Post-classical history



Loveless Looking and the Unlovely Christ, CA. 1160–1220


For truth has such a face and such a mien,

As to be lov’d, needs only to be seen.

—John Dryden (1631–1700), The Hind and the Panther

In the 1160s Christ was gazed upon by a new kind of Jew. As we have seen, Jews had become increasingly evident in Christian imagery over the course of the previous eighty or so years. Their presence sometimes served to legitimate the opulent artworks in which they appeared and sometimes to emphasize the outdated and insufficiently spiritual nature of Jewish ritual and understanding. But in either case, as relics of the biblical past and witnesses to Christian truth, Jews were represented with dignity, if not sympathy; they were unencumbered by any distinctive physical or facial features and unmoved by any strong emotion. Then, in the second half of the twelfth century, the depiction of Jews began to change. While venerable prophets continued to bear positive visual witness, many other Jews came to play more aggressive roles and to be endowed with ungainly, glowering, even distorted features and expressions. The vast majority of these Jews directed their scowls toward images of Christ. What inspired this new intensity of feeling? How can we explain this new artistic focus on Jews’ features and expressions?

1. One and the Same Man

To begin to answer these questions, let us consider a famous Latin monastic text of around 1170 purporting to be the autobiography of a Jewish convert to Christianity originally named Judah and subsequently known as Herman.1 Early in the autobiography, the author describes the first time he walked, when still a young Jewish man, into a Christian church. [Fig. 1; see also color insert] Judah/Herman vividly relates his shocked reaction to the art all around him:

I was entering the basilica (which formerly I had dreaded as a kind of pagan temple) still not so much devout as curious. Most eagerly examining everything there, I see, among the skillfully wrought varieties of carvings and pictures, a certain monstrous idol. I discern, indeed, one and the same man humiliated and exalted, despised and raised up, ignominious and glorious. Below, he is miserably hanging on a cross. Above, in a deceiving picture, he is seated and most handsome, as if deified. I confess I was stupefied, suspecting that the images were idols of the type that paganism used to fashion for itself in deluded error.2


FIG. 1

In many respects this passage (written, it should be remembered, by a Christian monk) perfectly encapsulates the themes examined in chapter 2: the centrality of the image in Christian worship, the importance of Jewish witness to the Christian imagination, and the inadequacy of Jewish vision. Like Count Hugo’s Jewish friend, Judah/Herman can recognize glory when he sees it. But also like that other German Jew, he maintains a purely superficial conception of glory, noting only the external aspects (skillfully wrought, hanging and seated, monstrous and handsome) and social implications (humiliated and despised, exalted and glorious) of Christ’s presentation. And of course, he sees only the Man in the God/Man. Because Judah/Herman fails to perceive the spiritual reality underlying the material image, he mistakes a devotional aid for a pagan idol.

In other respects, this narrative of a Jew’s encounter with images is different from those we have met before. The testimonial value of our previous Jewish witnesses—whether Hebrew prophets, scriptural Israelites, New Testament Judeans, or postbiblical houseguests and scholars—hinged uponknowledge, perception, and comprehension: our attention was drawn to what they either knew or did not know, saw or did not see and highlighted their faulty understanding. This passage, however, by presenting Judah/Herman as an utterly naïve viewer, ostensibly unaware of the identity of the figure whose images he encounters (he refers only to “one and the same man,” without naming Christ, and expresses a very unconvincing surprise that Christians might regard their savior as a deity), shifts our focus from cognition to sensation. It opens and closes by detailing Judah/Herman’s state of mind (devout, curious, eager, stupefied) and emphasizes throughout his emotional reactions, vividly conveying what Judah/Herman felt and did not feel in the presence of art.3 What we sense more than anything else, as this aging convert relates his first intimate encounter with church decoration, is the visceral intensity of his response—his awe at the craftsmanship, his fascination with the bright images, his disgust at the image of the hanging man, his shock at the temerity of painting a deity, of worshipping a carving. Although he is obviously deeply moved by the visual richness around him, he cannot channel his emotions appropriately, feeling neither delight in Christ’s beauty nor pity for Christ’s suffering.4 Only much later, after Judah has entered a monastery and decided to accept baptism, is he able to reconcile the dualities in Christ’s representation and so respond with the proper ardor:

There [in a dream], I saw the Lord Jesus sitting on the highest throne in the most powerful and honorable Majesty of the Father. And in place of a scepter, he was holding the triumphant sign of the cross upon his right shoulder. As he appeared to me, ineffable, together with his most excellent friends [angels or saints], I was standing, delighting inestimably in the sweetness of contemplating him …

But then, once again, Jews are summoned to embody the failure of vision. The sentence continues:

… when, behold, two sons of my aunt, one named Nathan and the other Isaac, passed behind me walking quickly, so that from this rapid passage of theirs I understood that this blessedness had been shown to them, not for solace but in demonstration of their everlasting punishment, so that from it they might be tortured inwardly in the mind by the fact that that glory of the holy ones which they were seeing, they were not worthy fully to enjoy.5

Judah’s delight is thrown into sharp relief, as his faith has been confirmed, by the sight of his two Jewish cousins tortured by a glimpse of a party to which they are not invited.

Judah/Herman’s text thus presents in narrative form traditional Christian theory, which insists that a deeper spiritual meaning is hidden beneath the material surface of the word/image, but also something new: an emphasis on compassion and emotion. In this respect it is characteristic of contemporary devotional trends. From the time of Bernward of Hildesheim, the focus of Christian veneration had begun to shift from the triumphant divine judge to the suffering human savior. This trend accelerated considerably in the twelfth century. By the second half of the century, spurred especially by the tender and expressive writings of Bernard of Clairvaux (d. 1153), Christian devotions were increasingly characterized by deep emotionalism, attention to Christ’s humanity, and intensified stress on love and compassion.6

These changes also help illuminate developments in the representation of the Jew. Just as Judah/Herman’s shock at Christ’s abjection revealed his lack of empathy, so now the heartlessness of “Jewish” looking was displayed in art for all Christendom to see. 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. [Fig. 2] More ominously still, Christ’s crucifiers are for the first time explicitly portrayed as Jews and endowed with unprecedentedly coarse, even grotesque faces.

Two north German images, both dating to around 1165–70, help explain this shift and elucidate why, after so many centuries in which Christians blamed Jews for the Crucifixion without expressing that blame in pictures, Jews were suddenly singled out as guilty and visually marked as evil. Both of these images juxtapose visually striking Jewish figures with a suffering and vulnerable Christ and enlist a range of techniques to underscore the Jews’ culpability in the Crucifixion.


FIG. 2

2. May Their Eyes Be Darkened

The first image is the illuminated initial to Psalm 68 (Vulgate) from a manuscript of Peter Lombard’s Commentary on the Psalms made for Hartwig I, archbishop of Bremen, in 1166.7 [Fig. 3; see also color insert] This psalm, in which the psalmist bewails his own suffering and reproaches his persecutors, was understood by most medieval Christian commentators to refer to Christ’s suffering on the cross.8 It opens with the cry “Save me, Oh God!” and includes verses (21–23) traditionally applied to the Crucifixion: “In thy sight are all they that afflict me.… And they gave me gall for my food, and in my thirst they gave me vinegar to drink. Let their table become as a snare before them, and a recompense, and an offense. Let their eyes be darkened that they see not; and their back bend Thou down always.” The initial, accordingly, presents an image of the Crucifixion. This scene is juxtaposed, as in the Saint-Denis stained glass roundel discussed in chapter 2, with Moses’s raising of the brazen serpent (see ch. 2, fig. 12). The illumination therefore draws attention to the foreshadowing of Christ’s sacrifice in Hebrew scripture. It also, again like the Saint-Denis roundel, dedicates considerable space to the Israelite viewers of the brazen serpent, highlighting the Jews’ failure to see that Christ’s death fulfilled the promise inherent in the earlier episode.


FIG. 3

In spite of their manifest similarities, the two renderings of the brazen serpent scene present striking contrasts. In the Saint-Denis window, it will be recalled, the Israelites were rendered as respected though imperfect witnesses, and they gazed at the brazen serpent—if not necessarily at Christ—with reverence. That image seemed to hold out hope that the Israelites’ physical recovery might presage their eventual salvation. Christ’s enemies, whose death was celebrated in the inscription, were not identified as Jews in the stained glass medallion but rather embodied in the fantastic creatures that fell dead at the Israelites’ feet. In the Bremen manuscript, by contrast, there is no hint of hope concerning the Jews’ salvation and no ambiguity concerning Christ’s enemies. The brazen serpent scene, the focal point of the Saint-Denis window, is here relegated to the bottom half of the initial. Although Moses, on the right, appears as we have come to expect him—bearded and bareheaded, wearing archaizing robes and making a gesture of blessing—the rest of the image breaks with precedent in a variety of ways. The brazen serpent is not a statue but a realistically rendered snake hanging limply from a string looped around its neck and attached to a stake planted in front of the shaft of the cross. This mortal creature is far less imposing than the column-mounted winged beast in Suger’s window and many other twelfth-century images. Its appearance suggests weakness and vulnerability rather than life-giving power, and its hanging, tethered position invokes captivity and death rather than triumph.9 It also recalls Judah/Herman’s description of Christ as “miserably hanging,” which itself reflected the medieval Jewish habit of referring to Jesus as “the hanged one.”10 With one exception—a bearded figure in the middle of the group—the men who look on from the left bear little resemblance to Moses, to the Israelites in the Saint-Denis medallion, or to any other earlier Hebrews, Israelites, or Jews. Their faces and clothing convey nothing in the way of antiquity, authority, or wisdom—most of these men are beardless and quite young-looking, and dressed in fashionable, close-fitting, open-necked tunics.11 Their peaked hats are soft, broad-brimmed, and fairly short, quite unlike the miter-type headgear of the Saint-Denis Israelites. In this context, these hats, drawn down low over the Israelites’ foreheads so as to convey a sense of brutishness, seem here to signify not so much antique authority as presumptuous insolence, a defiant rejection of Moses’s life-giving guidance. The Israelites’ stances are certainly insolent: two of these Hebrews point aggressively, one toward his right and one upward toward the Crucifixion, as if to challenge the power and authority of both Moses and Christ.12 But it is the faces of the three Israelites in the foreground that are most striking: they have conspicuously large, long, almost beak-like downward-sloping noses, thick lips, heavily lidded eyes, and ungainly projecting chins. The awkwardness of these features is accentuated by their profile presentation. Although these Israelites have evidently not succumbed to death (their eyes are wide open), there is no sign that they have been healed by the sight of the brazen serpent: the snakes they clutch in their hands continue to bite at their chins, necks, and faces. Indeed, an affiliation with, even a thirst for, blood and death is expressed on the scroll clutched by the foremost figure among these men, which reads—anticipating the cry of the murderous Jerusalem mob in Matthew 25:27—“His blood be upon us.”13

This ominous cry is literally realized in the Crucifixion scene. Christ—whose sorrowful expression, pale and naked torso, bent knees, and leaning head embody the new devotional and visual emphases on his humanity and vulnerability—bleeds directly from his hand wounds onto the heads of the figures tormenting him on either side. These two tormentors—one pierces Christ’s side with a lance and the other offers a sponge dipped in vinegar—are unmistakably marked as Jews: in addition to their very conspicuous beards (one is thick and dark and the other is long, pointed, and trailing across its owner’s shoulder), they wear pointed hats identical to those of the Israelites below. Such categorical association of these figures with Jewishness constitutes a noteworthy departure from artistic precedent. Following the lead of the Gospels, previous imagery had depicted the lance bearer (traditionally called Longinus) and sponge giver (known as Stephaton) as Roman soldiers.14 Their faces, too, link these tormentors to their serpent-bitten ancestors and distinguish them from the other figures in the scene: they are drawn in sharp profile and have thick lips, heavily lidded eyes, and large, thick noses. The nose of the man on the right is, in addition, distinctly crooked or hooked. Their expressions contrast starkly with the sorrow and compassion evident in the faces of Mary, John, and Jesus himself: the lance bearer on the left, who has a notably dark complexion, stares blankly into the face of Jesus, while the sponge bearer pulls down his brow and mouth in a frown or scowl. Finally, their iniquity is crystallized in their physical intimacy with a venerable symbol of evil—a dragon. One tormentor straddles the leg of the reptilian winged creature whose body forms the letter S of Salvum me, and the other rides his wing. In sum, unlike the Saint-Denis roundel, which highlights the salvation of the faithful prefigured in Numbers and fulfilled in the Crucifixion, this commentary image stresses the looks, actions, and cruel vision of the unfaithful. Through word and symbol it marks these unfaithful as Jews, and through feature and expression, gesture and gaze it affiliates these Jews with coarseness, insolence, and death.

3. Misbegotten Flesh and Misdirected Gaze

Our second image, a reliquary casket from the Westphalia–north Rhine region, also dating to around 1170 and now displayed in the Louvre, shares many of the same characteristics.15 [Fig. 4] On the lid of the casket is an engraved and enameled scene of Christ being nailed to the cross. This is a new subject for Christian art, very rare for the period, which was presumably inspired by the growing devotional focus on the human Christ: it serves to shift the emphasis of Crucifixion imagery from Christ’s triumph over death to his suffering and sacrifice.16 Christ’s aspect, again, reflects the new trend toward greater vulnerability: he is uncrowned, his head falls awkwardly onto his right shoulder, very much like the head of a hanged man, his body dangles helplessly with no visible means of support (there is, unusually, no suppedaneum, or footrest), his hair is disheveled, and his exposed torso is pale and drawn, the straining of his skin across his ribs accented with striated lines (this imagery was probably inspired by Psalm 21:18, “They numbered all my bones”). Three figures look on from each side as four far smaller executioners busily affix Jesus to the cross in the center. The figures watching from the right, one of whom is bearded and two of whom are beardless with short, curly hair, are probably meant to be understood as Gentiles, while the three figures looking on from the left are clearly marked as Jews: all are bearded and wear broad-brimmed hats.


FIG. 4

Although the center of the image hums with activity, the bulk of the piece’s considerable drama resides in the attitudes and gestures of the side figures. One of the Gentiles holds a basket of nails and vigorously grabs Jesus’s wrist, while his two companions seem to be debating the nature of the event they are witnessing. The Jew closest to Jesus points aggressively upward toward Jesus as if to instruct the executioners; with his other hand he offers a nail. The Jew on the far left makes a gesture we have seen before: he pulls his beard, an action that expresses disturbance of mind, though it is unclear whether he feels rage, fear, consternation, or resentment toward Christ—or, alternately, grief at his death or awe in the presence of the divine.17 But the most vivid visage of all belongs to the Jew in the center of the group. His stark profile flaunts a large, hooked nose, all out of proportion both to his own face and to the other noses on the casket, though strikingly similar to that of the sponge bearer in the Bremen Psalms commentary initial.18 His oversized nose and sharp profile draw attention to the angle of his head, turned ostentatiously away from the sight of Christ, and so links the Jew’s misbegotten flesh to his misdirected gaze.

4. Goad of Love

Together, then, the Bremen Psalms initial and the Westphalian casket signal a significant shift in the representation of the Jew: they belong to the first generation of artworks that explicitly mark some or all of Christ’s crucifiers and tormentors as Jews, they endow these Jews with unprecedentedly coarse, even grotesque faces, and they use these distortions to call negative attention to the Jews’ reactions to the sight of Christ.

The visual sources for and fundamental meaning of these features are no mystery. Long or large, downward-curved, snout-like or beak-like noses, especially when combined with brutish expressions and shaggy beards, had long served as visual indicators of bestiality, brutality, irrationality, and evil.19 So, for example, the devil was routinely portrayed with a beak-like or snout-like nose, as in a stained glass panel from Champagne dating to about 1170, where Satan’s folly in seeking to tempt Christ is embodied in his gross features. [Fig. 5] Similar bestial features appear in contemporary artworks in association with a range of historical and biblical villains, from enemies of the Israelites to pagan killers of the early saints and the Syrian opponents of the Maccabees.20 [Fig. 6] But there is no reason to think that before the period in question (the 1160s and 1170s) these figures or their features would automatically have been “read” as Jewish. It is only now, in images such as the Bremen initial and the Westphalian casket, that art viewers were presented with bestial and demonic imagery unambiguously applied to Jews, and, especially, to Christ’s Jewish killers and tormentors.


FIG. 5


FIG. 6

It was not traditional Christian condemnation of Judaism or the Jews’ role in the Crucifixion that spurred this imagery. To repeat a point made earlier: in spite of ample allegations of Jewish deicide made over many centuries in Christian liturgy, commentary, and polemic, with very few exceptions Christ’s executioners had not before this period been explicitly portrayed as Jews in art. Nor had any Hebrews, Israelites, or Jews been assigned such strangely distorted features.

In spite of our images’ apparent invocation of Jewish physical difference, we can also rule out any intensifying sense of Jewish “racial” or ethnic “otherness” as the inspiration for the new iconography.21 Although the largish, beak-like noses of the Israelites, and even more the hooked noses of the sponge bearer and the central Jew on the Westphalian casket, are reminiscent of those assigned Jews in modern racialist anti-Semitic caricature, they do not necessarily bear the same meaning.22 No Christian texts written up to this point attribute any particular physical characteristics to Jews, much less refer to the existence of a peculiar “Jewish nose.” Christian invective of the period (and there was ample and fierce anti-Jewish invective) maligns Jews’ moral, spiritual, and intellectual qualities, historical crimes, and interpretive shortcomings, but not their bodies or faces.23No artworks before this period had depicted Jews with such noses, or for that matter with any specific facial characteristics at all, other than the beard, which could bear positive as well as negative connotations. For the rest of the century, and for several decades beyond, the shape of Jews’ noses in art would remain too varied to constitute markers of identity. That is, many different kinds of “bad” noses were shown on Jews, but the same noses were shown on many “bad” non-Jews as well, and there was no single, identifiable “Jewish” nose. There is, thus, no evidence that twelfth-century Christendom had yet formulated fixed physiognomic Jewish stereotypes.24 (For that matter, it does not seem to have developed physiognomic stereotypes of any kind.25 Though some twelfth-century thinkers were interested in physiognomy, the first Latin moralizing physiognomic treatises appeared only several decades after the Lombard commentary initial was painted, and they attributed an individual’s external appearance not to his or her “ethnicity” or group affiliation but to such factors as the movements of the planets or the humors of the body.26Medieval Christians did distinguish among various “peoples” and articulate concepts akin to “ethnicity,” but it was simply not twelfth-century practice to categorize human populations according to physiognomy, much less facial feature.27 The earliest known medieval “ethnographic monograph,” written about 1194, focused primarily on differences in food, clothing, and customs.28) The ugly noses and coarse features undoubtedly marked their owners as bestial or evil, but they did not—at this point—serve to mark the Jewish people as inherently or irredeemably evil.

There were, however, other developments in contemporary Christian culture that shed light on the new imagery. The first is the appearance of a new kind of Passion narrative. It cannot be mere coincidence that the new anti-Jewish Passion imagery appeared in the same place and time as a work that has been identified as the first anti-Jewish Passion treatise: the Stimulus Amoris (“Goad of Love”) by a monk named Ekbert, from the Benedictine Abbey of Schönau in the Rhineland.29 Ekbert’s treatise (dated ca. 1155–80) is in many ways strikingly similar to our two images: it blames Jews for the Crucifixion, dwells in sometimes horrific detail on their cruelty, describes their raging faces and open mouths, and labels them “bestial,” recalling the beak-like noses and coarse features of our glaring Jews.

A second noteworthy development is the composition of the first text in which Jews were accused of ritually murdering a Christian child—the Life and Miracles of Saint William of Norwich, whose final version was written around 1170 by an English Benedictine monk named Thomas of Monmouth.30 Its description of the little boy’s death is eerily reminiscent of Ekbert’s account of Christ’s Passion—the Jews are said to have tortured William with knotted ropes and then tied him to a cross formed by a post and beams in their house, pierced his hands and feet with nails, wounded his side, and stabbed him in the head with thorns.31 The emphasis throughout is on the Jews’ cruelty, bloodthirstiness, and malice, and their desire to mock Christ in the process of murdering his surrogate, the innocent Christian boy.

Thomas Bestul, the leading scholar of Latin Passion texts, has suggested that the vivid rhetoric of the Stimulus Amoris reflects growing social distance and hostility between Jews and Christians and an “evolving consciousness among Christians of the dominant classes that the Jew was the ‘Other.’”32 However, there is little evidence for any significantly deepening social gulf between Jews and Christians in northern Germany in the 1160s and 1170s. The vicious attacks on Rhineland Jews during the First Crusade (1096) and the far more restricted attacks in the same region during the Second Crusade (1146) did not destroy the Rhenish Jewish communities. To the contrary, aided by an imperial decree that contravened canon law to allow forced converts to return to Judaism and others that placed Jews under the direct protection of the emperor, northern German Jewish communities expanded and flourished in the twelfth century.33 Impossible though it was for German Jews ever to feel fully secure in the wake of those events, and though the challenges faced by Jews living in Crusade-era Christendom should not be minimized, Jewish-Christian relations do not seem to have been fatally poisoned. The relatively short-lived and localized (and largely Crusade-inspired) outbreaks of anti-Jewish violence must be weighed against the considerable evidence for ongoing economic contacts and tranquil if not intimate coexistence. Indeed, Judah/Herman’s own text testifies to considerable Jewish-Christian cooperation and even familiarity: his encounter with church art in Münster took place because he had traveled to that city in order to do business with its bishop, in whose house he stayed as a guest.

Similarly, Thomas of Monmouth’s horrific depiction of Jewish cruelty is not reflective of, and cannot be explained by, the state of Jewish-Christian relations in the England of the time. The 1170s were a period of peace and prosperity for English Jews.34 No anti-Jewish violence had yet been recorded anywhere in the realm. In fact, the Life and Miracles of Saint William itself testifies to a noteworthy lack of general anti-Jewish animus—Thomas wrote it partly out of frustration with the sheriff of Norwich’s pointed refusal to prosecute any Jews for the boy’s death (which had occurred almost thirty years earlier) and with the fact that the cult of the “martyr,” which Thomas strongly promoted, had been very slow to take off. Moreover, in describing the boy’s interactions with the Jewish community of Norwich, the text draws a picture of considerable Jewish-Christian peaceful coexistence and even neighborliness.

Thus, although Ekbert’s treatise and Thomas of Monmouth’s narrative, like our artworks, offer an extremely negative view of Jews’ natures and of their relation to Jesus (and his stand-in, the Christian child), we must be cautious in attributing that negative view to either worsening Jewish-Christian relations or an intensified sense of inherent Jewish difference. We should, instead, look to the audience and function of the texts in question. The Stimulus Amoris was written in Latin, for a monastic readership—that is, for men (and perhaps women) trained not to look at and judge the world outside their monastery walls, much less the unbelievers who might reside there, but to seek out and eradicate the sin within their own hearts. And its explicit goal was to stimulate love for Christ, suggesting that the existence of such love could not be taken for granted, even among devout monks, nuns, and clerics. The Life and Miracles of Saint William was designed to arouse pity and reverence for, and encourage pilgrimage to the shrine of, a child whose “martyrdom” had so far failed to excite widespread religious enthusiasm. Both texts, then, underscored Jewish hatred and cruelty primarily in order to address perceived inadequacies in Christian piety. Even these most anti-Jewish of texts thus implicitly concede that Jews were by no means the only figures in medieval Europe lacking the requisite spiritual fervor or all too liable to descend into sin.

5. Whose Gaze? Jews Then and Sinners Today

Such a concern is detectable in our images as well. For the portrayals of these Jewish viewers, for all their hideousness and hostility, are not without ambiguities. In the Lombard commentary initial (fig. 3) there is an anomalous Israelite viewer—the bearded figure who resembles Moses and is depicted in three-quarter rather than profile view and yet wears a “Jewish” hat and, like his fellows, clutches a living snake. This figure undermines any easy dichotomies: he is neither condemned nor saved simply because he is Jewish; his fate seems to hang in the balance. Peter Lombard’s commentary, adjacent to the image, explicitly concedes that Jews had no monopoly on unbelief: “Therefore just as Jews then gave a bitter drink for drinking, so too now today do all who in evil living make a scandal in the Church.… ‘Let their eyes be darkened,’ that is, let [heretics’ and sinners’] minds [be darkened], because they refuse to understand … but rather think about lower things.”35 This remark forces viewers to reconsider the apparent message of the anti-Jewish iconography. Rather than comfortably assigning evil solely to “Jews then,” they are encouraged to contemplate the evil that exists “now today” among Christians. The image helps its viewers appropriately respond to such evil by concretizing the repellent effects of darkened sight and by suggesting a superior form of seeing: compassionate contemplation of the image of Christ.36 (It is worth noting that although these images undoubtedly implicate Jews in Christ’s death, their emphasis is less on the pain inflicted by the Jews than on their failure to perceive that pain or pity their victim. In each case Christ is pale and passive but hardly abject: he does not display the excessive suffering, wounds, or blood that will come to characterize later medieval Crucifixions.)

Ambiguities likewise mark the witnesses on the Westphalian casket (see fig. 4). The image envisions two sets of deicides, one Jewish and one non-Jewish. The presence of the young and curly-haired Gentile holding the basket of nails and conspicuously grabbing Christ’s wrist forcefully reminds the viewer that guilt did not accrue to Jews alone. Moreover, the artist has crafted subtle divisions within each group. The two Gentiles on the right seem to be debating between themselves, perhaps disagreeing about the identity of Christ or the justness of the Crucifixion. The Jews, too, are less uniform and united than their surface similarities would suggest. The figure on the far left pulling his beard in rage or contempt seems to be signaling hostility toward Christ. But his cloak is drawn down in such a way as to cover his hand. The veiling of the hands is an ancient custom expressing veneration in the presence of the sacred and/or respect in the presence of the dead; Christian artists, for example, often depicted the “just and devout” Simeon with covered hands in images of the Presentation, and Hebrew seers hold the scrolls of their Christological prophecies with veiled hands.37 [Fig. 7] Veiled hands may also express grief, as on folio 11v of the Paris Psalter (Canterbury, ca. 1180), where a man lifts his sleeve-covered hand to his face in grief.38 [Fig. 8] The gesture, then, may indicate that this Jew recognizes and reveres the divinity of Jesus and/or grieves at Jesus’s death. His pulling of his beard likewise may express grief. Alternately, it may serve to direct rage or contempt not toward Christ but toward the Jew’s coreligionists. The point is not that we must definitively decide but that we must ask.


FIG. 7


FIG. 8

Finally, let us consider the strangest features of the entire scene: the bizarre-looking vine branches growing out of the heads of the central figures in each group (at first glance they resemble antlers more than anything). These branches are explained by the words inscribed around the borders: “Oh my chosen vine, why have you turned to bitterness, and why do you crucify me?”39 The words belong to a responsum from the Good Friday liturgy and seem tailor-made to indict the Jews; the antiphon that precedes this responsum contains a telling phrase: “And there rose up against me hostile witnesses.”40 The “bitterness” of the central Jewish witness is, indeed, etched in the crass features of his left-looking face. Yet Christ’s reproach was frequently applied to Christians by preachers, who considered the faithful to be Christ’s “chosen vine” and who yet saw actual and potential sinners when they looked upon their flocks.41 And, of course, the same bitter vine emerges from the head of the central Gentile, whose visage, while less crassly configured than that of the Jew, also turns away from the sight of the savior.

Through such diversity and ambiguity, the viewers of these artworks are encouraged to meditate less upon the group affiliations of those who contemplate Christ than upon their individual responses, as well as upon the nature and effects of improper contemplation.42 Far from indicting only or even primarily Jews, the images generously spread sinful response across humanity. And they warn that all who regard Christ wrongly—who question the salvific power of his representation or who fail to gaze at his body and image with the requisite humility and love—embody brutishness and will ultimately see and receive only blood and death.

6. Neither Beauty nor Grace

Our images are not alone in expressing concern about how Christians might respond to the sight of Christ. The crucifix had, of course, been the central image of Christianity for many centuries.43 Yet during the course of the twelfth century, devotional trends emphasizing personal prayer, individualized meditation, and contemplation of the human Jesus combined with the ongoing “image explosion” to render images of the Crucifixion far more prominent than ever before. In addition to the crosses now fixed permanently on church altars and the triumphal crucifixes hung high above the heads of congregants, small-scale crucifixes began to adorn individual monastic cells and private domestic spaces, and devotional manuscripts featuring intimate portrayals of the Crucifixion proliferated.44 The appearance of the crucifix also changed substantially. Bernward of Hildesheim’s tender and intimate image of the crucified Christ (see ch. 1, fig. 9) had had relatively limited immediate influence: for more than a century after its creation, Christ on the cross generally continued to be depicted alive, erect, open-eyed, and unscathed, a serenely regal and triumphant king and victor.45 In the second half of the twelfth century, as the new devotions spread across Western Europe, the more tender image prevailed. It was only very recently, then, that Christ had come to be portrayed as he appears in our two images: naked, slumped, weakened, and wounded—a humbled and vulnerable mortal victim. [Fig. 9]

Artistic developments certainly contributed to this change, most notably a trend toward greater naturalism in depicting the human form, spurred by the revival of interest in classical art and increased contact with Byzantium and its strong traditions of devotional imagery.46 But the most important impetus was the changing devotional ethos of Latin Christendom. As Christian texts meditated on the loving sacrifice offered by Christ in becoming man, artists gave his humanity and mortality visual form. Christ’s humble appearance likewise dovetailed with the asceticism of the reformist orders, which were deeply suspicious of external glory. Indeed, a range of texts dating toward the middle of the century anticipated the new artistic trends by explicitly drawing inspiration from Christ’s unsightliness. Prior Guigo of Chartreuse (d. 1136), for example, insisted that Christ’s humiliation was a sign of divinity, and he vaunted Christ’s lack of beauty as a model for Carthusian austerity: “affixed to the cross without sightliness or beauty [cf. Isa. 53:2]: thus is the Truth to be adored.”47 The reformers may have lost the battle against ornamentation, but they did not concede the aesthetic war, insisting that plainness conveyed authenticity, was the ultimate expression of the “unvarnished truth.” It was probably a new-style image of a naked and vulnerable Christ that so shocked and repelled Judah/Herman—remember the insistence with which he contrasted the richly clad and enthroned “seeming deity” with the humbled hanging man below. This contrast would have lost much edge had the crucified Jesus been triumphantly crowned, colored, and fully clothed.


FIG. 9

Jews were not the only ones discomfited by the unwonted sight of a naked and defeated deity. Mary and John also express shock and distress in crucifixion scenes, though in a different emotional register, serving as visual exemplars of empathy as they cover their eyes with weeping, clasp their breasts in mourning, and lean or sway in the pain of grief.48 But their model was not an easy one to follow. The new tendency to represent Christ as naked, humbled, and dead or dying posed a challenge to some Christian viewers, who were used to revering an outwardly majestic Christ and who lived in a world that still very much valued power and beauty, status and victory. An iconographic note in a twelfth-century manuscript detailed Christ’s appearance for the artist, so that he might create an appropriate image: “Christ was tall and lofty in stature, and at the shoulders higher than those who preceded or followed him. He was handsomely dressed according to the habit of his religion, with black hair and a long beard.”49 Even Anselm, archbishop of Canterbury, pioneer of the new, human-centered devotions, drew the line when it came to art: “I am wont to be incensed against sorry artists, when I see our Lord himself painted in an unseemly figure.”50 Yet this was exactly what the new images presented for Christian contemplation.

The challenge posed by Christ’s inglorious appearance was sometimes directly addressed by the written word. So, for example, in an anonymous Cistercian or Carthusian Meditation on the crucifix dating to around 1170, almost certainly inspired by a new-style image of a dying Christ, Jesus on the cross implores the Christian gazing back at him not to be repelled by his outward ugliness:

“O my beloved! You who so often have desired to enjoy the kiss of my mouth, announcing to me through my companions, ‘he kissed me with the kiss of his mouth’ [Cant. 1.1], I am ready, I incline my head, I offer my mouth for a kiss, however many times it pleases. And do not say in your heart, ‘I do not seek that mouth, which is without beauty and loveliness [cf. Isa. 53.2], but rather that glorious one, which the angelic citizens always desire to enjoy.’ Do not, do not err thus, for unless first you will have kissed affectionately that [unlovely] mouth, you will not be able to reach that [glorious] one at all. Therefore, kiss that mouth which now I offer to you, since though it may be without beauty and loveliness, nevertheless, it is not without grace.”51

The author of this Meditation recognized the potential for aesthetic revulsion and, by inspiring guilt for such revulsion in his readers, harnessed the very intensity of their distaste to devotional ends. Judah/Herman’s “autobiography” does much the same but projects the revulsion onto an already religiously reviled figure. By presenting a Jew recoiling in disgust from Christ’s image, it provokes the reader (a Christian canon or monk) to distance himself from the Jew’s reaction. But the very need to do so implicitly acknowledges the potential for such recoil in every Christian reader.

7. Jewish Eyes

This, then, explains the hideous and hostile Jews in our images. They do not appear here because Jews iconographically marked as such must needs be included in Crucifixion scenes. Rather, when Christian makers of art sought to teach their viewers how properly to contemplate the image of Christ, they turned to the figures that, during the course of the previous seventy years and more, had been established in Christian art as the preeminent “witnesses” to the power and authority of the Christian image. In the time of Bernward of Hildesheim, Christian prelates had been encouraged by images to compare their own exercise of high office to that of the New Testament elders. Since the turn of the twelfth century, Christian viewers had been regaled with images of ancient Hebrews and their modern descendants, that they might attend to the testimony of the former and meditate on the myopia of the latter. When the new devotional and artistic emphasis on Christ’s vulnerability created a need for instruction in compassionate and empathetic response, then, the Jews were ready at hand.

Devotional literature from the middle decades of the century amply testifies to the Jews’ utility in this regard. In the aforementioned Meditation on the crucifix there is only a plea that the viewer/meditator not look disparagingly on Christ; there is no condemnation of those who do. But other texts explicitly invoke the Jews as exemplars of loveless looking. Bernard of Clairvaux made compassionate response to Christ’s suffering a touchstone for faith in terms clearly inspired by visual imagination: “Neither Jew nor pagan feels the pangs of love as Ecclesia does.… She sees the only-begotten Son of the Father bearing the burden of His Cross; she sees the Lord of Majesty bruised and spat upon, the Author of life and glory transfixed with nails, struck by the lance, flooded with mockery, and finally laying down His beloved soul for His friends. She sees this, and the sword of love pierces through her own soul too, and she says, ‘Support me with flowers, compass me about with apples, for I languish with love’ [Cant. 2:5].”52 The Jews’ role in bringing about Christ’s sufferings here seems almost incidental; the thrust of the passage is to promote love among potentially coldhearted Christians by condemning the Jews’ pitiless response to the sight of those sufferings. Bernward’s contemporary Peter the Venerable, who saw reverential acknowledgment of Christ’s sacrifice as humankind’s primary obligation, was clearly defending less than luxurious and decidedly nontriumphant depictions of Christ when he bellowed at the Jews: “What do you expect to see, Jews: gold, silver, gems?! Your own prophets said he would come in humility.…”53 Blunter still is the caution proffered by the Cistercian abbot Geoffrey of Auxerre to novices striving to live spiritually in a material world. “Do not be distracted by exterior light,” he warned, “for Christ himself would have neither beauty nor grace, were he viewed with Jewish eyes.”54

8. The Lethal Gaze

The most piercing Jewish gaze I know appears in an image from the Stammheim Missal, a north German prayer book from Bernward of Hildesheim’s own monastery of Saint Michael’s, dating to around 1170 to 1175.55 It is an elaborately structured Crucifixion scene prefacing the Canon of the Mass, the most important prayer in the Eucharist, Christianity’s central sacrament. The image is filled with both familiar and unusual characters and symbols: the Virgin Mary and Saint John, the lance bearer and sponge giver, Sun and Moon, Life and Death, Ecclesia and Synagoga, and a young man trampling the grapes of wrath (Isa. 63:1–6) while flanked by the prophet Isaiah and a youthful figure in white. The treatment of Jewish vision here is striking. Through an act of bifurcation, the image implicitly acknowledges the simultaneous attraction and revulsion embedded in the “Jewish” way of looking: Christ is glared at from his left (sinister side) by not one personification but two: Synagoga and Death.56 [Fig. 10] Synagoga’s presence beside Christ is perfectly conventional; she had appeared in Crucifixions at least since the ninth century. (See ch. 1, fig. 11.) But those earlier discreetly veiled or blindfolded spinsters can hardly be compared to this immodest young siren, whose lustrous, long, and thick dark hair and enticingly white neck are so brazenly exposed and who wears a hat properly belonging to a male priest or prophet. And who can see. For this Synagoga’s eyes are wide open, and she apparently both knows and hates what she is seeing: she carries a scroll saying “Cursed be he who hangs on the tree” as she contradicts Ecclesia and points malevolently at the dying figure beside her. The phrase (from Gal. 3:13, which in turn quotes Deut. 21:23) simultaneously evokes Old Testament law, Saint Paul’s condemnation of the harshness of that law, and, as is indicated by Herman/Judah’s reference to the hanging man, contemporary Jews’ disparagement of the crucifix. Earlier ambivalence about Synagoga’s embodiment of Jewish witness is here converted into an actively hostile rendering of her vision. The inspiration for her curse is made clear by her companion and coconspirator: Synagoga’s scroll seems to emerge from the dark, frowning brow of the dark-faced, curved-nosed devilish Mors (Death) just below, whose distorted profile and toothy grimace are all too reminiscent of those sported by Jews in contemporary images.


FIG. 10

But the primary function of this image is not to indict the Jews. It is to help Christians see Christ’s sacrifice in the proper spirit. It does this in two ways. First, by juxtaposing the hideously devilish Death with the deceptively young and beautiful Synagoga, it highlights moral qualities that are (as the image implicitly acknowledges) not as apparent in the real world as they might be. Synagoga’s dark companion “outs” the pitilessness hidden under her seductive appearance. The lovely but loveless looker is associated with visible ugliness, so that the Christian might see, recognize, and recoil from a similar error. Second, the image helps the viewer learn to see in the humble and human Jesus the spark of the divine. But it does not do so by exalting abjection. Rather, it codifies new aesthetic criteria, teaching the viewer to question his own preferences. The traditional attributes of divinity, as defined by both Judah/Herman and the monastic iconographic note—height, glow, color, preciousness, beauty, health—are here stood on their head, as we are prompted to spurn the gaudy figures that torment Christ and the falsely lovely and inappropriately attired Synagoga.57This most luxurious, complex, and non-Cistercian of manuscripts conveys Christ’s life-giving, love-deserving humility primarily through underscoring the extravagance, insolence, and rage of his deadly Jewish foes.

Yet it is worth noting that even the undoubtedly anti-Jewish elements in the Stammheim Missal focus not on the Jews’ deeds or historical crimes (the lance bearer, who wears a Phrygian cap, and the sponge giver, who is bareheaded and beardless, are not here marked as Jews) but on their contemptuous gaze. The great innovation of the “new theology” of which Lombard was a prominent exponent was to stress intention and motivation over action and effect. The famous philosopher and theologian Peter Abelard (d. 1142) tried to promote this shift when he lamented, “[God] sees there where no man sees, because in punishing sin he sees not the deed but the mind, whereas, conversely, we consider not the mind, which we do not know, but the deed.”58 But this new emphasis on internal ethical positioning introduced complications. How, in the varied and confused world of twelfth-century society, was one to look beyond externals and distinguish among the perfect, the imperfect, and the outright evil? What Lombard and Abelard sought to do in their ethics, our artists sought to do in their art. As if to underscore the primacy of attitude over action, many of the glaring, hostile Jewish faces created between about 1165 and 1200 belong to Jews who are not inflicting bodily harm on Christ. The full repertory of graphic facial expressions, just coming into its own in the art of this period, was also applied to Jews who simply revile and mock Jesus, his followers, and his Old Testament prototypes.59 Many new typological and biblical scenes that enter the visual and preaching repertoire around this time seem, in fact, designed primarily to give scope to manifestations of Jewish derision. Members of this hostile crowd include the Pharisee in grimacing profile in the Great Canterbury Psalter (fig. 11);60 the grotesque-featured, sneering Jew who turns around to mock Jesus on the road to Calvary on the Balfour Ciborium (see fig. 2); the darkly scowling and aggressively pointing rabbi and bulbous-nosed recalcitrant auditors debating with Saint Paul on an enamel plaque of around 1175 (fig. 12); and Noah’s disrespectful son Ham (who is glossed in Christian texts as a figure for Jews) sneering through a gaping, toothy black smudge of a mouth at the exposed pudenda of his inadvertently drunken father in the Stuttgart Orosius (fig. 13).61

Even an image in which Jews are actively attacking Christ focuses primarily on their ferocious, yet clouded sight. [Fig. 14; see also color insert] In two different chapters in the Gospel of John, “the Jews,” enraged at Jesus’s perceived blasphemy, threaten to stone him.62 The Gospel does not specify how Jesus escaped punishment, telling us only that “Jesus hid himself and went out of the temple” and “he escaped from their hands.”63 A Belgian illumination from around 1175 supplies an answer: as four gaped-mouthed, low-browed Jews drawn in profile and with large, hooked noses raise their fists to hurl stones toward a tall, elegantly dressed Christ, a dark cloud descends from heaven to envelop his head and hide it from their view.64 This miasmic haze would do little to save Jesus from the threatened stoning (his body—the lower, human half—remains fully exposed), but it serves admirably to shield his beautiful face from the Jews’ angry and lethal gaze.65


FIG. 11


FIG. 12


FIG. 13


FIG. 14

9. Beauty and the Eye of the Beholder

The glaring and coarse Jewish faces in devotional art of the last third of the twelfth century forced Christian viewers unused to gazing at a humble Christ to reconsider their own response and to seek to distance themselves from those ugly, angry figures. Precisely because so many Christians found it difficult to “see” beauty or glory in Christ’s humility, the Jews’ contempt for Christ’s sacrifice was rendered visually unsavory. But our images do more than simply externalize inner ugliness: they help reconfigure the Christian ideal of beauty, by pointedly contrasting simplicity with its reverse. Christ’s pale, slack, barely clad body might not radiate worldly glory, but in these images it has a gentle serenity and grace, especially when contrasted with the fashionably dressed, coarse-featured, confusedly busy figures that surround him. This new aesthetic, however, hardly constitutes an overturning of dominant values. Prevailing social mores—respect for power, regard for control—are not denied, just subtly reinterpreted. Moreover, we cannot forget that this aesthetic is manifested in expensive worldly objects and luxurious and colorful manuscripts. In this way the patrons of our images—wealthy clerics (mostly, it seems, Benedictine monks and secular prelates, influenced by Cistercian spirituality but not subject to Cistercian discipline)—got to have their cake and eat it too: they condemned loveless and materialistic looking, by glaring hostilely at luxurious and hostile material images. They used the art they loved to kindle love for Christ and teach themselves and the clerics under their care to “see” in the proper spirit.66 Hence the images’ overwhelming focus on vision—on the viewers’ varied reactions to the saving signs of the brazen serpent and the crucifix.67

I do not wish to leave the impression that actual Jewish-Christian relations play no role in either the conception or reception of such apparently anti-Jewish artworks. Just as it is no coincidence that these texts and images all come from the same place and time—later-twelfth-century northeastern France and northern Germany (and in a case or two, England)—it is surely no coincidence that these areas were the center of the most flourishing Jewish communities in northern Europe. The new devotional emphases on poverty, humility, and simplicity arose in precisely these areas as a response to rapid urban growth and commercial prosperity. Jews contributed significantly to these economic developments. Some profited mightily, bringing them into close contact with members of the Christian elites, both lay and clerical—to the distress of pious writers such as Ekbert of Schönau, who sought through vituperative prose to inculcate in his readers greater social disdain. Jews also noted and reacted to the Christian devotional and artistic trends that arose in tandem with the new commercial activity and prosperity. A range of mid-twelfth-century texts suggest that Jews did indeed harbor, and sometimes outwardly expressed, contempt for the crucified Christ.68 One Jew is even recorded as having understood but rejected the message of the new iconography: Nathan ben Joseph the Official of Sens (thirteenth century) is supposed to have said in reply to a Franciscan preacher’s assertion that the brazen serpent was a “type” for the Crucifixion, “That is true. The brazen serpent does indeed represent Christ crucified, and the sight of him in this situation is enough to cure us of a desire to believe in him!”69 This Jewish contempt required Christian response for two reasons. Obviously Christians would not willingly tolerate the mocking of their most revered image by a people supposed to live in subjection. But as I have already argued, the evidence suggests that in the 1160s and 1170s an even more pressing need for response arose from the fact that some Christians shared, if not the Jews’ hostile reactions, then at least the aesthetic judgments and cultural assumptions underlying them: they, too, were discomfited by the representation of God as a humble victim. If our images can be said to reflect anti-Jewish hostility, it was not a hostility arising naturally from cultural difference and distance but a hostility that had to be incited, precisely in order to construct an otherwise incomplete difference and distance.

Thus, though our images were made for devotional ends, their effects were not restricted to the realm of devotion. It is impossible to prove a direct, causal relationship between any of our images and the anti-Jewish accusations and violent episodes that began to appear in Germany, England, and France in the 1170s and intensified in the following decades. But as we have seen, a convincing correlation can be drawn between the new devotional emphasis on Christ’s suffering, the composition of medieval anti-Jewish Passion treatises, the birth of the ritual murder accusation, and the appearance in art of the hostile and glaring Jew. Each of these genres sought first and foremost to promote Christian pity and piety. But at the same time, each also excited the opposite of compassion. Viewers may have more readily pitied the crucified Christ when they saw how hideous the lack of pity could render an infidel face. But they also more readily reviled those pitiless infidels. In giving visual form to loveless looking, medieval Christendom learned to look with hate.

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