Post-classical history



Flesh, Sight, and Sovereignty, CA. 1230–1350


The study of [a person’s] nature is more subtle … than is shown in the superficial lineaments of the exterior.

De Physiognomia libellus1

Around the year 1340 an illustrated prayer book was made for Bonne of Luxembourg, daughter-in-law of the king of France. It contains thirteen illuminations of remarkable beauty, delicacy, and charm … and one equally adept but thoroughly nasty image.2 [Fig. 1; see also color insert] On the folio illustrating the first verse of Psalm 52 (“The fool [insipiens] says in his heart, ‘there is no God’”), one man is about to bludgeon another. The attacker is a familiar kind of fool: he carries a club made out of bundled twigs and belongs to a long line of medieval illustrations depictinginsipiens as a yokel, madman, or jester holding a flail or cudgel.3 His victim also holds an object often assigned to the fool—a chalice, signifying drunkenness—but this is not what arrests our attention or specifies his sin.4 It is his face. Although this second fool has alternately been identified in scholarship as a monk, a drunkard, and even Archbishop Baldwin of Trier, any fourteenth-century viewer would immediately classify this second fool as a Jew.5 For over the course of the preceding decades, Christian art had developed what would come to be the longest lasting of all anti-Jewish signs: the simultaneously grotesque and naturalistic caricatured Jewish face. By 1340, the Jew needed no other visual cue than his distorted visage to signify his utter estrangement from God. We have come a long way from the clean-shaven, miracle-seeing, hat-wearing, and helpfully labeled Aaron Judeus of the Heribert shrine. By what path did we get here? And what does the fool’s face tell us?


FIG. 1

1. The Development of the Jewish Caricature

The artistic development of the stereotypical “Jewish face” is surprisingly understudied. Although Eduard Fuchs, the first scholar to address anti-Jewish caricature, dated the beginnings of the genre to the fourteenth century, his own work treats no caricature earlier than the fifteenth century, and most studies of anti-Jewish caricature open at, or well after, the end of the Middle Ages.6 Several very fine recent art historical discussions of medieval anti-Jewish imagery offer important observations about individual examples and select aspects of caricature but do not attempt systematic surveys of the genre.7 Nonetheless, it is possible to reconstruct the stages by which Jews came to be assigned characteristic facial features in medieval Christian imagery.

As we have seen, before the eleventh century there were no visually distinctive Jews in Western art. The later-twelfth-century images examined in chapter 3 began to inscribe moral meaning in Jews’ faces, depicting these “enemies of Christ and Christianity” with fierce and scowling expressions, heavy brows, squinting or staring eyes, and a variety of distorted, beast-like noses. Although the hooked nose gradually came to be particularly favored, Jews’ features for several decades remained too unstable to unambiguously signal their Jewish identity, which was still primarily conveyed via the signs of the hat and the beard. Toward the middle of the thirteenth century, a distinct shift occurred. In a growing number of artworks, the range of features assigned iniquitous Jews was condensed into one fairly narrowly construed and easily recognizable Gothic “Jewish” face, characterized by a bony hooked nose and a pointed beard.8 Moreover, in spite of its somewhat exaggerated physiognomy, this face was either so realistically rendered or endowed with such specificity of detail as to seem to belong to an actual, individualized human being.9 In an illustration from the life of Saint John in an English manuscript known as the Paris Apocalypse (ca. 1245–55), for example, the caricatured Jew on the right with the hooked nose, dark pointed beard, prominent brow, and red skullcap who pushes Saint John off to the right has a far more vivid, textured, and fully formed face than any other figure on the page. [Fig. 2] As the Bonne illumination indicates, the sign of the Gothic “Jew’s face” soon became stable and familiar enough that its features alone could serve to signify “Jewishness”; the hat was no longer needed and was often eschewed.

The broader context for this novel approach to the Jew’s face is clear enough. In the first half of the thirteenth century, Western Christendom displayed new interest in nature and the human body. Several developments prompted reengagement with the physical world, which for centuries had been scorned by Christian thinkers as lacking spiritual significance. Between roughly 1200 and 1230, previously unknown works on natural science by Aristotle were translated into Latin and incorporated into the university curriculum; these works endorsed sensory perception as a source of knowledge and promoted empirical investigation.10 The devotional emphasis on Christ’s humanity, as well as the increased prosperity and comfort of life in general, also contributed to greater openness to and curiosity about bodily experience.11 Moralizing “natural philosophers” such as the Parisian professor Alain de Lille argued that God’s plan could, with the proper instruction, be read in the visible, material world.12 The expansion of an affluent and literate lay bourgeoisie created a market for texts on secular and “practical” topics, and increasingly ambitious rulers sought out new ways to comprehend, exploit, and control their territories and subjects. More empirically oriented intellectuals such as the Franciscan Roger Bacon and the Dominican Albertus Magnus composed studies of plants, animals, and minerals based on their own observations.13 Physiognomic treatises promoting the “scientific” study of the human form proliferated, and high Gothic artworks reproduced the proportions and anatomical details of the human face and body, as well as of flora and fauna, with new accuracy and care.14


FIG. 2

Against this background, some scholars began to look more closely at the physical characteristics of Jews. In the mid-thirteenth century we find for the first time assertions that Jews have distinctive looks. A treatise on the Virgin Mary that has been wrongly attributed to Albertus Magnus postulates that the mother of God had black hair, because “we see that in many cases the race [genus] of Jews has black hair. Therefore, also Our Lady, since she was the progeny of Jews.”15 Pseudo-Albert’s assertion may well have been prompted by actual observation: the relatively small, genetically limited Jewish communities of northern Germany apparently originated in more southern lands and so probably did have a somewhat higher percentage of dark-haired individuals than the overall surrounding population.16 (Interestingly, some German Jews apparently made the same observations as Pseudo-Albert. A thirteenth-century German Jewish text states that “most Gentiles are fair-skinned and handsome and most Jews are dark and ugly”—an intriguing internalization of cultural preferences regarding beauty.)17 Artists, too, seem to have scrutinized Jews, as well as other minority populations, with fresh attention.18 Although the “Jewish caricature,” for all its apparent realism, was patently not a faithful portrait of any single Jew, its features may have been arrived at because they evoked the appearance of at least some actual Jews—just as dark hair may have predominated among Jews in northern Europe, so too could a somewhat distinctive set of features probably be found among members of Ashkenazi Jewish families, once there was impetus to seek it.

2. Jewishness in Body and Blood?

We can, then, with little difficulty trace the general intellectual, devotional, and artistic trends undergirding the creation of the Gothic Jew’s face. But what is the meaning and what are the implications of laying such stress on Jews’ bodies and looks? What does the caricature say about Jewish appearance and identity? As we saw in chapter 4, in the first half of the thirteenth century clerical authorities complained that Jews were visually indistinguishable from Christians, and Christian artworks underscored the confusing nature of urban society. Was the assigning of fixed facial features to Jews merely a new way to express and address this problem, enrolling the innovative language of artistic naturalism to outwardly embody invisible spiritual flaws? If so, then its purpose would be to engender revulsion toward vices endemic among Christians as well as Jews, by giving sin an imaginary and constructed but nonetheless convincing “Jewish” face. Or, rather, does the development of the Jewish caricature reveal new thinking about Jewish bodies? Is the naturalistic “Jew’s face” in effect an assertion that substantial Jewish-Christian physical differences did exist, that Jewishness was indelibly rooted in the flesh, its traces visible in many if not all members of the tribe, grounded in “ethnicity” (or even “race”) rather than simply in faith, and so not fully eradicable even by the cleansing waters of baptism? This would represent a sea change indeed, an assertion of fixed, somatic identity at odds with Paul’s famous proclamation in Galatians 3:28 that “in Christ there is neither Jew nor Gentile.” It could also potentially signal a new approach to spiritual knowledge, implying that virtue and vice, good and evil can be detected through study of physical bodies and things. This, in turn, would bear implications for art, suggesting that images could serve as guides to looking at the world rather than merely as warnings that the world in its external aspect was not to be trusted.

Contemporary texts offer at best ambiguous evidence concerning these questions. Thirteenth-century scholars made several new “discoveries” about Jews’ bodies (above and beyond the prevalence of dark hair) that seem to assert a kind of biological Jewishness.19 Albertus Magnus wrote that Jews were particularly susceptible to hemorrhoids; a master of arts who taught at the University of Paris in around 1300 agreed: “The flux of blood abounds more in Jews because for the most part they are melancholics.”20Jewish converts, even voluntary ones, were treated with considerable suspicion and often continued to be regarded as Jews years or even decades after their adoption of Christianity, suggesting that “Jewishness” did not reside in religion alone.21 On the other hand, a closer look at these and other texts takes us somewhat further from biological determinism. Medical discussions attributed the Jews’ “melancholy”—the underlying cause of their alleged “flux of blood”—to their history and habits rather than to some immutable essence. Albertus Magnus believed Jews’ “gross blood” stemmed from their salty diet.22 Other medical experts blamed the Jews’ preference for roasted over boiled meats, their relative abstemiousness from wine, the fear and anxiety in which they lived, and the fact that many “healthy foods” were forbidden to them by their law. Others still attributed the Jews’ physical debilities to divine punishment, which would cease when they embraced the true faith. The new science thus existed in tandem with traditional theology, which it generally was used to confirm rather than overturn. In spite of formidable social barriers to the absorption of converts—ultimately unsurprising in a world where family and communal affiliation conditioned so many aspects of life—many Christian authorities were adamant that conversion effected radical physical as well as spiritual change. So, for example, Thomas of Cantimpré states in his thirteenth-century Book of Miracles that Jews suffered from a constant flow of blood because of the curse of their ancestors but that, upon conversion to Christianity, the Jew “is healed from that paternal curse.”23 Uncomplimentary as such remarks may be regarding Jewishness, they do not seem to amount to a wholesale shift in conceptions of Jewish identity.

Similar ambiguity characterizes thirteenth-century general discussions of the significance of facial features. In spite of the vogue for physiognomy, contemporary physiognomic treatises did not in fact argue that the face was an “open book.” Rather, they insisted that knowledge of invisible, esoteric facts (such as the subject’s birth and the movement of the stars) was necessary for proper decipherment: the author of the Little Book of Physiognomy warned that the study of the body “is more subtle … than is shown in the superficial lineaments of the exterior.”24 No physiognomic treatise so much as mentions Jews’ noses, much less assigns them meaning. And proponents of artistic and literary naturalism argued that the skillfully executed verbal or visual “portrait” drew out otherwise hidden qualities undetectable by the senses.25

Neither scientific, epistemological, nor artistic theory, then, fully illuminates the meaning and implications of the Gothic “Jew’s face.” We must consider therefore what can be learned from the artworks themselves. Do the images containing caricatured Jewish faces seem to locate the Jews’ failings in their flesh? Do they suggest that information of value can be gleaned from scanning bodies and faces? Or do they concede and attempt to offset the inadequacy of physical observation and physiognomic analysis? With those questions in mind, let us turn now to close examination of three high medieval anti-Jewish caricatures in context.

3. A Three-Faced Jew

The earliest surviving explicitly anti-Jewish caricature appears in a cartoon doodled in the upper margin of an English exchequer tax receipt roll dating to 1233.26 [Fig. 3] The cartoon, which is generally read as a straightforward indictment of Jewish moneylending, contains “portraits” of three different Jews.27 A three-faced, fur-coated, pointy-bearded figure at the top is labeled “Isaac of Norwich.” He was a real, and fairly well documented, person—a prominent Jewish financier, merchant, rabbi, physician, and property owner who lived in Norwich and London.28 In giving Isaac three faces, the scribe-doodler evidently sought to equate him with the Antichrist, who was portrayed as a three-faced crowned and enthroned figure in contemporary manuscripts.29 The pointy-helmeted, long-nosed man below him is also conveniently labeled; his name is Mosse Mokke, and he, too, was a well-known Jew active in the Norwich money trade.30 Although we cannot firmly identify the elegantly dressed though bizarrely beak-nosed woman labeled “Avegaye,” she was presumably an actual, identifiable individual as well.31 A long-nosed, horned, and bearded devil in the center is tweaking the noses of both Mosse and Avegaye, as if to underscore the resemblance between their profiles and his own.

Although none of these Jews’ faces display the vividly fleshly naturalism of the fool in the Bonne of Luxembourg prayer book (the distorted noses of Mosse Mokke and Avegaye are patently artificial, more akin to the bestial features shown on Jews in late-twelfth-century artworks), the cartoon exhibits a kind of artistic “realism” that anticipates aspects of later caricature.32 It is the first medieval image to apply the visual vocabulary of infamy to specific, individual, nonbiblical, nonfictional Jews. It also contains an unprecedented specificity of detail. The characters are situated in an actual, recognizable setting. The governmental bureau in Westminster where the cartoon was made was divided into two sections: the lower exchequer, in which receipt rolls were drawn up, was so called because it was on the ground floor, while the upper exchequer, where the barons of the exchequer met, was on a floor above, an arrangement corresponding with the levels of our cartoon castle.33 The utensils and procedures of the exchequer, too, are accurately replicated. Coins brought into the lower exchequer were poured into vasa (bowls) for weighing identical to those held by the hooded, unlabeled figure on the far left, and the crisscross design visible in front of the three central figures evokes the checkered fabric on which coins were counted in the upper exchequer and which gave the bureau its name.34 And though the Jews’ faces are not highly individualized, at least one may recall a personal attribute. We cannot know whether Mosse had the distinctive profile assigned him, but he is called “Mosse cum naso” (“Moses with the nose”) in several financial and judicial documents. This was a fairly common nickname among both Christians and Jews; it could refer either to someone’s actual profile or to a tendency to be “nosy.” It is possible, then, that the cartoon gives visual form to some aspect of Mosse’s face, personality, or reputation.35


FIG. 3

For all its replication of the “real world” and its singling out of Jews’ looks, the cartoon does not seem to be claiming either that Jews are physically different or that in the real world external appearance was a reliable guide to internal value. In fact, various aspects of image considerably complicate the question of Jewish-Christian difference and highlight the existence of visual, social, and moral complexity.

The first complication lies in Mosse’s appearance. Although his long nose, so similar to that of the central demon, presumably was meant to evoke iniquity and infidelity, other aspects of his physiognomy defy the stereotype of the demonic, bestial Jew. His hair is blond (at least, the cartoonist has not shaded it in in any way) and cut in a fashionable bob favored by noblemen and courtiers, and he is clean-shaven, following contemporary Christian style. The cartoon thus suggests that the wickedness signaled by Mosse’s nose was hidden under a fair and fashionable exterior.36Avegaye’s appearance likewise raises a red flag for the careful viewer. Far from reflecting widespread stereotypes, her longish and devilishly bent nose violates all visual precedent: the beauty of the Jewess was something of a byword in medieval literature, and no distorted features or distinguishing signs of any kind had yet been applied to Jewish women in Christian imagery.37 Moreover, though Avegaye has an unusually ugly facial feature, her stylish wimple and luxuriously long, fair hair are those of a fashionable lady. The jarring juxtaposition of elegant accoutrements and demonic proboscis calls to mind the incessant warnings made by preachers against the infernal falsity of female adornment and the devilishly deceptive beauty of women, Christian as well as Jewish.38 So even as he gives Mosse and Avegaye outlandishly grotesque features, our cartoonist implicitly acknowledges that in life Jews might appear both culturally assimilated and physically attractive and also that Christians too can harbor hidden sin.

A similar lack of clarity characterizes a fourth figure, the hooded man on the far left shown holding a scale and weighing coins. Every scholar who has written on this cartoon has identified him as yet another Jewish usurer. Yet it is far from clear that this figure is a Jew at all. Nothing in the image makes such an identification certain. His hood may well be, as it is so often called, “the typical clothing of the medieval Jew,” but it was also the typical clothing of almost any middle-class town dweller.39 Like various Jews we have seen before, he has a downward sloping nose and a fierce scowl, but non-Jews can display these attributes as well. This figure’s situation and actions distinguish him from the known Jews in the image. They are located in the central court of the crenellated structure, while he is lower down and off to the side. They are labeled by name, he is left unnamed. And while Mosse and Avegaye are mocked, manhandled, and threatened by the demons and show distress, he is left alone. Or rather, he joins the demons in mocking them: as he holds up the scales he tucks his thumb between his middle fingers in a venerable gesture of contempt called “giving the fig.”40 Moreover, it was not Jewish moneylenders but royal clerks who were charged with weighing the coins brought into the exchequer. I would identify this man, then, as an exchequer official, whose previous mislabeling highlights how poor a guide to identity appearance can be.41

Finally, what of the conflation of Isaac with the three-faced Antichrist? This strange image might seem the ultimate embodiment of Jewish iniquity and difference. But though Jews had indeed long been associated in Christian literature with Antichrist (a range of apocalyptic texts allege that Antichrist arose from the Hebrew tribe of Daniel and that the Jews would at least initially revere him as their Messiah),42 it is important to note that Antichrist was not just any generically nasty, Jew-loving villain. He was, rather, the ultimate embodiment of deceit, duplicity, and disguise. In Christian art he is portrayed with three faces in parody of the Trinity, to signal that at least for a while he would successfully feign sanctity.43 It was believed that when he came he would masquerade as Christ himself and fool many Christian believers into following him. In fact, early-thirteenth-century versions of the legend focused especially on his appeal to Christian sinners—castigating those hypocrites, tyrants, and fools whose folly, avarice, and ambition would drive them to join the forces of Antichrist.44 In conflating Isaac with Antichrist, then, the cartoonist is not only indicting the wickedness of a Jewish usurer but also hinting at a possible cohort of tyrannical, corrupt, avaricious, and foolish Christians. Indeed, such coconspirators make an appearance in the cartoon, where the central demon and his devilish company are rendered not as terrifying fiends but as costumed actors, whose horned and hooded attire resembles nothing so much as the dress of the court fool or jester.45 Jewish usurers are thus not the only targets of the cartoonist’s satire. Courtly life itself is presented as a corrupt and chaotic realm of iniquity and disguise. This charge, in fact, echoes the criticisms of contemporary moralists, who were bitterly critical of the secular authorities that facilitated and profited from Jewish moneylending. They accused Christian princes of being “thieves’ accomplices” in using Jews as their “leeches,” surrogate greedy mouths with which they sucked up the goods of the poor and vomited them into the royal coffers.46

In spite of its caricatured Jewish faces, then, this cartoon does not forward an argument about an essentialist, somatically grounded, or outwardly visible Jewish perfidy or difference. Instead, the sketch acknowledges that Christians and Jews are considerably less different from one another than the Jews’ exaggerated profiles initially seemed to suggest and that appearance is a guide to very little. Jews might look the same as, and appear attractive to, Christians; Christians might mask their corruption and greed. In suggesting that the crookedness of a Mosse or an Avegaye is hidden under a fair exterior and that a powerful Jewish financier like Isaac might, like Antichrist, attract Christian supporters and facilitate Christian sin, the cartoon is echoing contemporary anxiety about Christianas well as Jewish moral identity.

4. Face Full of Rage

Our next example of a Gothic Jew’s face appears in the illustration of a rather bizarre miracle of the Virgin from the famous Escorial manuscript of the Cantigas de Santa Maria, made for King Alfonso X of Castile (r. 1252–84).47 [see color insert] Cantiga 108 is entitled “How Holy Mary caused the son of a Jew to be born with his head backwards, as Merlin had asked of her.”48 The text of the song relates that Merlin (presumably the Celtic wizard, though he is not identified as such)49 “happened to be discoursing”—in Scotland of all places!—with a learned Jewish sage. When the Jew began to insult the mother of Jesus and mock the idea of the Incarnation as violating both reason and nature, Merlin became enraged and prayed to the Virgin to punish the blasphemer. Mary granted the request by causing the Jew’s pregnant wife to give birth to a son with his head affixed backwards on his body. Upon seeing his monstrous son, the horrified father, now called by the ominous name Cayphas, tried to kill him. But Merlin saved the boy and from that day forward used him to convert Jews.

The first two panels in the illustration depict the Jewish sage and Merlin in the Jew’s well-appointed shop. [Fig. 4] In both images the Jew is the focal point, standing directly in the center of the composition and staring, glassy-eyed, in the direction of Merlin, who is framed by a tower that seems to belong to a Christian church. The text of the cantiga tells us that the Jew is an alfaquin—an ambiguous Arabism that could mean either secular philosopher/sage or religious legal authority.50 Both senses are incorporated into the imagery, suggesting that the artist or iconographer was aware of, and deliberately sought to exploit, the word’s double meaning. The particularly miter-like aspect of the Jew’s hat, together with the book he holds under his left hand, establishes Cayphas as a religious authority, an exalted expert in his antique law. His coarsely physical face draws on the repertoire of anti-Jewish caricature—his dense, dark, and curly beard and large, hooked nose (accentuated especially in the second panel) embody his materialist carnality and so are visual counterparts to his reliance on reason and nature. The point is further underscored by the vials and jars arrayed on the shelves behind him—they are the stuff of carnal, not spiritual, knowledge and emphatically connect his infidelity to his philosophical-medical privileging of reason and nature.


FIG. 4

Having used iconography to signal the Jew’s carnal nature, the artist then displays the consequences of carnal understanding: cruelty, hatred, and moral and spiritual blindness. [Fig. 5] In panel 4, the would-be murderous father sees neither his wife’s distress, his son’s humanity, nor the amazement of the Christian onlookers as he stares at Merlin, face full of rage. In the penultimate panel [Fig. 6], in which Merlin shows the boy to Jews gathered in a synagogue, the spiritual blindness of the standing, argumentatively gesticulating Jewish sage is likewise evident, as he refuses to “see” God’s work in the miracle right before his eyes. By contrast, his more respectful, docilely seated (and uncaricatured) coreligionists are apparently convinced by the sight of the grotesquely deformed child. And of course the boy’s deformity literally embodies the deluded backwardness of the Jewish gaze.


FIG. 5


FIG. 6

In sum, this illustration seems to visually enshrine Jewish difference in Cayphas’s dark, ungainly visage and crooked profile and so confidently to assert that inner truths can effectively be inscribed on the body, detected by the eye, and displayed through art. But as in the case of the exchequer cartoon, various aspects of the image reveal a much more complex dynamic. For one thing, although the cantiga is set in Scotland, Cayphas’s shop is given a distinctly Iberian flavor, its architectural and ornamental elements displaying a fusion of Romanesque, Iberian, and Hispano-Arabic influences. And, of course, the manuscript itself is Castilian. This Iberian context considerably complicates the reading of the Jew’s caricatured face. My very hesitant suggestions offered at the beginning of this chapter about Jews in northern Germany being somewhat darker-haired on the average than their Christian neighbors cannot apply to Iberia, where Jewish communities were considerably more ancient and numerous, where there was a substantial Muslim population, many of North African origin, and where Christian communities were themselves of ethnically and geographically diverse backgrounds. In mobilizing a dark/light dichotomy for moral effect, then, the Cantigas manuscript was wielding a visual tool that did not map cleanly onto social experience.

Second, I am struck by the fact that the Virgin to whom Merlin prays at the outset of the story is not visible. Rather than looking at any image, Merlin kneels in humble devotion before a blank white wall, seemingly oblivious to the insolent gestures of the frowning Jew, who is pointing aggressively with his right hand and making some kind of rude gesture with his left (he is either “giving the fig” or counting off points of argument, as in a debate). Is this contrast in mood and gaze intended to valorize internal, imageless devotion over the Jew’s proud reliance on physical knowledge, logical reasoning, and ostentatious display? That is, is the manuscript complicating the idea that Jews’ looks are different from those of Christians, only to forward the idea that Jews seedifferently from—more carnally than—Christians? One might detect such an idea in the synagogue scene, in which the Jewish audience needed to see the miraculous effects of Merlin’s prayer before they would turn to the Virgin. The scene would then implicitly indict the need for visible proof as “Jewish,” though there is considerable tension in imparting such a message in a luxurious manuscript that exalts image-based devotion on almost every folio.51

Finally, multiple ambiguities and contradictions are condensed in the figure of the deformed boy. His reversed head embodies the deluded backwardness of the Jewish gaze and seems to enshrine the idea of the Jew as mired in misleading flesh and the mistaken past. Yet this golden-haired boy is his father’s son. Not only does his appearance gainsay the heritability of his father’s physical traits, but his very existence reminds us that the caricatured older Jew was once an innocent—and unidentifiable—boy. The Jewish father’s physical coarseness now seems not a symbol of stasis but a product of deterioration, a reminder that far from being essentialized, flesh is entirely contingent, eternally subject to change. And, of course, change is the keynote of the last image on the folio, which depicts a religious conversion: a Jewish woman is immersed in the waters of baptism, from which she will emerge fully Christian.

5. The Fool’s Many Faces

Let me return now to the image with which I opened, the fool from the Bonne of Luxembourg prayer book (fig. 1). The dark and scowling profile, large hooked nose, and pointed beard were by the mid-fourteenth century familiar visual signs. They mark this fool as no generic atheist but a very particular kind of unbeliever, suggesting that the “Non est Deus” of Psalm 52 should be translated not as “There is no God” but rather as “He is not God.”52 One of the functions of this Jew’s face, then, is to call attention to an absent “he,” an invisible face: the face of Christ himself. And so we see, once again, that the direction of the figure’s gaze is as important as his features: like the beak-nosed Jew on the Westphalian casket (ch. 3, fig. 4), or the scowling Jew on the road to Calvary from the Balfour ciborium (ch. 3, fig. 2), or the deformed boy in cantiga 108 (fig. 6), this fool looks to the left, that is, toward the side traditionally known as “sinister” and identified with error, and so in the wrong direction, away from the (implied) body of Christ, which is typically displayed in either the center or on the right side of an image. The staff he grasps, too thin and nondescript to be the clublike weapon, symbol of office, or scepter of power normally held by insipiens, recalls the staff with which the blind feel out their path, although here it only meets an unyielding frame.53 That the fool’s error consists of useless, misdirected vision is, moreover, implicitly signaled by two other miniatures in the Bonne manuscript, in which praying Christians devoutly contemplate Christ’s image on the right of the page, modeling the correct object and direction of the righteous gaze. [Fig. 7 and Fig. 8]

But before we conclude that this startlingly vivid caricature serves exclusively to indict Jewish vision and embody Jewish error, it is important to consider the other figure on the page. Given that he is in the process of thrashing the Jewish fool, he might be taken for a kind of righteous corrector of error. However, his long, pointed hood and trailing sleeves, short tunic, somewhat protruding belly, and rather foolish expression, as well as the cudgel he wields, are all typical attributes of a traditional Psalm 52 fool, who, as noted above, was generally portrayed as an idiot, sinner, churl, jester, or madman. This suggests that the cudgel wielder is a second insipiens. Moreover, in the company of our caricatured Jew, and in light of his very different (that is, perfectly generic) features, we are forced to read him as a “Christian”—an idiot, sinner, churl, or madman, of course, but a Christian (or at least Gentile) one. The Jew’s face, taken together with the other fool, thus serves paradoxically to highlight the existence of Christian sin.54 And it does so more than once, for it turns out that the Jewish fool’s face is not unique: the same unmistakable visage appears on two other folios in the manuscript. [Fig. 9] The first is on the January calendar page, in the guise of the two-faced Janus—a figure who frequently ushers in the year in medieval manuscripts, though rarely so graphically.55 It is surely no coincidence that his left-looking profile echoes the “Jewish” fool in drinking from a large goblet, suggesting that his vision too is impaired by carnal indulgence. But what are we to make of the conjoined profile? Is he looking right, that is, correctly, toward an invisible truth? Is he, as one commentator holds, eating stale bread in an act of ascetic devotion?56 If so, why does he sport the same hook-nosed, pointy-bearded, “carnal” profile as his gluttonous conjoined twin? Janus’s two faces thus echo the insipiens image in implying that both religious identity and physical appearance may be more ambiguous than the starkly anti-Jewish caricature would seem to indicate.57


FIG. 7


FIG. 8


FIG. 9

The next occurrence of the distinctive face is more ambiguous still: it appears on the body of a monstrous grotesque. [Fig. 10] He also looks to the left, and his gaze is the most uselessly flesh-bound of them all, falling only on his own rear end. But the hat that he wears is, to say the least, unexpected: it is clearly a bishop’s miter. Is this a Jew disguised as a bishop? Or a bishop being tarred as a “Jew” in the flesh? Either way, Jewish-Christian difference is effectively blurred, suggesting that members of both groups were subject to carnality and blindness.

In its concern with shared Jewish-Christian failings and blurred Jewish-Christian distinctions, this grotesque image finds uncanny echo in two marginal illustrations on a bi-folio of an early-fourteenth-century Lowlandish psalter illustrating a text from the Office for the Dead—“Why do you hide your face from me and consider me your enemy?” (Job 13:24). [Fig. 11] In the upper left margin, the torso of a pointy-bearded man in profile wearing a knobbed cap and emerging from a dragonish body (that is, a figure liable to be read as a Jew or as Jew-like) screens his face with one hand, while with his other hand he points accusingly toward God, whose face in turn is hidden from him by a cloud. This “Jew” is being threatened by a naked, hairy ape-man with a sword and shield—a mocking motif symbolizing bestial folly and infidelity and signaling the existence of the same in his target.58 In the lower right margin of the next folio there is a hybrid grotesque with two faces. His primary face, set on his shoulders, has normal features and is crowned with a bishop’s miter. His second face is on his rump and has squinting eyes and the long, scraggly pointed beard typically seen on a Gothic “Jew’s face.” The grotesque flourishes his staff like a weapon in the direction of the bearded “Jew” on the opposite page, while hiding his own bishop’s face behind a shield doubling as a mask.59 As the mask is a symbol of hypocrisy, this gesture invokes another verse from Job 13: “no hypocrite shall come before his presence” (Job 13:16). Thomas Aquinas explained this text to mean that no vision or knowledge of God would be granted to those who hide their sins under a fair exterior.60 The multiple faces and face- and vision-blocking gestures in this image thus implicitly equate Jewish unbelief and Christian deceitful hypocrisy. Both obscure vision and falsify appearance; both distance the soul from God.


FIG. 10

The easily identifiable, vividly caricatured Jew’s face that links our three Bonne of Luxembourg characters together, then, seems to evade any single interpretation. Rather than conveying one fixed, immutable identity, the Jewish caricature forces comparisons between very different figures and highlights the choices faced by every soul. An image so often read as endorsing moralizing physiognomy, or even racialism, actually serves to undermine any smug assumption of absolute difference or safe distance. If the Jew’s gaze is backward and his appearance is deceiving, so are those of many Christians. If the Jew’s flesh is corruptible and his morals are questionable, the same is true of many Christians.


FIG. 11

The illuminations indicate that art can help address the problems posed by the confusing and deceptive nature of the visible world—it can unveil the carnality of unbelievers and the falseness of hypocrites and reveal the folly of the misdirected gaze. Contemplation of the image of Christ can direct the imperfect believer on the proper path, as we have seen in two miniatures that exalt the reverent Christian gaze. But our illuminations also indicate that even the image of Christ, that most perfect of images, must eventually be left behind. Theologians from Pseudo-Dionysius through Abbot Suger, Aquinas, Bonaventure, and beyond all agreed that visual perception was to have only an initiatory role in religious devotion.61 The ideal devotee was to pass from sight to internal imagination, and finally to an utterly image-less intellectus, or understanding. It is surely for this reason that in cantiga 108 Merlin prayed to a blank wall (see fig. 4) and that on Folio 329 of the Bonne prayer book the crucified Christ points to his own wound, an orifice that ruptures the shell of the body and leads the way to unseen depths (see fig. 8). And even as the recipients of this glorious manuscript revel in its beauty, its very last image encourages them to look beyond the flesh and beneath the surface and to gaze not on a body or a face but into a pure and formless void. [Fig. 12]



FIG. 12

*   *   *

We can, then, provisionally conclude that our physiognomic caricatures, for all their vivid naturalism, stop short of assigning to Jews an essentialized and meaningful physical difference. Each of the images we have looked at implicitly concedes that looks can be deceiving (among Christians as well as Jews), that carnal sin resides within Christians as well as Jews, and that identity can be fluid. In doing so, they instruct Christians to look at the world with caution and to privilege the invisible spiritual realm over visible things. These images thus play a familiar role. No less than its obviously symbolic eleventh-century ancestor, the Gothic Jewish face rehearsed the Jew’s role as original and eternal blind witness to Christian truth and helped its viewer explore that truth. In the early twelfth century, Jewish materialism had been understood primarily in exegetical and liturgical terms, and the iconography of Judaism drew upon classical, biblical, and clerical imagery. By the mid-thirteenth century, the growing interest in nature and science, in optics and vision, and in the study and classification of human difference led to a “somaticization” and naturalizing of symbols of carnality and blindness.

Each of these images implicitly admits that not all Jews were physically different or visually distinct, but they also complicate assumptions that Jews were Christians’ moral “other,” by endowing non-Jewish figures with so-called Jewish features, by associating the Jews’ materialism and duplicity with explicitly non-Jewish figures, and/or by emphasizing the flawed nature of both Jewish and Christian vision. Just as the Jews failed to see Christ properly, doubting his divinity because blinded by his outward humanity and humility, so medieval Christians too risked mistaking appearance for truth. Infidels do not wear their perfidy on their faces, nor are they the only ones who fail to see correctly or who hide a foul soul under a fair skin. These images in their aggregate, then, testify that the “natural” turn did not lay to rest Christian suspicion of corporeal perception and distrust of outward appearances. Even as they direct the viewer’s attention to nature and the body, these “naturalistic” images demonstrate the failure of nature and the material world (in all its contingency, confusion, and instability) to unambiguously convey spiritual truth, while claiming for themselves the ability to present a higher truth than nature and its observation provide.

I am not quite ready to leave my analysis there. I have, so far, pursued fairly limited, self-contained, close visual readings of the images and their religious import. But we still need to consider the people for whom the artworks were made and the uses to which they were put. The cultural documents we have looked at are material objects and technical artifacts as well as images, produced by and for a broader section of medieval society than just scholastic theologians. The spiritual counselors who helped create Bonne of Luxembourg’s prayer book and who guided the piety of Alfonso X were, I am convinced, deeply wary of the deceptions of vision and the seductions of matter and committed to a more purely spiritual understanding of value and identity. But the very fact that they delivered their message by means of realistically rendered bodies and distinctive faces painted in highly luxurious commoditized artworks—and that this visual language was first employed in governmental financial documents—signals the extent to which their spiritual ideas coexisted with conflicting ones. The manuscripts were produced by lay artists working for a prosperous and self-confident secular elite living in an urban and courtly world. In that world, appearance and body mattered intensely.62

Jews’ bodies mattered more intensely than most. In the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries the ambitions of the increasingly centralized governments in England, France, and Iberia to exploit and control their subjects outstripped their abilities to do so. The clergy, the aristocracy, and the bourgeoisie all used their collective power to resist taxation.63 Rulers often struggled to enforce justice on these populations. By contrast, secular authorities claimed a “special relationship” with Jews that afforded them unique power over Jewish communities, which needed the protection of powerful overlords and which had little ability to evade princely exploitation.64 It was thus on Jews’ bodies that governments most successfully exercised and displayed their sovereignty.65 The English exchequer had an entire separate bureau dedicated to the proceeds of Jewish taxation because Jews were the only population from which the king could consistently and reliably extract surplus wealth. A papal council may have been the first to decree that distinguishing clothing be imposed on Jews, but it was secular rulers who decided on the form of the badge and who controlled (and profited from) the enforcement (or disregard) of the order. When English barons rebelled against King Henry III, they displayed their disapproval of his rule by violently attacking “his” Jews; when Henry wished to demonstrate his reform, he judicially and legislatively attacked them in turn.66The pattern repeated itself in France in the fourteenth century, when disgruntled crusaders angry at royal exactions targeted Jewish communities along their route.67 Alfonso X of Castile initiated his reign by regulating Jews’ clothing; in the middle of his reign he staked his claim to universal Christian kingship by reissuing on his own authority various ecclesiastical restrictions on Jews; and he closed his reign by executing his Jewish tax farmer.68 And, of course, in the ultimate flexing of sovereign muscles, Edward I expelled the Jews from England in 1290. Bonne of Luxembourg’s Paris was likewise empty of Jews, the community having been definitively expelled in 1327, barely a decade before the painting of her prayer book.69

It is, then, no coincidence that the earliest “realistic” caricatures purporting to portray specific Jews appear in an administrative document: it was in such documents, and for very concrete, material purposes, that the practice of identifying specific individuals through name, profession, and physiognomic detail first evolved. The business of government is the business of classifying and controlling human bodies. Artworks that highlighted the fleshly reality of the bodies they most successfully controlled—Jews’ bodies—reflected this new way of seeing and thinking. They did more than just reflect it, though. In their dazzling technical mastery they ratified valuation of the physical and so helped further promote it. Images featuring the Gothic Jew’s face proclaimed their owners’ power over those conceptually central bodies and over the realm in which they lived and which they had long symbolized—the secular, material world. This explains why, when Archbishop Baldwin of Trier wished to vaunt the authority and legitimacy of his brother, the German emperor Henry VII, he had him painted accepting a scroll of the law from a physiognomically caricatured Jew.70 [Fig. 13] The fact that rivalries were fought out, and dominance was displayed, over the Jew’s body also explains why so many caricatured Jews are threatened with violence or are violently acted upon, sometimes by righteous avengers and sometimes by demons, apes, grotesques, or wizards.71 It is likely for this reason that, uniquely among Psalm 52 illustrations, the “Jewish” fool in the Bonne of Luxembourg prayer book is assaulted from behind. The action may be inspired by words from a subsequent Psalm: “And he smote his enemies on the hinder parts: he put them to an everlasting reproach.”72 But it also serves as a reminder that bodily sin was subject to correction, even if such correction would inevitably fall short of perfection, because the corrector himself was an imperfect sinner.

I think, then, that we need to modify our initial conclusion about the meaning and function of our images. The owners of our two luxury manuscripts and the sovereign who commanded the English exchequer may have been told that flesh deceives and vision is incomplete, but they were also told that it was their duty as Christian rulers to strive to make the visible world approximate as nearly as possible the City of God. And the Gothic Jew’s face showed them the way, in directing their attention toward a visible population ripe for correction or punishment. For we can recognize the fundamentally symbolic role of the Jewish face without necessarily asserting that symbol to be utterly arbitrary.73 Not even the most baldly “racial” Nazi anti-Semite would have alleged that all or even most Jews looked like their stereotype.74 Almost every existing medieval anti-Jewish caricature implicitly admits that not all Jews were physically different or visually distinct, by surrounding the caricatured Jew with generic faces. But some small percentage of Jews, then as now, surely did have distinctive profiles; the persuasive rhetorical force of the caricature was predicated on a putative relation to at least some “real” faces. Viewers thus came to be trained to look to Jews’ bodies and faces for confirmation of their difference; to rulers, they were ready foci for resentment and targets for action. When authorities gazed on the sign of the “Jew’s face,” they saw a figure whom, above all others, they could and should identify, mark, and control.75


FIG. 13

The images we have looked at thus reveal a culture balancing two competing drives—to transcend the material world and to command it. High medieval Christendom waged a tug of war over truth and vision, matter and spirit, knowledge and faith, all fought over the body and via the face of the Jew. It was not a contest that would ever definitively be resolved in favor of one side or the other. Some medieval Christians, when confronted with images that skillfully undermined easy assumptions, probably did question their attachment to nature, body, world, and self and turn instead to the ineffable God. But the fact that across western Europe authorities began to see punishing, segregating, and expelling Jews as a necessary prelude to (if not an outright substitute for) reforming their subjects and themselves, suggests that more often the power of the images—the vividly “real,” fleshy difference of the Gothic Jew’s face—overwhelmed their subtle spiritual message.76 Christian attitudes toward self, truth, and the world changed less noticeably toward the end of the Middle Ages than did Christian attitudes toward Jews. Fifteenth- and sixteenth-century kings, clerics, burghers, and princesses continued to flourish their piety by commissioning beautiful books and meditating over their images. But they did so in a Western Christendom largely devoid of living Jewish faces.77

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