor as a form of usury, a term already by this time firmly, if not exclusively, associated with Jews.49 The Cistercian Idung of Prüfening (fl. ca. 1155–65) echoed this strategy, saying of the temple ornaments: “Those things in Old Testament times were just the shadow of future things. All things happened to [the patriarchs] in figures.… Let us repudiate therefore gold with the rest of the Jewish superstitions; or if one loves gold, then one loves also the Jews.”50 The new monks sought to discredit what were, after all, very traditional attitudes and practices by tarring them as “Jewish.”

How were the traditionalists to respond to this challenge and fend off accusations of “judaizing”? Not by disavowing the Hebraic past. To the contrary, defenders of ornament proudly embraced the same Hebrew models so disparaged by Bernard of Clairvaux. Rupert of Deutz, in his commentary On the Divine Offices, cited sacred history as a precedent for elaborate display, comparing ornate decoration of altars and churches to the decoration of the Jerusalem temple itself.51 Abbot Suger’s writings are likewise crammed with parallels for and justifications of his artistic projects drawn from Hebrew scripture.52 But this invocation of Hebrew history is not to be mistaken for philo-Judaism. Rather, the traditionalists threw accusations of “judaizing” back upon their critics, charging the new orders with excessive literalism and legalism.53

The debate over monastic practice and church ornament thus mutated into a debate over who could rightly claim ancient Hebrew heritage, while labeling the opposing parties “Jewish” (legalistic, literalistic)—in their manner of worship, in their interpretation of scripture, and in the way they used and understood art.54 This is the context in which we can understand the Jew’s presence in Rupert’s version of Heribert’s Vita. Rupert was using this embodiment of ancient rites and the material world to uphold the validity of material splendor. The Jew’s participation in the miraculous dream vision heralds the temporal majesty rightly claimed by a great ecclesiastical lord and rightly displayed in a great monastic foundation.

This is not to say that Rupert (or Suger, for that matter) was either a secularist or a crass materialist. When he calls the church of Cologne a candelabrum on which Heribert was exalted, he clearly ranks the holiness of the saint above the luxury of his episcopal see. He also notes that while Heribert was indeed blessed with the worldly grandeur foreseen by the Jew, he had greater qualities that were invisible to the unbeliever. Rupert concludes his account of the Jew’s prophecy of Heribert’s future temporal splendor by noting, “This he could say by gazing at the light or glory only of the secular world.” And then he relates that twenty-four years later Heribert’s spiritual splendor was signaled by another wondrous light-related sign accompanying his consecration as a priest: the liturgy of the day included the verse “The light will shine today over us.” Rupert saw this fact as a miracle: “Who will doubt that this happened through providence or the same arrangement of God, with which care or grace he first sent out the aforementioned sign, when he was being born?”55

This second “miracle” contrasts starkly with the first. It involves no bodily sight, only proper spiritual understanding of sung words. As opposed to the first, well-attested event (the miraculously illuminated birth), we have here no mention of witnesses, proof, discussion, or interpretation. And yet no suspicion whatever is attached to this miracle; this time Rupert explicitly rules out the possibility of doubt (“who will doubt?”). And, finally, of course, this is a miracle in which the Jew plays no part. He is physically absent (at this point he drops entirely out of the narrative, never to return) and is explicitly associated only with the secular realm. The Jew, Rupert makes clear, cannot see beyond the gleam of worldly brass to perceive the heavenly glow. Though he is conceded some limited perception—a downgraded, dream-bound form of seeing with the eyes of the heart—and so is not fully blind, he is at best a blinkered witness. And so, by implication, is any Christian who emulates the Jew in failing to realize that earthly shine reflects, points to, and is a route toward a brighter spiritual truth. Rupert is here obliquely accusing monastic critics of church art of not knowing the difference between spurs to devotion and objects of devotion. That is, he is accusing them of reading the world in a superficial, Jewish way. Adopting and adapting the very label assigned to himself and his supporters by critics, he uses a Jew to demonstrate the difference between purely material ways of seeing and spiritual modes of perception.

In sum, Rupert’s tale uses the witnessing Jew to present a theory of knowledge—one, I should add, by no means unique to Rupert. There are two ways to know the truth: through sensory experience (which includes dreams and the enjoyment of art) and through spiritual enlightenment. Both are valid. Indeed, the former provides a helpful model and metaphor for, and offers a pathway to, the latter. Spiritual understanding is of course the higher form of knowledge. But Rupert’s Vita concedes that such enlightenment is inaccessible to most Christians: “For it would … have seemed unbelievable to anyone, if only the light of spiritual grace … had been fit to be conferred on [Heribert].” The human need for concrete signs is accepted, as it has been enshrined in canon law. For this reason the Jew, whose “vision” and understanding are traditionally—and notoriously—material and corporeal, can still provide valuable and valued witness, even to Christian truths. He and Heribert’s father start at the same place—they both see and value temporal glory. But a Christian can be guided to see more spiritually, as a Jew cannot: when knowledge is conveyed through purely spiritual illumination (as at Heribert’s consecration), the Jew can provide no testimony and so is absent.

4. Forged Witness

In Rupert’s Vita the testifying Jew remains a purely textual sign. But he would soon be given visible form, as the new Jewish iconography came to intervene in the debates we have just discussed. In a stunning work of art from Rupert’s adopted hometown, Old Testament figures are enlisted precisely in support of the value of sensory experience and visible shine.56 [Fig. 4; see also color insert]

The artwork in question is a beautiful enamel and silver-gilt portable altar from Cologne attributed to a craftsman named Eilbertus, dating to approximately 1130–50.57 On the top is an imposing image of Christ in Majesty, surrounded by the twelve apostles holding scrolls and seated on thrones, and scenes from the life, Passion, and Resurrection of Christ. These are all quite standard images for an altarpiece of the period. [Fig. 5] Around the sides of the object, however, we find an entirely new set of figures, not previously seen on portable altars: twelve Hebrew prophets, three Hebrew kings, and one Hebrew soothsayer, all standing and holding inscribed scrolls.58 The Hebrews’ inscriptions are, in many cases, also unprecedented, and have never been fully explained.59These kings and prophets are framed above and below by a larger inscription. It reads:


FIG. 4


FIG. 5

Filled with the doctrine of faith, the twelve fathers bear witness that the prophetical words are not fictions [ficta non esse prophetica dicta]. Inspired by heaven, they prophesied about Christ; they foretold those things which were to come after.60

We might at first thought consider this a straightforward articulation of Christian exegesis: as far back as the recorded words of Jesus, and most powerfully in the epistles of Paul, the Old Testament was read as foretelling the coming of Christ. As presented here on the altar and embodied by the Hebrew prophets, this is powerful and positive witness indeed: the fathers’ testimony is described as “inspired by heaven,” and their portrayal is respectful and dignified. David is crowned and wears a chlamys (antique-type cloak) and robe, Solomon is crowned and cloaked, while the remaining Hebrews are identical in physiognomy and dress to the apostles themselves: bareheaded, bearded, and dressed in togas, but also (unusually) barefoot—a mark of asceticism that, together with the signs of wisdom, displays the purity and truth of their words, their dicta non ficta.

Yet for all the visual serenity and conceptual concordance between Old and New apparent here, there is a discordant note, a defensive tone embedded in that phrase ficta non esse prophetica dicta. Why should our altar feel the need to proclaim so forcefully that the Hebrew fathers prove the authenticity of biblical prophecy? Surely the Bible was not under attack in twelfth-century Cologne. In fact, the phrase did not originate in medieval Germany; it is a paraphrase of words penned by Augustine of Hippo in Contra Faustum, written in 387 to refute pagan charges that the Hebrew scriptures were blasphemous nonsense and that Catholics had forged the Old Testament prophecies relating to Christ. According to Augustine, the Jews’ scriptures disproved such accusations: “The Gentiles cannot suppose these testimonies to Christ to be recent forgeries [non possunt putare confictum]; for they find them in books held sacred for so many ages by those who crucified Christ.”61 But it seems strange for our altar to revive this defense of scripture in the heart of the Holy Roman Empire, at the height of the age of faith. Why, and to whom, does our inscription feel the need to invoke Hebrew testimony regarding the authenticity of prophecy?

It is unlikely that the inscription was aimed in the first instance at Jews. Jews certainly disputed Christian interpretations of Hebrew scripture. But they did not as a rule allege that the prophetical books were forged by Christians. Another possible target is heretical groups, some of whom were said to reject the Old Testament. But they were a small voice in twelfth-century Cologne, unlikely to be a central concern of the cleric who commissioned this altar.62 I think, rather, that the inscription’s defensive tone is inspired by a more powerful chorus: the very same, perfectly orthodox, critics of ecclesiastical ostentation who provoked Rupert’s revisions of the Vita Heriberti.63 Let us look again at that word ficta. It is usually translated as “false” or “forged,” but it literally means formed, fashioned, sculpted. Medieval clerics were trained to look for multiple meanings in written words and to see significance in their juxtaposition. One can hardly fail to note that on this particular altar the inscribed and engraved prophecies are literally formed or fashioned. It is these “fashioned” words and works, I believe, that are being defended. They may be “forged” in the goldsmith’s fire, but they are not therefore false. The contested text whose validity is being upheld through Hebrew testimony is the art object itself.

And so the visible Jewish witness is born. Just as Rupert invented a Jew whose perception and presence attested to the truth of tangible signs and whose obliviousness and absence then affirmed the higher truth of invisible ones, so Eilbertus forged prophets whose looks, words, and bodies testify to Christian truth but who, as we will see, nevertheless remain behind.

The prophets witness in looks: their very visual similarity to the apostles, their haloed and hatless heads affirm that they have received divine revelation.

The prophets witness with words: the inscriptions that have so perplexed scholars almost all in some way relate light, sight, and shine to knowledge of God. In so doing, they echo a major aspect of the thought of Rupert of Deutz, who repeatedly equated light with grace and who passionately argued for the devotional value of vision, ornament, and images, when properly informed by faith. Thus Jeremiah’s scroll asserts: “He was seen on earth and conversed with men.”64 Jacob’s verse proclaims: “I saw the Lord face to face.”65 Zachariah announces: “He who will have touched you, touches the pupil of my eye.66 And so on.67

The prophets witness with gesture: each flourishes the truth (in the form of a scriptural scroll), points upward toward the ultimate truth, or holds objects that prefigure the Christian liturgy, especially as observed in traditional, ornament-laden churches. Isaiah gestures toward the Annunciation image enameled on the top of the golden altar as he foretells the Incarnation. Melchisedek displays a golden Eucharistic paten (plate) and a chalice, symbols of the body and blood of Christ consumed in the Mass, but also the type of luxury items so frequently criticized by reformers. David grasps his harp, indicative alike of the Hebrew psalms and of the music that played so central a role in Benedictine worship and was criticized by reformers. (The Cistercian Aelred of Rielvaulx, for example, railed against the use of musical instruments in church as overly Hebraic, exclaiming: “How is it, since [Old Testament] types and figures have already ceased,… that there are in church so many instruments, so many cymbals?”)68

But the prophets remain behind, or rather below: they function as supports for the altar table, but their view of the top is blocked and they cannot directly see either the painted image of Christ or the body that is daily sacrificed upon it.

And this last, visible act of negative witness—the prophets’ inability to see the body of Christ, which they nonetheless spiritually foresaw through heavenly inspiration—rounds out their usefulness to the Christian viewer. For he too cannot “see” the body of Christ, in the sense of perceiving flesh, limbs, etc. He needs to follow the example of the prophets and Augustine’s believers and look with the eyes of the heart—that is, with the help of faith, perceive an unseeable truth beneath or beyond surface appearance—if he is to recognize Christ in the consecrated bread. The central sacrament of medieval Christianity required the same ability to transcend mundane perception and “see spiritually” as did religious art. And it was subject to the same criticisms, by internal Christian critics as well as by external ones.69 It is for this reason that a defense of the Eucharist written by the twelfth-century Cistercian Baldwin of Canterbury reads very much like defenses of religious art in general and the inscription on our portable altar in particular: “Nothing [in the sacrament] is false, feigned, counterfeit, or faked by magical manipulations. There is truth in that which is evident, and in that which is hidden.” And to provide a model for how the Christian can “see” what cannot be seen, he cites the prophets: “The law and prophets bear witness to future promise (in the shadows).” But he also indicts those who could not learn to see properly: “The Pharisees, who did not believe, were made more blind.”70

The images of the venerable, inspired, but subordinate prophets on the Eilbertus portable altar, then, embody Christian theology regarding Hebrew prophecy—its truth, its centrality, and its incompleteness. In doing so, they lend support to the contention of Rupert and Suger that artistic splendor and material shine can lead to understanding, if viewed properly. But the altar, like those monastic theologians, resolutely distinguishes between “types” and “figures” on the one hand (that is, visible, physical matter, represented by the Old Testament prophets and kings, and also by the art object itself) and the transcendent truth they herald on the other. Each time the celebrant leans over the gleaming surface of this portable altar, its words, images, composition, and very form instruct him in the correct path to knowledge of God. He is to move progressively upward from corporeal sight (the beauty of the object and the appearance of the prophets), through visual imagination (the inspired words of the prophets), to the climax of the Christian Mass: ingestion of the Eucharist, the unseeable body of Christ. This last act foreshadows the ultimate goal of the Christian believer: to come as close as is possible in this flawed, flesh-bound world to purely imageless understanding.

5. How Foolish You Are!

Bernward of Hildesheim used art to express his personal hope for a final, face-to-face vision of God. Twelfth-century makers of art went a step further: they awarded the artistic image an active, positive role in Christian devotion. Images could help to spiritually prepare the Christian viewer and train the Christian gaze. They served another purpose as well. By means of the new Jewish iconography, images could vividly expose the imperfections of the viewer who would not or could not see beyond the surface/flesh.

The Winchester Psalter (ca. 1121–60) belongs to a small group of English manuscripts that pioneered the inclusion of extensive prefatory pictorial cycles, most likely designed to serve Benedictine monks or nuns as the focus of pious meditation.71 [Fig. 6] The lower half of the Psalter’s folio 25 illustrates an episode from Luke 24:13–35 set after the Crucifixion, in which the just-risen Christ meets two disciples traveling from Jerusalem to Emmaus.72 Although these two disciples were followers of Jesus in his lifetime (and so had perhaps seen him only days before), in the Gospel text they are unable to recognize the resurrected Christ.73 Jesus’s physical appearance in the miniature is, indeed, unusual: he is unwontedly dark and full-bearded and, stranger still, wears a Phrygian cap (soft, banded, with a tall, forward-falling peak). The production notes for a contemporary liturgical play about the Road to Emmaus, called the Officium Peregrinorum, might seem to explain this unaccustomed headgear—they specify that Christ be dressed as a pilgrim, “a pointed cap on his head, clothed in a furry cloak and a tunic, barefoot.”74 Indeed, a partially effaced inscription in the margin of the Winchester illumination notes that Christ “here is in the likeness of a pilgrim.”75 In the image, however, Christ, with his Phrygian cap and ankle-length robes, looks far less like a pilgrim than like an ancient Hebrew prophet. Christ’s odd appearance is explained by the words of the disciples: according to the Gospel text, when they meet Christ they tell him that they are mourning the death of “Jesus of Nazareth, who was a prophet, mighty in work and word before God and all the people” (Luke 24:19). That is, the disciples are still clinging to an incomplete, materialist, and Old Testament–driven conception of Christ’s nature, and the image portrays him as his imperfectly comprehending companions see him. Time-bound, literal-minded viewers can see no further than their antiquated assumptions allow. The disciples consequently also wear pointed hats—as much to signal that their perception is outdated and overly literalistic as to signal that they are “Jews.” One disciple carries a walking staff and wears the wide-brimmed, knobbed hat of the pilgrim or traveler; this may well reflect the influence of the Officium drama. The other disciple, however, like Jesus, looks far more like a prophet than a pilgrim—he has a long, flowing beard and wears a short, soft, peaked cap and long, draped robes as he touches his beard or cloak in perplexity. His antique, Hebraic appearance displays his affiliation with the words and wisdom of the Old Covenant, while his confused gesture indicates that he has not yet achieved the full enlightenment of the New.76


FIG. 6

The limited understanding of these disciples explains Christ’s appearance and headgear. In order to bring the travelers to the point where they can finally “see,” Christ meets them at their own level, appearing as an antique prophet. Like a Hebrew prophet he excoriates them for their lack of faith (Luke 24:25: “Then he said to them, ‘Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared!’”), and then invokes Old Testament testimony: “beginning at Moses and all the prophets, he expounded to them in all the scriptures, the things that were concerning him.” (Luke 24:27) Only after Christ has gradually led them step by step, through teaching and in his demeanor and deeds on the road and at their shared meal, do the disciples finally recognize their Lord: “And their eyes were opened, and they knew him” (Luke 24:31). At that moment of enlightenment, they cease to regard Christ as merely a prophet; he is accordingly now portrayed as hatless and fair-haired and -bearded. [Fig. 7]

The entire sequence serves to demonstrate that spiritual truth can be perceived only by those who see spiritually. But it also establishes that visible images, whether Christ’s physical gestures or the illuminations themselves, can help bring the faithful to that level. Art can reveal to the medieval Christian viewer both what those who, like the Jews, are tied to the superficial letter see—an imperfect, outmoded conception of Christ—and also what such blinkered viewers cannot see—the divinity signaled by Christ’s nimbus, which evidently is initially invisible to his disciples. Once those disciples achieve spiritual vision, however, Christ’s material body is no longer needed: as soon as they came to recognize him, “he vanished out of their sight.” Here, too, art plays a role, showing the changed spiritual awareness of the disciples: in the Supper at Emmaus scene, the disciples are considerably less “Hebraic”-looking than in the previous folio (one is now beardless, the other has a shorter beard, and both their caps are smaller), presumably to signal that they are emerging from their imprisonment in the superseded material past. In no scenes subsequent to the supper do any followers of Christ wear pointed hats.


FIG. 7

The sign of the “Jewish” hat, then, does not serve as an indicator of a static or exclusive “Jewish” religious identity. It acts as an index of perception, signaling attachment to antiquated and literalistic conceptions of the law. Followers of Christ as well as Jews are liable to fall into such superficial ways of seeing. But the imperfect comprehension conveyed by the hat can be amended, by steering the very human reliance on sensory experience toward a higher end. Just as a combination of scriptural instruction and exemplary behavior helped the disciples shed their “Jewishness” and finally recognize the truth, so in this manuscript a combination of biblical text and iconographic signs helps the Christian viewer identify and, ideally, surpass the imperfect witness.

6. The Visionary Jew Made Visible

So far, the central concern of the images we have examined is religious knowledge, not the Jewish people. Hebrew prophets serve to affirm both the value and the limits of the material world and corporeal vision; New Testament Judeans underscore the fact that, though sensory experience and scriptural learning alone are inadequate, when carefully guided and allied with Christian faith, they can lead to illumination. And what of the descendants of those Hebrews and Judeans, the still stubborn “rest who are blinded”?77These, too, made their way into Christian art. Beginning in the mid-twelfth century a range of postantique Jewish figures joined their Hebraic elders and New Testament forerunners in Christian imagery. Although they lacked the prophets’ heavenly inspiration and showed little promise of the Emmaus disciples’ ultimate illumination, these Jews nonetheless also proved useful to Christian thinking about art, images, and vision.

It is surely no coincidence that one of the first iconographically identifiable nonbiblical Hebrews to be depicted in medieval art is none other than Rupert’s own invented character, our old friend the visionary German Jew. He appears on the great reliquary shrine of Heribert, created about 1150–60 to house the saint’s bones.78 Constructed in the shape of a sarcophagus, the shrine features on its sides alternating standing Hebrew prophets in enamel and seated apostles in deep relief. On its roof appears a series of stunning enamel roundels illustrating the life of the saint. [Fig. 8] As on the Eilbertus altar, prophets and apostles share the same beards, draperies, haloes, and bare feet, but here the more limited vision and authority of the former is conveyed through their antique scrolls (the apostles carry “modern” codices, or books), smaller sizes, and failure to break the plane of the object. Further subtle gradations of spiritual status and perception become apparent when the Hebrew prophets are compared with the sole medieval Jew on the object, Count Hugo’s visiting friend, who appears in the roundel depicting Heribert’s birth.79 [Fig. 9]

As in Rupert’s discussion of Heribert’s birth, the keynote of the entire roundel is worldliness and nobility. An inscription around the upper register announces: “The vision of the sun splendidly signals the sunrise of the offspring.”80 In this upper scene, the Jew’s high social rank is stressed, in part by forging visual parallels with Heribert’s father: both father and Jew are clearly identified by name and title: above the father is written “Hugo Comes” (“Count Hugo”) and above the Jew “Aaron Judeus” (“Aaron the Jew”). (The name Aaron is apparently an invention of the artist or iconographer; Rupert did not name the Jew. It was probably designed to evoke priesthood.) Each lies with closed eyes on a commodious couch as a ray of light shines directly upon his head. Only one salient difference between the two is detectable: the count is bareheaded, while the Jew wears a rounded, bordered, knobbed cap. This difference is striking enough (and the image of someone sleeping while wearing a large, knobbed hat is peculiar enough) to call for explanation. It seems unlikely that the primary function of the hat is to identify Aaron as a Jew, for the word Judeus is written just above. Moreover, this rounded, knobbed, thick-brimmed cap is different from the soft, peaked caps or stiff, miter-like hats in which Hebrews and Israelites had typically been shown up to this point and which Aaron himself wears in the lower register. This cap is more akin to the head coverings shown on field-workers or travelers (including one of the two disciples on the Road to Emmaus in the Winchester Psalter).81 I think it serves here to indicate that Aaron had recently arrived at the castle after a journey: it marks him as a visitor to rather than a member of the household, the “outsider” whose testimony was so key.


FIG. 8


FIG. 9

The scene in the lower register takes place in a canopied and pillared hall. Around the rim an inscription notes: “Thus his father foresees this, and also the Israelite.”82 The count and the Jew are again dressed similarly—both wear dark ankle boots and hose, belted robes, pointed hats, and cloaks draped over their shoulders (though the robes of the count are, appropriately, more elaborate, decorated with an embroidered belt and border). Although in Rupert’s text the discussion between the two is presented as an impromptu morning conversation, here the scene has the aspect of a formal court. In spite of the fact that the count himself shared the Jew’s visionary dream, he is positioned as a judge on a central throne, with the Jew and a midwife, the primary witnesses to each form of miraculous light, arranged on either side. The Jew’s high rank is signaled by the fact that he, unlike the Christian midwife, is allowed to sit in the presence of his lord; his pointing finger, crossed legs, and the hand resting on his knee all display his authority.83 And here he wears the by now familiar pointed headgear. The name Aaron assigned to him above and the designation Israhelitain the border inscription, as well as the hat, mark him as the heir of an ancient and exalted—if material and ceremonial—heritage and endorse his testimony as authoritative. He is, however, not bearded; he cannot claim the same degree of wisdom as the prophets (or as the adult Heribert, who is consistently shown bearded once he reaches maturity). The portrayal thus visually demonstrates the Jew’s fulfillment of all the legal requirements of a reliable witness but, like Rupert’s text, limits his testimonial value to a lower realm of knowledge.

But it is not, of course, the iconographic details associated with Aaron the Jew in this single enamel that constitute the shrine’s most powerful proof of Heribert’s sanctity. For many medieval Christian viewers, it was the sheer, glowing, monumental luxury and beauty of the object as a whole that best bore witness to the spiritual greatness of the saint. This reliquary shrine, then, embodies the paradox at the heart of Rupert’s narrative revisions. Let us recall Rupert’s words, that the miracle would “have seemed unbelievable to anyone, if only the light of spiritual grace, which Judaic blindness knows not, had been fit to be conferred.” The saving grace is invisible, but human beings are most powerfully swayed by their senses. This was a truth recognized, and lamented, by Bernard of Clairvaux himself: “The thoroughly beautiful image of some male or female saint is exhibited, and the saint is believed to be more holy the more highly colored the image is.”84 Rupert acknowledged, but unlike Bernard did not disparage, this need for material witness, pointing out that materiality gloriously manifested itself in the saint’s own life and career. He also, however, insisted upon the greater value of the invisible, immaterial glory that was inaccessible to the Jew. The makers of this shrine similarly enlist visible, material beauty and visible, material Jewish witness to signal the greater glory of the unseen bones hidden within, and of the ineffable soul they once housed.

7. Judas Knows

Aaron the Jew, that friendly though outside witness to the power and validity of ecclesiastical splendor, was a benign exemplar of postbiblical Jewish witness. He was the offspring of an idiosyncratic art lover on the defensive in the face of sharp but ultimately short-lived critiques of luxurious church decoration. By the middle of the twelfth century, even Bernard of Clairvaux had relaxed most of his objections to religious art.85 Discussion largely shifted from whether Christians could and should use material objects to seek the truth to how they might do so. And here, too, Jews were enlisted as witnesses, though as often as not, as reluctant ones. Starting around 1150, while Hebrew prophets continued to ratify the (preparatory) value of the literal and material, a range of nonprophetic Jews testify to Christian triumph with far less grace.

In an artwork known as the Stavelot Triptych we encounter just such a reluctant Jewish witness.86 [Fig. 10] This object was made for Abbot Wibald of Stavelot, a major figure in the political and ecclesiastical life of the Holy Roman Empire. In his youth Wibald had studied at the cathedral school of Liège under Rupert of Deutz; he then went on to serve as schoolmaster at the imperial Abbey of Stavelot (the final home of Goderanus and owner of one of his two great illuminated Bibles). In 1130 he was elected abbot of Stavelot and was invested in office by Emperor Lothair himself. The emperor did not allow Wibald to devote himself solely to Stavelot, however. Wibald was asked to escort the imperial fleet to Italy in 1136; in 1147 he led an expedition against pagan Slavs during the Second Crusade (which was preached by Bernard of Clairvaux); and in the following years he was sent on no fewer than four diplomatic missions to Rome and two to Constantinople.87 In addition to his political and ecclesiastical prominence, Wibald was also a major patron of the arts; indeed, he has been compared to Abbot Suger of Saint-Denis in the depth of his artistic interests and influence.88 He is known to have commissioned several luxurious illuminated manuscripts as well as a range of enamel and metal liturgical objects, including a reliquary head of the sainted Pope Alexander II and a (now lost) massive retable dedicated to his monastery’s patron saint.89 As scholar and monk, cleric and politician, soldier and diplomat, art lover and abbot, then, Wibald spent his life negotiating the boundaries between cloister and world, mind and body, spirit and matter.


FIG. 10

All these themes come into play in the beautiful triptych he had made to display his most precious relic. On Wibald’s first visit to Constantinople, in 1154, he obtained a piece of the True Cross and a nail from the Crucifixion; it is believed that he commissioned the Stavelot Triptych the following year to house these treasures. Wibald’s visit to the ancient Eastern capital, greatest center of Christian visual devotion and storehouse of holy artifacts, seems to have further stimulated his interest in the relationship between matter and spirit. In the triptych, Jewish figures show how material knowledge and visible objects can serve Christian faith but also demonstrate the limits of such “Jewish” ways of knowing.90

Like the Eilbertus portable altar, the Stavelot Triptych is a highly innovative piece. It consists of a central panel housing older Byzantine reliquaries and two folding wings, each decorated with three enamel roundels illustrating the legend of the finding of the True Cross. It is the earliest known reliquary triptych made in the West and the earliest known reliquary of the True Cross to depict scenes from the legend; it is also the only True Cross reliquary to combine actual Byzantine reliquaries and extensive narrative scenes in this way.91 The thrust of the unique program is to certify the relics’ authenticity, while at the same time guiding the viewer’s devotional experience.

The story told in the enamels, the Judas Cyriacus variation of the legend of the finding of the True Cross, first appeared in Syriac in the fifth century.92 It relates how the Empress Helena, mother of Constantine, the first Christian Roman emperor (r. 306–37), journeyed to the Holy Land and forced a Jew named Judas to show her where the True Cross was buried. Judas was sometimes identified as a descendant of a witness to the Crucifixion and sometimes as a miraculously still living original witness. The text of the legend is redolent with the paradox of Jewish witness: “Because you rejected all his wisdom and cursed him who wanted to save you from the curse [of the law],” Helena says to the Jews, “and have harmed with unclean spit him who with his saliva illuminated your eyes, and you betrayed him who gave life to your dead ones, and because you regarded the light of the truth as darkness and false, the curse that is written in your law came over you.”93 But then she signals her need for Jewish testimony, imperfect though it be: “Choose now therefore for me men from among your midst who know your law, so that they shall answer me everything that I ask them.”94

In fact, the Jews were asked to provide not textual or legal expertise but geographical and historical information about the Crucifixion. As early as the fifth century, and certainly by the twelfth, Christians felt distanced enough from their own history to seek the physical continuity, the informed material testimony that apparently only Jews could provide. Even the holiest of all Christian relics could not be located or venerated without Jewish knowledge and memory. One fifth-century Christian writer found this implication so distressing that he made a point of denying this version of the legend, claiming that Jews had nothing whatsoever to do with the finding of the True Cross, and insisting that Helena was informed solely through “divine signs and dreams.”95 As we have seen, miraculous proofs and individual visions, especially those of females, were treated with caution in the twelfth-century West, which preferred whenever possible to confirm divine visions with reliable testimony and which privileged the Judas Cyriacus version of the story. In the Stavelot Triptych, both the Jew’s qualifications to serve as witness and the limitations of his perception are reinforced through visual signs.

One of the six roundels illustrating the finding of the True Cross shows the haloed and crowned Empress Helena seated on a raised throne and flourishing a scroll that commands, “Show the wood!” [Fig. 11, lower roundel; see also color insert] She is attempting to force a group of reluctant Jews (labeled Iudei), headed up by Judas (also labeled), to reveal the location of the True Cross. All of the seven Jews in the group are wearing soft, low, pointed white hats; of the four faces that are visible, three are bearded. Behind the Jews burns a tall, brightly colored mass of flames highlighted by the inscription Ignis: this is the punishment with which the Jews are threatened should they refuse to reveal their knowledge. Although most of the scenes on the triptych follow Byzantine pictorial models, these two iconographic elements are wholly original—hats were never shown on Jews in Byzantine versions of the legend, and no Eastern artworks include the fire that burns behind the Jews.96 William Voelkle, who wrote the first extensive study of this object, confessed himself unable fully to account for these unique visual features.97 He assumes that the pointed hats are inspired by headgear actually worn by twelfth-century Jews. As I have argued, there is little evidence for this. And his very tentative suggestion that the fire was somehow connected to forced conversions of Jews in the twelfth century is even more problematic, given the lack of evidence for any use of fire in the few recorded instances of such forced conversions before about 1160, which in any case were flagrant violations of both canon and imperial law—something Wibald would be unlikely to countenance.98


FIG. 11

If we consider the roundel in the light of Rupert’s rewriting of the Heribert Vita and the other images we have examined, we can begin to approach a clearer understanding of the signs. The entire episode, of course, hinges upon Jews’ knowledge of the antique past. The hats worn by all the Jews, by 1155 artistic signs solidly associated with ancient Israelites, confirm their authority to speak to that past, while also signaling the restriction of that authority to purely material matters. They likewise confirm the Jews’ outsider status. In this case, however, in contrast to Rupert’s Jewish witness, Judas is no compliant friend. Indeed, he displays a deep reluctance to reveal his knowledge—he hangs back and clutches his beard in consternation as the Jews behind him gesture vigorously and cry out, according to a scroll they hold in their hands, “Judas knows!”99 The tendency for reluctant witnesses to commit perjury was recognized in Roman law, which recommended that torture be applied in such cases and prescribed severe punishments for forgery or lying under oath: either drowning or death by fire.100 This, I believe, explains the visual highlighting of the fire, the second peculiarity of the roundel; it may also explain the river flowing in the foreground.101 Helena, seated on a throne and wearing a crown, is represented as a queen and judge, rather than as a devout pilgrim. She (and the artist) assures that the Jews will provide reliable testimony by threatening them with the appropriate judicial penalties.

No Jew, however, witnesses the miracles that subsequently confirm Judas’s testimony. In the roundel in which he digs up the cross, which is just above the scene in which Helena threatens Judas, Judas’s head is bent downward. His gaze encompasses only the physical wooden cross itself, buried in the earth. Unlike Helena and the assistant behind her, he seems not to see the heavenly light or the divine hand that emerge from the sky above. And there are no Jews at all in a third roundel, in which the True Cross shows its authenticity and power by helping a bishop revive a dead youth, illuminated by rays. Although most textual versions of the legend identify the bishop who effected the miracle as Judas himself, now converted and promoted to the episcopacy, this image discourages any such identification. The bishop is young and beardless and labeled simply “the holy bishop.”102 If he is the converted Judas, the image concedes no continuity of identity. If, like the disciples at Emmaus, he has been transformed, all visible traces of his previous self have been effaced. Once spiritual vision is attained, “Jewishness” by definition is left behind, utterly excluded.

8. The Jew as Enemy

All the above-mentioned kinds of witness—inspired, material, insufficient, reluctant, and conspicuously absent—come together in one of the most important monuments of the entire twelfth century: the Benedictine Abbey Church of Saint-Denis, constructed by Abbot Suger in 1144–45 and considered the progenitor of all Gothic churches. Much has been written about the stylistic and iconographic innovations of Suger’s church and its centrality in the twelfth-century debate over monastic splendor and ecclesiastical ornamentation.103 The role played by images of Jews in the densely complex program of the abbey’s decoration and furnishings has not yet been fully explored—this is a vast project, which would require a book of its own. I would, however, like to focus on one image in which Jewish vision is a central theme, a stained glass medallion from the window devoted to the life of Moses located in the choir of the church. [Fig. 12] This image, more than any of the others we have seen, demonstrates how Jews’ vision, gestures, and signs were deployed to signal various gradations of perception and so to provide key witness concerning Christian faith and art.


FIG. 12

The medallion depicts a strange episode from the book of Numbers, known as the raising of the brazen serpent (21:4–9). According to this biblical account, after the Israelites had wandered for some time in the desert, they began to murmur against Moses, complaining about the lack of food and water. To punish them for their rebelliousness and faithlessness, God sent “fiery serpents” to bite and kill many of the Israelites. When the remaining Israelites repented and begged Moses for help, God told Moses to “make a brazen serpent, and set it up for a sign: whoever among the stricken shall look on it, shall live.”

In the Saint-Denis medallion, Moses points to the effigy high on a column (which looks more like a winged dragon than a serpent), while the creatures that had been afflicting the people flail at its base. Though the scene seems at first to be a literal rendering of Hebrew history, the artist has added an element not mentioned in Hebrew scripture: a crucifix that closely resembles several twelfth-century enamels rises out of the brazen serpent’s body. This is an unusually explicit rendering of a venerable typological reading: already in the Gospel of John Jesus himself presented the serpent as a figure for the Crucifixion.104 In combining the brazen serpent that healed the stricken with an image of an enamel crucifix, this Saint-Denis image constitutes a clear and vivid manifesto for Christian visual devotion, enlisting the authority of Hebrew antiquity to proclaim the life-bringing powers of the sight of the cross.105 We can extend that insight still further by noting how the Jews’ appearances evoke a spiritual hierarchy of vision and witness. Moses, the prophet who saves his people with the tangible object but also provides them with the biblical prophecies that (in the Christian reading) indicate its more transcendent meaning, is identical to the prophets on the Eilbertus altar, the Heribert shrine, and many other contemporary artworks: bareheaded, barefoot, bearded, and haloed. Indeed, he is distinctly Christlike in appearance. Unusually for a brazen serpent scene from this period, Moses has a considerable audience. The foremost figures among the Israelites who look on are bearded and wear cloaks and pointed hats similar to those worn by Aaron the German Jew, Judas Cyriacus, and the as yet unenlightened Emmaus disciple. Although these Israelites have seen the brazen serpent and so have been healed, it is not clear whether they can see the body of Christ on the crucifix above—their line of sight is blocked by the horizontal bar that extends above them.106 The Israelites on the right, displaying their palms in obedient prayer, seem to be trying to discern the cross; two men on the left seem less moved. On the horizontal bar a third kind of witness is hinted at. For the inscription notes, “Just as the brazen serpent slays all serpents, so Christ raised on the cross slays his enemies.”107 “Enemy” is an ominous word that makes no appearance in the Gospel accounts of the Crucifixion. Nor does the Bible say that the brazen serpent killed the poisonous serpents. Enmity did, of course, appear in Augustine, who cited the Jews’ outsider status and hostility to Christ as the most powerful possible confirmation of the truth of their testimony. Christ’s slain enemies are here portrayed not as Jews but as basilisk-like creatures lying dead at Moses’s feet. But the Jews’ enmity, and their consequent damnation, will soon make its way into art.

*   *   *

It is natural and tempting to link the proliferation of Jewish imagery examined in this chapter with contemporary anti-Jewish texts and to see these images as expressions of the intolerance that came to mark high medieval Christendom.108 But although it is clear that these artworks are strongly influenced by debates over scriptural interpretation and reflect deep disapproval of Jewish literal understanding, intellectual trends alone cannot explain artistic innovation. Differences in medium and audience must be taken into account; the function of images and the material circumstances in which they were made must be considered. I have suggested that the most immediate and compelling context is the challenge posed by ecclesiastical reform to traditional ritual, ornament, and grandeur and, more generally, by the desire of many twelfth-century monks, priests, and prelates to make room within spirituality for opulent artworks. And that the primary realm in which these religious images must be understood is the realm in which religious imagery was used: Christian devotion. They were made for traditionalist clerics or Benedictine monks grappling with the implications of a burgeoning new commercial economy—the very economy that made lavish decoration possible, often through the medium of Jews.109Like Rupert of Deutz, these art patrons continued to be moved by ritual and grandeur and, though committed to reform and purification, spurned the more ascetic practices and ideals of the early Cistercians. By creating artworks that use Hebrew history to confirm the role of tangible objects in conveying spiritual knowledge but then portray Jews as seeing incompletely, they construct the idea of a Christian way of looking at and using art. The function of Jews in these images is not to rehabilitate Jews as spiritual witnesses but to rehabilitate the realm long rhetorically associated with Jews (the external, glorious, temporal world so inimical to early Cistercians) as a valid part of Christianity. These figures are then joined—never replaced—by other Jews who function as outside, reluctant, and uncomprehending, and hence all the more reliable and compelling, witnesses to the power of Christianity.

If we cannot see the artistic representation of the Jew as a straightforward reflection of contemporary attitudes toward Jews, the artistic trends we have examined here can help illuminate developments in contemporary Christian thought about the Jews. As Rupert of Deutz and his brethren asserted the testimonial value of matter and the spiritual uses of art, Augustine’s articulation of Jewish witness acquired new relevance and force. Ideas that had previously been exclusively textual and largely metaphorical were given visual expression and tangible form. And, in turn, these images subtly affected the realm of ideas. A (perhaps unintended) side effect of their representational strategy was graphically to demonstrate the Jews’ stagnancy, sterility, materiality, and subordination—themes that had always been present in Christian thought but that received new emphasis in twelfth-century texts. Until about the year 1160, the primary impetus for such images seems not to have been antagonism toward, or even a desire to say something about, contemporary Jews. But soon, for reasons related both to the history examined here and to further intra-Christian devotional developments, images that were more readily—and negatively—associated with contemporary Jews began to come very much to the fore.

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