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Churches: The Art of Anti-Semitism

2 minute read

Hatred of Jews and Judaism was something that medieval man learned not merely from sermons and books condemning deicide but from art as well. In a new book called The Medieval Jew in the Mirror of Christian Art, published in France by the Roman Catholic Augustinian friars, Bernhard Blumenkranz presents the first scholarly study of the way that Jews were portrayed and caricatured in the paintings, sculpture, frescoes and illuminated manuscripts of the Middle Ages.

Until the 12th century, pictorial references to Jews were generally neutral and even approving. But from roughly A.D. 1100 to 1500, argues Blumenkranz, an Austrian Jew, Judaism was an object of hatred and scorn in Christian art. Mocking the Jews’ refusal to eat pork, a sculptured capital from a church in Uppsala, Sweden, depicts Jews drinking at the udders of a sow. Although the Gospels explicitly accuse Roman soldiers of bringing about Jesus’ death, some artists went out of their way to show Jews scourging him.

Blumenkranz attributes the rise of artistic anti-Semitism to the Crusades, holy wars in which Jews, as unbelievers, were forbidden to serve. They were clearly set aside from the rest of Christendom, forced to live in ghettos, made to wear special clothing, confined to such shunned occupations as money-lending. What brought the era of anti-Semitic art to an end in the 16th century, Blumenkranz says, was the artistic sophistication of the Renaissance, with its emphasis on realism, and the Reformation. Once Catholics and Protestants began to fight one another, they had less interest in baiting Judaism.

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