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Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

Jews and the Arts in Medieval Europe

Surviving works of art provide inadequate testament to the importance of the Jewish community of Europe in the Middle Ages. While always a minority population, and despite recurring, intense persecution and exile, Jews throughout Europe made key contributions to the intellectual life, art, science, and commerce of medieval and Renaissance Europe. Jews served as both patrons and artists, and the art that does survive reveals awareness by Jews of the artistic currents of the day and regular interaction with the majority Christian or Muslim (in the case of Spain) community.

After the Romans’ destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem in the year 70, the practice of Judaism shifted from a focus on sacrifice to the study of sacred texts, the celebration of holy days, and the religious observance of the life cycle, all of which provided opportunities for the production and patronage of art. Torah scrolls, comprising the five books of Moses, were undecorated, but Hebrew Bibles (2018.59) and other texts, were painted with narrative and decorative imagery. Haggadot, books containing the text of the Passover Seder, sometimes depict scenes from the Bible or images of the contemporary celebrations of the Seder. Examples from medieval Spain are especially fine. (Jewish communities of the Iberian Peninsula have a particularly rich artistic and intellectual heritage owing to long periods of religious tolerance by both Muslims and Christians prior to the persecution of 1391 and eventually forced expulsion of the Jews in 1492 from Spain and 1497 from Portugal.) Works by Jewish scholars, such as the biblical commentator Rashi or the philosopher Maimonides, were also sometimes illustrated, as were books of science and law. Hebrew illuminated manuscripts might be painted by artists who also worked for Christian clients. The Florentine artist Mariano del Buono, for instance, was responsible for both a woman’s mahzor, or prayer book, and a Christian choir book (96.32.15). The most elaborately decorated Mishneh Torah to survive is the only known work for Jewish use created by the Master of the Barbo Missal, an artist who worked for important Christian patrons in Italy, including popes and secular princes (2013.495). Book decoration could also take the form of inventively rendered Hebrew script, such as Arabic-looking Hebrew texts.

Though a number of ritual objects, such as Hanukkah lamps and kiddush cups, were prescribed for the proper observation of Jewish ceremonies, Jewish law gave only minimal instruction as to their form. Consequently, Jews often employed objects for religious rituals that might otherwise find a place in a Christian home, and recognizable, distinctive Jewish ceremonial objects evolved only gradually. For example, we know from manuscript illuminations that a secular drinking cup of glass or silver might be used as a kiddush cup, for blessing wine on Sabbaths and holy days (06.141). Wealthy Jews embraced the same luxury items favored by their Christian neighbors: manuscript illustrations, coats of arms, or Hebrew inscriptions indicate that items such as ceremonial double cups (17.190.609a,b) and aquamanilia might sit in a Jewish cupboard.

Medieval synagogue architecture frequently adopted the form and decoration of contemporary Christian building. The synagogue at Regensburg, for example, built between 1210 and 1227, featured pointed arches, carved capitals and a rose window, as in a Gothic church (26.72.68). The thirteenth-century synagogue that survives at Prague similarly includes Gothic elements, including a non-figural, carved tympanum over the door.

Medieval Christian objects often attest to an intense dialogue with Jewish scholars. Because Christian faith developed out of Judaism, Christian theologians, beginning with Saint Jerome, were often intent on learning Hebrew. Others were eager to challenge Jewish belief, or were threatened by the Jews’ lack of interest in converting. Persecutions linked to the First Crusade in 1096, the Black Death, and later the Inquisitions, offer notorious examples of Christian intolerance and cruelty towards the Jews, and works of art can echo the sound of contemporary prejudice (63.12). Yet other works suggest a more nuanced Christian attitude about the heritage of Judaism. Among the most imposing are objects such as the massive bronze menorah in the Cathedral of Essen on the Rhine, where there was a thriving Jewish community, or the head of King David from Notre-Dame in Paris (38.180), where the University established a chair in Hebrew. The column figure of a prophet from Saint-Denis near Paris (20.157) is one of a series that, by the figures’ placement at the entrance of the church, literally and figuratively provided the support necessary to sustain the church as the perceived rightful successor to the synagogue. Coincidentally, the figure comes from a monastery whose abbot was directly responsible for the Jews of the town. Stained glass in the church bears inscriptions proclaiming the relationship between God’s covenant with Israel and Christian belief in a new covenant. Images of Jews and Jewish ceremony are often portrayed with remarkable accuracy. Some Spanish altarpieces, as recent scholarship has shown, portray the interiors of medieval synagogues and present biblical Jews in medieval costume (25.120.929; 32.100.123). These reflect Christian awareness of Jewish practice, and consultation with, or even the use of Jewish artists, to which surviving documentary evidence attests.