In Dark Mirror, Sara Lipton offers a fascinating examination of the emergence of anti-Semitic iconography in the Middle Ages
The straggly beard, the hooked nose, the bag of coins, and gaudy apparel—the religious artists of medieval Christendom had no shortage of virulent symbols for identifying Jews. Yet, hateful as these depictions were, the story they tell is not as simple as it first appears.
Drawing on a wide range of primary sources, Lipton argues that these visual stereotypes were neither an inevitable outgrowth of Christian theology nor a simple reflection of medieval prejudices. Instead, she maps out the complex relationship between medieval Christians' religious ideas, social experience, and developing artistic practices that drove their depiction of Jews from benign, if exoticized, figures connoting ancient wisdom to increasingly vicious portrayals inspired by (and designed to provoke) fear and hostility.
At the heart of this lushly illustrated and meticulously researched work are questions that have occupied scholars for ages—why did Jews becomes such powerful and poisonous symbols in medieval art? Why were Jews associated with certain objects, symbols, actions, and deficiencies? And what were the effects of such portrayals—not only in medieval society, but throughout Western history? What we find is that the image of the Jew in medieval art was not a portrait of actual neighbors or even imagined others, but a cloudy glass into which Christendom gazed to find a distorted, phantasmagoric rendering of itself.
In her study of the presentation of Jews in medieval art, Lipton (Images of Intolerance) offers a "dizzying array of the images of Hebrew, Jews, and Jew-like figures." Starting in the 11th century, Lipton begins with the symbolic "Jewish hat," which has long puzzled scholars. Her theory that it derives from Eastern priestly sources is quite plausible, since Jews of that time in Europe dressed the same as Christians. As she traces the increasing commonality of portrayals of Jews as dark and ugly with big noses, her analyses grow more complicated. By the middle of the 12th century Jews are identified as symbols of the carnal desire for wealth and ostentation. Lipton dwells on the medieval exegesis that contrasted inner and outer spirituality, with the Jew as representative of the less sincere outer form. Moving up through the centuries, Lipton notes societal reasons, such as the rise of emphasis on the human Christ and his suffering, for the increased vilification of Jews. Speculation increases as she struggles to make sense of obscure, unique images, and Lipton concentrates so much on how Christians defined Jews that she overlooks the various sources on how Jews saw themselves. There is much here that scholars will find intriguing here, but some of the work would have benefitted from tighter organization.