Art of Estrangement
Redefining Jews in Reconquest Spain
Pamela A. Patton
Art of Estrangement
Redefining Jews in Reconquest Spain
Pamela A. Patton
“Few scholars can demonstrate facility with visual culture across such a wide geographical and cultural arena, much less articulate it with insight, vigor, and clarity. Pamela Patton's Art of Estrangement will be a significant contribution to the growing art-historical literature on medieval Christian representations of non-Christians, and, more generally, it will push ahead our understanding of how works of art function as active agents in the formation of cultural attitudes.”
- Table of Contents
- Sample Chapters
Pamela Patton was awarded the 2014 Eleanor Tufts Book Award from the American Society for Hispanic Art Historical Studies or her book, Art of Estrangement: Redefining Jews in Reconquest Spain. Publication of this book has been aided by a grant from the Millard Meiss Publication Fund of the College Art Association
Art of Estrangement scrutinizes a wide range of works—from luxury manuscripts and cloister sculptures to household ceramics and scribal doodles—to show how imported and local motifs were brought together to articulate and reinforce the efforts of Spain’s Christian communities to renegotiate their relationships with a vibrant Jewish minority. The arsenal of stereotypes, symbols, and narratives deployed to characterize Jews and their changing social roles often paralleled those found in contemporaneous literature and folklore; they ranged from such time-honored European formulae as the greedy usurer and the “Jewish nose” to locally resonant conflations of Jews with Muslims. The book’s close, contextualized reading of works from the late twelfth through early fourteenth centuries draws on recent scholarship in Iberian history, religion, and cultural studies, shedding new light on the delicate processes by which communal and religious identities were negotiated in medieval Spain.
“Few scholars can demonstrate facility with visual culture across such a wide geographical and cultural arena, much less articulate it with insight, vigor, and clarity. Pamela Patton's Art of Estrangement will be a significant contribution to the growing art-historical literature on medieval Christian representations of non-Christians, and, more generally, it will push ahead our understanding of how works of art function as active agents in the formation of cultural attitudes.”
“Art of Estrangement is a masterful study of the meaning of images of Jews in Iberian Christian visual culture after the Reconquista. The incisive analysis Pamela Patton offers of these intriguing and sometimes disturbing images is most welcome—and, in fact, revolutionary.”
“Broad in scope yet authoritative and rich in detail, Patton’s study will for a long time provide an entry point into the visual culture of medieval Spain for students, scholars, and anyone interested in Christian-Jewish relations. . . . It is precisely its combination of range, rigor, and wonderful images that makes the Art of Estrangement so impressive and so important.”
“Lucidly argued, elegantly written, beautifully illustrated, and covering much needed scholarly territory, The Art of Estrangement was a pleasure to read and will be a required text from now on in my ‘Three Cultures of Spain’ course.”
“Scholars interested in putting disciplines into conversation with one another will find this book to be a helpful and thought-provoking model. With sumptuously reproduced color plates and a clear, accessible discussion of Jewish iconography, Art of Estrangement will also be a welcome addition to undergraduate and graduate courses in both Jewish and medieval studies.”
“Art of Estrangement: Redefining Jews in Reconquest Spain makes major strides toward our understanding of how visual images of Jews were developed and understood in Medieval Spain. It is an ambitious undertaking, showcasing difficult material and opening new lines of inquiry.”
“Art of Estrangement is an important contribution to evolving research on the yet untapped potential of visual culture to help expand and refine our knowledge gained from textual sources.”
“Pamela A. Patton’s Art of Estrangement: Redefining Jews in Reconquest Spain makes an important contribution to the already rich field of medieval art and Jewish-Christian relations. Scholars such as Bernhard Blumenkranz, Michael Camille, Ruth Mellinkoff, Heinz Schreckenberg, Sara Lipton, Debra Higgs Strickland, Mitchell Merback, Vivian Mann, Nina Rowe, Herbert Kessler, and David Nirenberg, among others, have examined the ways in which Christian art expresses perceptions of Jews and Judaism. As Patton points out, these studies focus primarily on northern European art. Patton expands the scope of this current scholarship by demonstrating that Iberian Christian imagery incorporated, altered, or resisted northern European visual representations of Jews in order to express and shape its unique historical circumstances: the Christian conquest of Muslim-controlled territories in Spain that had significant Jewish populations between the late twelfth century and mid-fourteenth century. Throughout the book, an abundance of beautifully reproduced images invites the reader to closely observe visual details that support Patton’s analysis.”
“A tour de force of analytical historiography, offering scholars of medieval Iberia and medieval Jewish– Christian relations more generally a wealth of examples, a sharp and original interpretive frame, and a fine model to follow in realizing future work on medieval inter-religious contact and conflict.”
Pamela A. Patton is Associate Professor of Art History in the Meadows School of the Arts at Southern Methodist University.
List of Illustrations
1 “Aliens in Their Midst”: Reimagining Jews in Medieval Iberia
2 Topos and Narrative: New Signs and Stories For Iberian Jews
3 Shaping the Jewish Body in Medieval Iberia
4 Jews and Muslims in the Iberian Christian Imagination
5 The Cantigas de Santa María and the Jews of Castile
“Aliens in Their Midst”
Reimagining Jews in Medieval Iberia
A little Jewish boy, native of the town, came
for the pleasure of playing with the children;
the others welcomed him, they caused him no grief;
they all took delight in playing with him.
—Gonzalo de Berceo
He who is neighbor to a Jew will never be a good Christian.
Composed in the Christian-dominated northern kingdoms of Spain in the thirteenth and fifteenth centuries, respectively, the two passages above manifest a series of contrasts that might be considered paradigmatic of the Jewish-Christian relationship in central and late medieval Iberia. The first, drawn from a poem composed by Gonzalo de Berceo (ca. 1198–after 1252), recounts how a young Jewish boy, accustomed to going to school with his Christian friends, innocently joins them in taking communion at Easter. When his enraged father reacts by throwing him into a furnace, the boy is rescued by the Virgin Mary and promptly converts, to the delight of the townspeople. Although this narrative has international roots—it originated in Byzantium and in subsequent versions often is set in the French city of Bourges—in Berceo’s hands it derives much of its force from the guileless camaraderie between the Jewish boy and his Christian schoolmates, a relationship that might be perceived as peculiarly reflective of the poet-cleric’s context in thirteenth-century Iberia, a land where Jews, Christians, and Muslims regularly shared geographical, cultural, and social space, with varying degrees of comfort.
Berceo’s idyllic convivencia is to some extent demanded by the narrative. The Christian boys’ “pleasure” and “delight” in their playmate not only sets the stage for the child’s acceptance of communion; it also creates an effective foil for his Jewish father’s murderous outrage at this act. Yet Berceo’s strategy was not entirely abstract. To succeed, it depended upon a social factor that was far more concrete: the willingness of a medieval Iberian audience to accept the boys’ carefree disregard for religious and cultural difference as not merely possible, but normative. That they did so seems very likely: not only do other literary narratives of the same era, such as those in the Cantigas de Santa María, regularly begin their tales with similar moments of cultural porousness, but actual Jews and Christians in medieval Iberia found abundant and varied opportunities for interaction in nearly every sphere of medieval life, from agriculture and business deals to festivals and folk dancing. While such opportunities could ebb and flow with the vicissitudes of local culture, their existence was a fact of which Berceo’s Christian listeners and readers could not have been unaware.
A similar awareness underlies the second passage, but its impact here is strikingly different. This text derives not from a story, but from a sermon delivered in the Valencian town of Onda on 6 May 1416 by the famous Dominican preacher Vincent Ferrer (1350–1419). Vincent’s terse denunciation of neighborly contact between Christians and Jews was pronounced as part of a homily in which the friar demanded total separation between the daily business of Jewish and Christian communities, from housing and baking to the sale of meat and the operation of taverns. Its pithy rejection of the very social contact evoked by Berceo’s lighthearted portrayal of Jewish and Christian children at play reveals Vincent’s own consciousness of the frequency with which such situations obtained in many parts of Iberia, and particularly in his native Valencia. His sharp response can be ascribed to many things: its hortatory, rather than narrative, context; its concern with whole communities of actual Jews, rather than a fictitious individual; and its foundation in the enormous social pressures caused by high rates of Christian conversion among the Jews of Aragon at the end of the fourteenth century. Yet, like Berceo’s poem, Vincent’s denunciation is effective both in evoking a convincing social context and in elucidating a point of view that must have been widely shared. Moreover, like Berceo’s more casual, if also calculating, evocation of the everyday friendliness between two faith groups, Vincent’s markedly harsher response has just as sturdy a foundation in medieval Iberian thought.
These two texts contribute to a broad tapestry of evidence that offers modern scholars insight into the complex, mutable relationships formed by Christians and Jews in the northern kingdoms of medieval Iberia, and particularly into the place held by Jews in a Christian world that during the central and late Middle Ages found itself in an especially dynamic state of development. The study of these relationships involves not just the untangling of the many theological threads by which the two faith groups had been both yoked and differentiated for centuries, but also the confrontation of their intertwined social fortunes in Iberia and the extraordinary variety of results that these could engender. Against this complexity, even such contradictory documents as those with which this chapter opened offer invaluable insight: when examined closely against the backdrop of Spain’s equally complex medieval history, they can elucidate the conceptions, stereotypes, social structures, and patterns of behavior underpinning these relationships. In this sense, they say as much about the complexity of their cultural matrix as they do about the fragmentary nature of the evidence through which medievalist historians now seek to understand it.
Yet the medieval Iberian tapestry still lacks many threads. Chief among these is the evidence that still remains to be provided by visual culture, an area that at this writing has only recently begun to be incorporated seriously into the study of Christian-Jewish relations in medieval Spain. That visual images can offer significant insight into the medieval relationship between Christians and Jews in particular has been demonstrated abundantly for other areas of Europe, where a dynamic recent scholarship has shown how images in sculpture, stained glass, and particularly manuscripts addressed and helped to shape medieval relationships between Christians and Jews that have until this point been studied primarily through the evidence of texts.
The potential of visual culture to enrich the study of medieval Iberia specifically is suggested by a pair of images that may seem as contradictory as the two passages with which this chapter opened. Like them, these images derive from larger works of contrasting context and function, and they manifest commensurately vivid differences in their representation of Jewish figures and their place within Christian society. The first image appears in the Libro de ajedrez, dados y tablas (Escorial, MS T.I.6), a richly illustrated manual concerning chess and other board games that was produced for King Alfonso X of Castile (r. 1252–1284) toward the end of his reign, in 1283. One of about 150 illustrations depicting diverse combinations of players, including Christians, Muslims, and Jews of various ranks, the image on folio 75r depicts a Jew and a Christian engaged in a game of backgammon, their board tilted vertically to display the positions of the game pieces to the reader (fig. 1). The Christian wears a slight smile as his right hand follows the dice he has just thrown, while the Jew points intently at the game board, counting his opponent’s score.
Both figures are distinguished by visual conventions that would become increasingly common in Iberia from the last quarter of the thirteenth century onward. The Christian appears in three-quarter view; he is blond and bareheaded, with a light and neatly trimmed beard. The Jew wears a close-fitting, slightly pointed cap and a dark, wispy beard; his profile orientation emphasizes his enlarged eyes, strongly marked brows, and sharp nose, features reminiscent of the exaggerated physiognomies already assigned to Jews elsewhere in western European imagery. The incorporation of these features is subtle: they blur persistently with more individualized, portraitlike traits that seem to identify the figure as a specific individual, perhaps a member of Alfonso’s court—as indeed a number of these figures may be. His individualization, his intent but tranquil expression, and his relaxed interaction with his opponent suggest that the signs that mark this figure as a Jew functioned primarily in a denotative sense, signifying his identity but lacking the negative or alienating nuances so often implicit in such features. His differences of dress and physiognomy from the Christian courtier deepen, if anything, the egalitarian quality of the image: seemingly no more concerned with cultural difference than were Berceo’s schoolboys, the two grown men play together just as the aristocratic Christians and Jews of Alfonso’s court probably did.
A contrast to this ludic image is provided by an illustration from a late fourteenth-century Catalan manuscript of the Breviari d’amor, written by the Franciscan monk Matfre Ermengaud (London, British Library, Yates Thompson MS 31, fol. 132r). Composed in Occitan around 1288, this encyclopedic exposition on the various forms of spiritual love, from love of children to love of God, had quickly gained a cycle of illustrations closely tied to its idiosyncratic text. By the first decades of the fourteenth century, both the text and its images had been transmitted to Iberia, where they came to be produced repeatedly in both Catalan and Castilian translations. The imagery in question appears in a section of the text that concerns the refusal of Jews to accept Christianity’s fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy. Like others in this section, this illumination accompanies Ermengaud’s vernacular commentary on the short passages of Hebrew scripture, each copied with painstaking care into its own text panel, that appear in the margins (fig. 2).
Two of the three illustrative panels set within the text columns concretize Ermengaud’s charge that the Jews have remained blind to the New Law implicit in their own scriptures. Each depicts a doleful Jewish figure, enveloped in the red, hooded cloak and narrow slippers by which Jews were commonly denoted in the visual traditions of the Aragonese Crown, and each is beset by eager demons. In the first panel, two demons with curved goat’s horns draw a blindfold tightly across the eyes of the Jew, who raises one hand ineffectually as a small codex droops in the other. In the second, a demon with large bat wings covers the ears of a heavily bearded Jew as he gazes uncomprehendingly at the scroll in his hands. A third panel in the lower left corner provides a counterpoint to these befuddled figures, depicting Saint Jerome gazing at his own long scroll with placid comprehension.
These are very different Jews from the mild-featured backgammon player of Alfonso’s manuscript. Stripped of individualizing features and identified primarily by the generic markers of slippers, hood, and beard, these figures stand for all Jews in their torpid inability to comprehend the higher truths behind the letters of their own sacred texts. The demons’ oppressive gestures call to mind the litany of grievances over Jewish resistance to the truths of their Law that had become a constant in medieval Christian polemics, as crisply exemplified by the reproachful words of the French Cluniac Peter the Venerable: “Open your eyes at last, open your ears, and be ashamed that you are clearly the only blind people in the world, the only deaf people to remain.” The agency of demons in perpetuating this Jewish insensibility, as we shall see, has a similarly rich ideological pedigree and an even wider cultural reach, since it evoked popular superstitions about Jewish association with the devil and necromancy that lay well beyond the limits of acceptable church doctrine.
The contrastive visions of the Jewish-Christian relationship that these images present, like those offered by the two texts with which this chapter began, exemplify the diversity of roles played by Jews in the temporal and the spiritual worlds of Iberia’s medieval Christians. They likewise bear with them cultural nuances accrued within their respective ideological frames: one image shaped by the peculiar flexibility of an aristocratic court culture, the other by generations of exegesis, religious polemics, superstition, and popular lore. Each thus offers a perspective on the Jewish-Christian relationship in Iberia that is very rich in potential and that deserves incorporation into a wider scholarly discourse.
The present book aims to effect this incorporation by examining the potential of visual imagery to enrich modern understanding of the place and perception of Jews in the Christian kingdoms of medieval Spain during the twelfth through mid-fourteenth centuries, during and just after the most active phase of the phenomenon that is imperfectly, but for this period justifiably, labeled the “Reconquest.” My efforts are grounded in the belief that the scrutiny of such imagery can expand and refine, to an extent impossible through study of texts alone, modern understanding of the ways in which Jews figured in the Iberian Christian imagination, and of the ways in which these ideas were expressed and reinforced during the central and late Middle Ages. This period, as we shall see, was one of particular dynamism for medieval Iberian Christians, whose growing hegemony within the Iberian Peninsula and deepening engagement with European culture outside it prompted widespread changes in their perceptions of, and behavior toward, the religious minorities with which they had shared space for so long. At the same time, it heralded significant changes for the Jews of the peninsula, whose status under both Muslim and Christian majorities, while neither static nor monolithic, would be irreversibly reshaped by the new Christian dominance. It is in visual culture, I believe, that this transformation can be traced at its richest and most expansive.
The broader study of religious and cultural relationships in Christian Spain has reached a point at which work of this kind can be particularly fruitful. Shifting from the broad, teleological perspective characteristic of much early scholarship, recent historians of medieval Iberian cultural relations have begun to refine such arguments by sharpening their focus to specific historical events, sites, monuments, and issues, an approach that permits closer attention to the variability of conditions and forces that obtained in a land that was far from unified in politics, culture, or language. The most successful of these studies have scrutinized the dynamics of individual communities to elucidate Christian perceptions of religious minorities in medieval Spain and to understand how such perceptions affected daily relationships.
David Nirenberg has argued for the importance of this shift as a corrective to the distorted perspectives forged by those who, on the one side, have presented the history of Jews in Spain as a gradually progressive decline paralleling that of Jews in western Europe as a whole, and those who, on the other, have emphasized episodes of social tolerance and cultural exchange as evidence of a fundamentally peaceful coexistence that, until the fifteenth century at least, was marred only exceptionally by interreligious tension. The latter have taken Américo Castro’s classic concept of convivencia, originally intended to acknowledge a more variable coexistence and exchange of cultural and especially linguistic forms, to an optimistic, misleading extreme, using it to imply the existence of a peaceful pluralism.
The interpretive difficulties posed by Spain’s complex political and cultural history clearly render this polarization untenable. In a land divided unstably among feuding Christian and Muslim political authorities, both of which hosted a Jewish minority that lived for centuries under a very wide range of circumstances, social relationships and attitudes varied widely, and they could change as quickly as a border shifted or a castle fell. The resultant diversity demands the scrutiny of a great range and depth of evidence, and recent scholarship on Iberian cultural relations has responded by looking beyond traditional disciplinary boundaries in order to analyze legal and ecclesiastical texts, court and economic records, theological and philosophical works, and even literature and drama as grounds for a more textured conception of the ways in which Jews figured in a changing Christian worldview. The result has been a fuller and certainly more accurate picture of medieval Iberian life than was offered by more conventionally framed studies, a picture that opens the way to the important contributions to be made by the study of visual culture.
Despite its inherent anachronism in a medieval context, I have deliberately chosen to use the term “visual culture” alongside terminology more traditional to the field of medieval Iberian studies. While for medieval artists and viewers the term’s dependence upon a perceived division between “high” and “low” art would have been of questionable relevance, for modern readers more accustomed to such a division it is a usefully expansive descriptor in that it emphasizes the extraordinary breadth of visual forms that will be examined here, from deluxe court manuscripts and limestone sculptures to lusterware dishes and hasty scribal doodles. Because the makers and viewers of such works expanded well beyond the literate royal and religious circles from which much other historical evidence has tended to emanate, study of this wide range of objects provides a perspective on the Jewish-Christian relationship in Spain to which traditional textual sources may not fully attest, and with this a chance to perceive more accurately the textures and complexities of medieval Iberian society: its popular tensions and local habits; its stereotypes; its ingrained superstitions.
The present book undertakes to do just this for a pivotal period of Iberian history, stretching from the last decades of the twelfth century into the middle of the fourteenth. This period represented a phase of dramatic social change for the Iberian Christian kingdoms, whose increasingly organized efforts to claim Muslim-held lands in the course of their Reconquest had begun to see marked success. During the twelfth and early thirteenth centuries, key military victories expanded Christian political authority over great swaths of new land in central and southern Spain, and with this over thousands of new Muslim and Jewish subjects. The need to assimilate these religious minorities in a manner that would preserve their social and economic utility without threatening the stability of Christian rule became a perpetual preoccupation for their northern conquerors. So too, under the influence of a church increasingly active in the drive to eradicate heterodoxy in all forms, would the desire to articulate theologically the place of these minority religions with respect to Christianity. In both endeavors, as this book will show, Iberian rulers and theologians alike found ammunition in the texts, practices, and images of their nearest European neighbors, where the lack of religious minorities in equally significant numbers had done little to discourage an explosion of polemics, legislation, and restrictive social practices aimed at controlling such groups’ status in both theology and public life.
The tensions that accompanied such changes bore heavily on all Spain’s inhabitants, but perhaps never more poignantly than on Iberia’s Jews, who since the Roman era had survived, and sometimes thrived, as a minority within both Christian and Muslim spheres. In both cases, Jewish status had depended in great part upon how the ruling culture understood and attempted to control both perceived and actual differences between itself and its minority populations. Jews living in recently assimilated Christian lands now found themselves part of a transformed and irregular social landscape, within which their perceived value as an administrative and economic resource was easily overbalanced by suspicion of their acculturation to Muslim ways and their rejection of the majority faith. The complexity of their situation provoked an equally complex Christian response, which was driven above all by the need to craft a new conception of Jews and their faith that would function effectively within this radically transformed world. This response can be observed on many fronts, from legal initiatives and religious polemic to social practices and literature. It is also attested, however, by a new wealth of visual imagery—found in manuscripts, sculpture, ceramics, and other media—that was generated by and for the newly confident Christian majority during this pivotal phase. These images, and the unique perspective that they offer on the transformed relationships of Jews and Christians during this time, will be the focus of this book.
The Study of Visual Culture and the Medieval Jewish-Christian Relations
Since the appearance in 1966 of Bernhard Blumenkranz’s influential study of the depiction of Jews in Christian art, a number of publications have addressed the ways in which Christian representations of Jews help to illuminate the attitudes and day-to-day realities that characterized the dealings of the two medieval communities. To date, such studies have focused primarily on northern European medieval culture, if also recognizing, and in doing so often deliberately avoiding, the social and cultural complexities of the Iberian arena. They nonetheless provide a usefully adaptable model for the extension of this work into the Iberian Peninsula.
One of the most important claims inherent in this literature concerns the rise, during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, of a newly hostile visual language that seems to parallel the heightened religious tensions felt throughout Europe during this period. The emergence of such signs has been related by many to new social and economic pressures that in this period strained an already complicated relationship between Jews and Christians in western Europe. These included widespread resentment of the new Jewish monopoly on moneylending as canon law increasingly restricted Christian usury; the imposition, formalized at the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215, of identifying dress to prevent Jews and Christians from mingling too freely; and increasingly intense fears of Jewish predation in the form of infanticide, well poisoning, and host desecration. Accompanying and inspiring these social tensions, as Jeremy Cohen in particular has shown, was a widespread theological shift from an Augustinian view of Judaism as the root of a vital new faith to the condemnation of Jews as Christ-killers and heretics.
For medieval France, England, and Germany, the regions on which most modern study has focused to date, the analysis of visual culture has both deepened and revolutionized modern understanding of these developments, but for Iberia such study has lagged. There the scrutiny of visual and material culture has tended to focus more fully on elucidating the relationship between the peninsula’s politically dominant cultures of Islam and Christianity, for which abundant visual evidence exists and which has understandable appeal for modern scholars. To direct similar questions to the Jewish-Christian relationship in Spain is equally feasible, as has been well attested by several important museum exhibitions on Jewish life in Spain that have appeared since the early 1990s. It has been attested as well by consequential scholarship on art produced by Jews, which amply demonstrates such works’ potential to elucidate the status of Jews within a culturally Christian majority whose sense of self-identity was expressed with increasing force in the central and latter Middle Ages. However, the same depth has not been attained in the study of how such developments might be represented in Christian-made works of art in Iberia, and especially of the complex ways in which such images intersected with broader social and cultural trends during key periods such as the one to be considered here. More often, such scholarship has taken the form of broad surveys whose extended chronological focus impedes a synthetic view.
The present study aims to be both tighter in chronological span and more expansive in cultural and disciplinary scope. It will examine the birth of a new visual language used to represent Jews, their faith, and their place within Christian society as it began to emerge just as and just after the Christian successes of the Reconquest reached their height in the late twelfth and early thirteenth centuries. It will posit that these two developments were by no means coincidental: that the explosion of new ways of representing—and, by extension, of new ways of conceptualizing—Jews and Judaism in Iberia was facilitated by, and often directly responsive to, the near-universal social and ideological upheavals that accompanied the rise to power of Christian rulers and church authorities throughout the peninsula during this period. Recognizing that the origins of this imagery often lay well outside the Iberian sphere, it will examine the importation and adaptation of these predominantly foreign forms as a key aspect of this response. Its ultimate goal is to trace conclusively the ways in which visual culture articulated, supported, and even advanced the transformation of Jewish-Christian relationships in an equally transformed Iberia.
It is challenging, to say the least, to venture broadly synthetic conclusions about any aspect of culture in a land so diverse as medieval Christian Iberia. The northern kingdoms differed significantly from each other in everything from political organization to ethnic makeup and language, and individual local contexts could differ even more dramatically, prompting potentially very different medieval readings of images and objects that might to modern viewers seem similar. Because of this, my study will aim less for comprehensiveness or teleological momentum than for an analysis that is founded on the scrutiny of individual works within their equally individual social and cultural settings. Doing so, especially within the context of a deliberately tightened chronological frame, will permit a deeper examination of those examples that bear most fruitfully on this book’s larger questions, teasing out the preoccupations and patterns necessary for a more textured understanding of them.
To analyze visual images in relation to community ideology is not, of course, the same thing as to analyze them as historical documents themselves. Images, like literature, present a constructed reality that draws freely on the perceptions and agenda of the artist and the prevailing expectations of his or her audience. The tendency of medieval artists to rely on convention and tradition, rather than direct observation, renders the “archaeological” reading to which medieval images are sometimes submitted very risky. Rather than succumbing to the temptation to read such images as veritable snapshots of medieval life, we must recognize that they testify primarily to what Iberian Christians, and then perhaps only one or some Christians, merely thought about their Jewish neighbors: how they understood Jews to function, and what they thought they represented, within their own world and worldview.
This notion draws substantially upon Jeremy Cohen’s famous concept of the “hermeneutical Jew”: a conceptual image of the Jew as constructed not on the basis of lived experience, but “in the discourse of Christian theology.” Whereas Cohen’s hermeneutical Jew was formed within the writings and preaching of Christian churchmen and within a primarily theological sphere, a flowering of scholarship inspired by this argument has proven that its impact could be felt well beyond the boundaries of traditional theology. Visual images of Jews, just as much as literary, historical, and conceptual ones, underwent a hermeneutical process of their own as they were made meaningful to the readers, hearers, and viewers for which they were intended, and in the course of that process their meaning could change in accordance with the varying preoccupations or anxieties of this audience. The constructed character of the images analyzed here, which responds as much to traditional ideology as to the needs, values, and perceptions of a contemporaneous viewer, thus remains central to our understanding of how these images reveal the transformations of medieval Iberian society during this pivotal historical phase.
The Historical Frame
The chronological frame encompassed by this study opens at the end of the twelfth century, a moment marked both by a lull between two highly active phases of the Reconquest and by the emergence of the first Christian images in which the Jewishness of particular figures and themes first seems to have earned the conscious attention of patrons and artists. It ends with the onset of the Black Plague ca. 1348, the social disruptions of which so transformed the place of Jews in medieval Iberian society, as elsewhere in Europe, as to warrant a conclusion here. This span thus encompasses the most territorial expansive period of the Reconquest in the early thirteenth century and the new settlement that followed this expansion, prompting an unprecedented shuffling of relationships between the conquering Christians and the religious Others with whom this process brought them into increased contact. Just as the Crusades provoked for Christendom a new awareness of the differences between itself and the cultures beyond its Mediterranean boundaries, the Reconquest seems to have prompted a new drive to explore such differences within medieval Spain.
By the end of the twelfth century, the Christian kingdoms of Iberia had reached a turning point with regard to both their individual political and cultural formation and their relationships with the rest of Europe. The success of increasingly unified attempts to capture Muslim-held territory for the expanding northern kingdoms of Leon-Castile, Navarre, and Aragon had accelerated markedly after centuries of slow and sporadic effort. In the five preceding centuries following the Muslim invasion of Visigothic Iberia in 711–14 C.E., Christian and Muslim polities had both fought and forged alliances in the struggle for political stability. Each had treated its religious minorities, including the Jews, who had lived in Spain at least since the late Roman period, with everything from grudging tolerance to outright persecution. Now, following the collapse of the Umayyad caliphate in the eleventh century and the military successes of the Christian kingdoms in the twelfth, the balance of power had shifted decisively.
By the first decades of the thirteenth century, more than half of the Iberian Peninsula, along with substantial populations of Muslims and Jews, had come to rest in the hands of Christian rulers. By 1248, this would increase to encompass all but the small tributary kingdom of Granada at the southern tip of the peninsula. The kings of these suddenly expanded realms now looked northward toward their counterparts in other European kingdoms, not only for sources of money and manpower in the conquest and settlement of previously Muslim lands, but also for cultural models in the formation of a proper Christian realm. Rulers intermarried increasingly with the other royal houses of Europe, as did Fernando III of Castile when he took Elizabeth of Hohenstaufen (known in Spain as Beatriz de Suabia) as a bride. Iberian kings and their courtiers increasingly crossed the Pyrenees for education and diplomacy in foreign courts. When they returned, these travelers often brought with them both examples and producers of those courts’ latest forms of cultural expression: writers, troubadours, artists, and architects, who mingled freely with the native physicians and philosophers of the Iberian courts to forge a culture newly transfigured by a European cultural stamp. In visual culture, this phenomenon is best exemplified in the great cathedrals of Burgos and Leon, both begun in the second quarter of the thirteenth century and modeled heavily on French Gothic examples.
New contacts with Europe were effected along other routes as well. As early as the eleventh century, Iberian kings had encouraged monks from France, first Benedictines from Cluny but eventually also Cistercians, regular Augustinians, and other religious communities, to travel to Spain to aid in religious revival and reform. The establishment of new monasteries, and the regularization of existing ones, was seen as essential to the stability of territories recently taken from Al-Andalus, as well as to the support of the historically profitable pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela—itself a powerful highway for the transmission of culture and ideas. From the thirteenth century onward, the introduction into Iberia of newly founded orders with a distinct missionizing agenda, chiefly Dominicans and Franciscans, heightened this effect, as did increasing trade with both northern Europe and the Mediterranean. The twelfth through fourteenth centuries thus witnessed the importation into the Christian kingdoms of all manner of new cultural products from beyond the Pyrenees, including Romanesque and Gothic architectural forms, new kinds of liturgical performance, and a wide range of theological and secular literature.
These cultural importations carried with them conceptual ones, especially new ways of thinking about the world and the various peoples within it. In much of Europe, these conceptual patterns were marked by a century of engagement in the Crusades and by the deep concern of the Latin Church with heresy, both within its ranks and beyond them. Such phenomena added urgency to the threat, whether theological or social, that Judaism and Islam were seen to pose to western Christendom. The church’s expansive battle to control and convert or eliminate such nonbelievers was waged on many fronts, from theological polemics to an insistence first on the separation of non-Christian minorities, as at the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215, then on their outright elimination or conversion. Such efforts took root much earlier and more actively in countries like England, France, and Germany than they would in Iberia, where the long-standing coexistence of multiple religious cultures surely muted the perceived urgency of the church’s concerns. Nonetheless, by the middle of the thirteenth century, with such developments as the entry of the Dominican Order into Spain, ecclesiastical efforts to purge and unify western Christendom had gained a foothold on the peninsula.
Christian Iberia’s new openness to, even appetite for, ultra-Pyrenean culture included a receptiveness to new ideas about the place of Jews and other religious minorities within a majority Christian culture, just at a time when Europeans themselves were developing a new awareness of their relatively circumscribed place in a larger world and a new desire to clarify the terms of their own identity. Their intensifying discomfort with those who stood outside their cultural norms, whether Muslims, Jews, heretics, lepers, Byzantines, or Tartars, would powerfully shape Iberian Christians’ views of their own intercultural relationships.
The developments described here did not progress monolithically throughout Iberia: political, cultural, religio-ethnic, and linguistic differences among the Spanish kingdoms remained strong throughout this period, as is reflected also in the individualization of each one’s legislative, social, and cultural history. These differences, as we shall see, often included sharp contrasts in policies toward, ideas about, and images of Jews, who themselves played different roles with respect to the populations of each polity. Such differences are particularly marked between the two most powerful and extensive Iberian crowns, that of Castile, unified with Leon from 1230 onward, and that of Aragon, which had merged with Catalonia in 1137 and absorbed the kingdom of Valencia after 1238. One challenge undertaken in this book is to recognize this variability as a component of broad conclusions that apply beyond a single realm.
Connections with Northern Europe
Because the changing status and perception of Jews in Iberia remained consistently intertwined with the conditions for Jews elsewhere in Latin Christendom, these developments must be outlined here as well. During the central Middle Ages, the position of Jews in Europe had reached its own turning point. Although the degree to which this should be viewed as a unified phenomenon might be questioned, a general deterioration of Christian tolerance for Jewish minorities has been documented in many European communities from the late eleventh century onward. Jeremy Cohen and others have argued that during this period, the relatively benign Augustinian view that Jews were witnesses to Christian history whose continued presence on earth as “living letters of the law” was acceptable, even necessary, to a dominant Christian society was gradually replaced in Christian thinking by a heightened perception of Jews as actively antagonistic to Christians and their faith. Central to this shift was a reconceptualization of Jews as outright enemies of Christianity—as killers of Christ, as heretics, as allies of the devil, and as authors of all manner of societal ills, from usury and plague to child murder.
This shift was not merely theological; it was accompanied by, and to some extent sprang from, other social, political, and economic factors that emerged during the same period: the increased mobility of medieval society with the rise of trade and pilgrimage; the repeated moral and economic setbacks of the Crusades; the development of large urban centers such as Paris, with their flourishing bourgeois classes; the growth of international trade; and the rise of a money economy. The place of Jews, along with that of other incompletely assimilated outgroups, within this precarious social order became increasingly difficult for many Christians to articulate and justify as their own social roles began to change, and a once tolerated, if disparaged, religious minority came to be perceived as threatening both the social hierarchy and the individuals that composed it. Some fears of Jews had a concrete foundation, as when the enforcement of usury laws prohibiting Christian lending at interest to other Christians left mainly Jewish lenders available in this role; others, such as the accusations of well poisoning or predation upon Christian children that emerged repeatedly from the twelfth century onward, drew on fantasy and rumor. Both signaled a sea change in the terms on which Christians and Jews would interrelate for centuries to come.
This change may be most easily traced in the actions of political and ecclesiastical authorities. Many would point first to the watershed of the Fourth Lateran Council of 1215, in which rules regarding the visual differentiation of Jews from Christians by distinctive dress were among a number of efforts promulgated throughout Christendom to segregate Jews and other minorities. Secular rulers, although often hesitant to pressure excessively a population from which they customarily derived significant financial profit, weighed in with their own increasingly restrictive legislation, which was often aimed at controlling not only social interaction, but also economic and legal dealings between Christians and Jews. Yet in many areas mere separation was not seen as sufficient: papally sanctioned efforts to convert Jews through enforced sermons and other strategies found increasing support from secular authorities from the mid-thirteenth century onward.
Ultimately, even these measures proved insufficient for many European rulers, for whom the outright expulsion of Jews from their lands represented a means of simultaneously eliminating a vexing minority problem and annexing their remaining wealth and goods. Jews were expelled from England in 1290 and from France several times before their permanent expulsion in 1394; small local expulsions also took place in German and Italian lands over the course of the fifteenth century. Such policies eventually reached Iberia, as is well known, although Jewish populations survived in the kingdoms of Aragon and Castile until 1492, in Portugal until 1497, and in Navarre until 1498.
The tightening policies of church and state authorities were interwoven with increased tensions at the popular level as well. Indeed, the most significant episodes of popular violence against Jews in Europe had roots in local reaction to political and religious developments: the infamous attacks on Jewish communities along the Rhine in 1096 were perpetrated by Christian troops just setting out on the First Crusade, while the accusations of ritual murder that emerged throughout Europe following the mysterious death of William of Norwich in 1144 were often fostered, as Gavin Langmuir has shown, by local clergy. The latter charge was only one of several key topoi that began to emerge in popular imaginings about Jews as expressed in local rumor and superstition. Now not simply killers of Christ, nor even merely pragmatic obstacles to the running of an orderly society, Jews became linked with more ominous stereotypes: allies of the devil, practitioners of black magic, and authors of all manner of societal ills, from usury and well poisoning to sexual deviance and child murder. Whereas specific historical accusations of this kind are sometimes documented in legal texts or church records, such “actual” cases of Jewish predation on the Christian faithful had important conceptual analogues in the stereotypes and stock narratives that at this point began to emerge in other forms of verbal and visual expression, including religious philosophy and polemic; the narratives of liturgical drama, song, and poetry; and various forms of visual imagery. Such works, springing from a rich admixture of tradition, rumor, and fantasy, offer a fertile ideological backdrop against which to scrutinize the works of visual culture that are examined in this book.
Most of these developments found a place in medieval Christian Iberia, but here their extent and trajectory differed. Despite a powerful appetite for many things European, Spanish Christians seem to have been slower to adopt many of the policies and attitudes toward Jews that prevailed elsewhere. Moreover, despite the increased production and availability of religious polemics on the subject, as well as growing pressure from religious leaders both within and outside the peninsula, secular authorities within Spain often resisted imperatives to segregate or restrict Jewish communities. Exemptions from canon and local laws regarding distinctive Jewish dress that were firmly enforced elsewhere in Europe, for example, were routinely granted by the kings of both Aragon and Castile during the thirteenth century. As we shall see, Iberian rulers, whose court retainers often included Jewish scholars and scientists and whose economic livelihood came to be tied closely to their Jewish communities, could also be highly skeptical or even dismissive of popular accusations against “their” Jews.
Such reactions must be attributed less to such leaders’ enlightened attitudes than to their interest in maintaining a status quo that had thus far served both Crowns well. The taxation of the Jewish aljamas consistently brought in welcome revenue, while the Jews’ knowledge of Arabic and engagement in commerce were of significant utility in settling and administering newly conquered Muslim lands. For scholars who, like Alfonso X, possessed loftier cultural goals, Jews also represented a key cog in the machinery that brought Eastern philosophy and science into the Latin-speaking sphere. Jews simply represented too useful a resource for their survival to be jeopardized by excessive external pressure.
At the popular level, too, Iberian Jews enjoyed a stabler existence than did their ultra-Pyrenean counterparts for much of the Middle Ages. Anti-Jewish violence on a large scale was rare here before the end of the fourteenth century, and in at least one instance an attack on the Jews of Toledo by foreign soldiers preparing for the battle of Las Navas de Tolosa was stopped by local troops. Yet at the same time, there is some evidence that popular society, and the clergy that served it, was more permeable to the shifts in ideology so rapidly transforming northern Europeans’ views of religious relations. This is witnessed, as we shall see in the next chapter, by the early assimilation of anti-Jewish narratives already popular in Europe, like the story of Theophilus and the Jewish boy of Bourges, both translated into the vernacular by Gonzalo de Berceo in the middle of the thirteenth century, as well as by the slow but eventual penetration of once-rejected claims of Jewish violence by the beginning of the next century.
The apparent Iberian resistance to anti-Jewish policies and attitudes changed dramatically at the middle of the fourteenth century. Already weakened by successive years of famine in the first half of the century, the population of northern Spain fell easy victim to the Black Death, which struck Europe with enormous force in the year 1348. Civil war between Castile and Aragon, as well as internal battles over the succession to the Castilian crown, caused widespread social disruption and economic pressures that emboldened an already rebellious nobility to resist the kings’ attempts to exert power. All this had disastrous results for Iberia’s already pressed minorities, not least of which was the unprecedented wave of pogroms that began in Seville in 1391 and spread to nearly every major Iberian city that same year. These events left both the social landscape and the visual culture of Spain very different indeed from what they had been over the preceding two centuries, and for this reason they mark the end of the period examined in this study.
Tracing the struggle of Christian rulers, church leaders, and the Christian populace to reconcile the conflicted position of Jews in a changing social order and in the process to define their own status within it is a central goal of this book, and that struggle is closely reflected by the changes that took place in Iberian visual culture precisely during the period in question. Not only do Christian images of Jews and other outgroups become more abundant from the late twelfth century onward, but they also display an increasing self-consciousness and complexity: characteristically generic images, such as the beardless, tunic-clad Jews of the early twelfth-century Girona Creation Tapestry (fig. 3), now gave way to more deliberately structured and hostile images responsive to specific points of tension between the Jewish minority and its increasingly dominant Christian overlords.
One of the signal characteristics of such imagery is its strong link with the visual traditions of the wider European arena. Iberia’s centuries of shared hegemony between Muslim and Christian rulers, its geographical dislocation from the European mainstream, and its proximity to north Africa and the Dar-al-Islam had resulted in a culture that was more layered and idiosyncratic than that in many areas of Europe. However, the successful expansion of the Christian kingdoms into traditionally Islamic lands in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, and the involvement of French and other northern rulers in these efforts, now facilitated a deepened engagement in many aspects of European culture. As we shall see, many although not all of the motifs and topoi employed by Iberian artists to construct their images of Jews, such as the “Jewish nose” and the deceptive usurer, had their origins in art outside the peninsula. For the Christians of northern Iberia, changing ideas about Jews thus went hand in hand with a new cultural orientation, and by extension with changing ideas about themselves.
Given these developments, a central question of this book will be if, and if so how, Spanish Christian imaginings about Jews and their faith differed from the conceptions emerging concurrently elsewhere in Europe. If in Europe as a whole, as has been argued, a critical reversal in Christian attitude from general tolerance of Jews to a pattern of hostility toward them led to sharply increased social and economic restrictions, mass violence, and outright expulsion, did northern Iberia follow a similar conceptual trajectory? Or did the deep cultural, political, and linguistic differences that separated the medieval Christian kingdoms of Iberia from much of trans-Pyrenean Europe, not to mention the deep familiarity with Jewish culture that characterized at least the major urban centers of the kingdom, engender alternative viewpoints here? How did Iberian Christians conceive of the place of Jews in both the real and the theological world? And how did visual culture record and promote these new conceptions? Addressing these questions represents the first stage of an inquiry aimed at a fuller understanding of the means by which Iberian Christians negotiated their relationships with, and expressed their differences from, the Jews with whose presence they would continue to grapple until their expulsion at the end of the fifteenth century.
Jews, Christians, and Images in Medieval Iberia
The first of this book’s central chapters traces the earliest, often sporadic efforts of Iberian artists to develop a visual lexicon capable of expressing prevailing preoccupations regarding Jews and their place in both temporal and salvation history. Initially, such signs took the form of widely known visual conventions that had been imported, virtually unaltered, from abroad and that served to point up long-held theological concerns, such as the question of Jewish involvement in the Crucifixion or disbelief in key doctrinal points. In time, and in tandem with the increasing efforts of political and religious authorities to more sharply demarcate social and cultural boundaries between Christians and Jews in general, these signs would come to be tailored more specifically to an Iberian milieu, with its particularized expectations and concerns. The insertion of new elements of Iberian Jewish dress, the manipulation of heretofore traditional symbols like Ecclesia and Synagoga, and overt references to doctrinal and social controversies that were particular to the Iberian sphere all contributed specialized meaning to these adopted signs.
This chapter will also consider the Iberian response to popular and literary stereotypes, such as the greedy usurer or the beautiful Jewess, that drew on European visual traditions, textual exempla, sermons, poetry, and liturgical drama. Particular attention will be given to the question of which of these stereotypes seem to have been adopted readily and which were disregarded or even observably resisted. Asking not just whether and whence such themes were imported, but also when, how, and by whom, will reveal that these were by no means passive adoptions. Instead, Iberian patrons and artists approached such topoi with striking selectivity. The logical conclusion, that some formulae simply remained untenable in the Iberian visual lexicon, attests to the persistence of social and ideological differences between the Iberian kingdoms and their counterparts north of the Pyrenees in spite of their new cultural ties.
Chapter 3 considers the human figure as a site upon which Jewish alterity began to be inscribed and inflected by Iberian artists. Although such stereotyped Jewish features as an enlarged nose and long beard, widely used elsewhere in Europe by the end of the twelfth century, are found in both Castile and Aragon by the middle of the thirteenth, they do not always carry the overtly negative charge that characterizes many ultra-Pyrenean works. Instead, as in the backgammon scene examined earlier in this chapter, they sometimes seem to have functioned as essentially neutral descriptors much like the formulaic likenesses often used by both Christian and Muslim Iberian artists to denote Africans or Arabs. Nonetheless, such morally neutral images often coexisted with others in which a negative value is quite clear, attesting to the variability with which Iberian artists deployed these and other physiognomic and somatic conventions. This dichotomy also introduces the controversial possibility that, at this very early date, Jewishness was coming to be seen in Iberia as a manifestation of religious identity that was to some extent physiological, foreshadowing early modern Spanish concerns regarding limpieza de sangre, or “purity of blood.”
Chapter 4 analyzes a phenomenon with a powerful legacy in medieval Spain: representations of Jews that are shaded by references to Muslims and Islam. The continuing presence of Muslims in high-medieval Iberia, both as rulers of a rapidly shrinking Islamic polity in the south and as an often populous minority in the Christian north, necessarily affected how Iberian Christians and Jews constructed their own cultural identities. The impact of these political and social stressors on Christian perceptions of Spain’s other cultural Others, the Jews, can be seen in a number of works of art in which the line between Jewish and Muslim figures has been either unconsciously or deliberately blurred. Analysis of these elisions necessarily will remain attentive to their varied interpretive possibilities: while some seem to parallel similarly meaningful conflations in religious polemic and law, others may simply reflect the degree to which actual Iberian Jews had adopted recognizably Islamic cultural practices by this period.
Chapter 5 addresses the depiction of Jews in the abundantly illustrated codices of the Cantigas de Santa María, produced for Alfonso X of Castile toward the end of his reign. While these extraordinary and oddly precocious manuscripts justifiably might be presented as unique works in the history of medieval Iberian art, they in fact draw together many of the same thematic strands that so powerfully shaped the imagery of other works under consideration here. Rather than scrutinizing the Cantigas de Santa María illustrations, as previous studies sometimes have, as either literal catalogues of Castilian social life or the personal bully pulpit of their royal patron, this chapter will present this imagery instead as a collection of quasi-independent visual narratives that reveal their artists’ struggle to reconcile highly abstracted European stereotypes of Jews with the immediate social experience of thirteenth-century Castilians. The multiple voices revealed during this process, as we shall see, speak powerfully of the tensions between authoritative and popular that were central to the production of many of the images in which the Jewish-Christian relationship would be negotiated during this period.
Ideally, the study of Jews in Iberian art and thought would extend beyond the Christian realms to examine Islamic Spain as well. Although few if any Islamic visual representations of Jews exist, ideas about Jews and Judaism among the Muslims of Al-Andalus shaped the ideas of Iberian Christians in ways too powerful to be overlooked. At the same time, however, the study of Jewish status in Islamic thought in general, and in Al-Andalus in particular, and the study of Jews in western Christendom draw on such a different range of sources and disciplinary methods that it would be difficult to encompass both in a single volume. Thus, while my study will draw upon the Islamic material whenever relevant and possible, its center necessarily will remain in the Christian kingdoms of the Iberian north.
The contradictory messages inherent in the texts and images with which this chapter began speak to the depth that the study of images can lend to modern understanding of the shifting historical fortunes of the Jews in Reconquest Iberia, of the changing Christian perspective that lay behind these events, and above all of the extraordinary variability of the changes that took place. As we shall see, alterations in the Christian perceptions of Jews did not emerge at the same rate, nor with equal vigor, in all areas of Iberian society. Instead, they followed varying trajectories within each kingdom, and even more within the varied ecclesiastical, popular, and royal circles to which they were made available. Each of these communities possessed its own motivations for the relationships it forged with the minority cultures with which it came into contact, and each found its own way of expressing these concerns.
Despite their formal, functional, and regional variety—or indeed because of it—the images examined in this book have the potential to furnish a more extensive and authentic view of the changing Jewish-Christian relationship in Spain than more traditional historical evidence allows. While many works, like the luxury manuscripts that make up a high percentage of the objects examined in the following chapters, were produced for royal or ecclesiastical patrons and might reasonably be taken to reflect an elite point of view, their artists often had more direct experience of the mentality outside the castle walls, and they sometimes drew upon a far greater diversity of sources, from clerical preaching to popular superstition, than their aristocratic patrons might have imagined. Other works, such as the scribal doodles and ceramics considered primarily in chapters 3 and 4, will offer an even more direct glimpse into the ways in which Jews and their culture were seen by segments of society that only rarely recorded their perceptions in written or visual form. Taken together, such works promise an enriched understanding of the Iberian view of Jews in this period.
In bringing to light works of art whose significance has eluded sustained scholarly attention, in examining the intersections of these objects with the nonvisual arts and texts that surrounded them, and in setting this inquiry against the idiosyncratic social landscape of Iberia’s Christian kingdoms during and following the apex of the Reconquest, this study seeks to add depth and texture to an investigative process that is already well advanced in many respects. My hope is that in demonstrating how Iberia’s newly preeminent Christians reframed and articulated their understanding of the Jewish place in a rapidly changing political and social arena, this work will also clarify how Iberian society came to redefine itself through such understanding—a redefinition so radical that, in the wake of the pogroms of 1391, the Portuguese-Jewish ethicist Solomon Alami could lament that Iberia’s Christians had rendered his once-assimilated people “aliens in their midst.”
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