Eva Frojmovic (Hg.): Imagining the self, imagining the other

Reviewed by: Nina Rowe

Imagining the Self, Imagining the Other: Visual Representation and Jewish-Christian Dynamics in the Middle Ages and Early Modern Period is an ambitious project. As editor of this volume, Eva Frojmovic gathers together essays on both Jewish self-representations and Christian visualizations of Jews and Jewishness in an effort to advance scholarly understanding of the interplay of Jewish and Christian cultures in the medieval period. Over the past several decades, medievalist scholars have conducted probing studies of images of Jews and Judaism made for both Jewish and Christian audiences. These studies rely upon the work of earlier generations of scholars who catalogued images and identified iconographic motifs (the tasks necessary in the first waves in any scholarly field) to undertake analyses that draw particularly on scholarship in cultural studies and explore the way images participate in identity formation. That Frojmovic brings together essays dealing with both Jewish and Christian images suggests a new intellectual stage in the subdiscipline. As Frojmovic puts it, „[w]e have much to gain by weaving the Other back into the fabric of the Self“ (xvii).

The first essay in this collection is a piece by Frojmovic examining early scholarship on Jewish art of the Middle Ages. This text, „Buber in Basel, Schlosser in Sarajevo, Wischnitzer in Weimar: The Politics of Writing about Medieval Jewish Art,“ frames the entire collection by taking a critical look at the earliest scholarship on Jewish art of the Middle Ages. Frojmovic demonstrates that the late 19th- and early 20th-century pioneers in the field subscribed to and perhaps unwittingly reinforced the nationalist paradigms that framed the nascent discipline of art history more generally. The most trenchant section of this essay deals with the dual (and dueling) commentaries of Julius von Schlosser and David Kaufmann in the 1898 facsimile of the Sarajevo Haggadah. The non-Jewish art historian, Schlosser, deemed Jewish illumination to be derivative, bearing signs of Jewish decrepitude resulting from miscegenation with lesser races. The Jewish bibliophile Kaufman, alternately considered the Haggadah illuminators to be bursting with irrepressible, youthful vibrancy and he celebrated the energy with which Jews could draw upon the traditions of their surrounding (Christian) artistic milieux [1]. The earliest art histories were grounded in the Hegelian notion that culture is the product of the spirit of a people which, in the modern period, found concrete manifestation in the nation state. The other early scholars Frojmovic discusses in this essay exemplify in various ways an early struggle to define in artistic terms such a Jewish spirit in an age where there was no Jewish state. These efforts, Frojmovic suggests, ultimately only fortified racist ideals informing the developing fields of French and German art history. By opening her volume with this essay, Frojmovic implies that the following articles represent an overdue challenge to notions embedded in the scholarship of Jewish art.

The next three articles in the collection analyze Hebrew manuscripts created in Christian Spain in relation to the commitments and aspirations of their original viewers. All three conceive of the illuminated manuscript as a site of subversion, a site where Jews could convey a sense of their own chosen status and kindle hostility toward the Christian majority. In „Another Flight into Egypt: Confluence, Coincidence, the Cross-Cultural Dialectics of Messianism and Iconographic Appropriation in Medieval Jewish and Christian Culture,“ Marc Michael Epstein returns to propositions set forth forcefully in his earlier book, Dreams of Subversion (1997) [2]. Traditional scholarship on Hebrew illuminated manuscripts often was committed simply to discerning the Christian sources from which Jewish illuminations borrowed. Epstein, however, is determined to demonstrate that Christian visual formulae transferred to Jewish contexts, placed in relation to Hebrew texts could gain new, subversive meaning in the eyes of their Jewish beholders. This essay focuses on a miniature of Moses and his family in the celebrated Golden Haggadah. It is evident that this image shares formal characteristics with Christian representations of the Holy Family's Flight into Egypt. Epstein contends that the adoption of this Christian iconographic motif in a Jewish context could proclaim the superiority of Moses over Joseph and thus the Jewish over the Christian tradition (even if the artists were Christian, which may have been the case). Epstein's work has reframed the discipline of Hebrew manuscript studies and the repeated references to his scholarship in the essays of the other contributors to this volume attest to his influence. As ambitious and far reaching as his work is, though, Epstein frequently leaves questions of textual and material context unexplored. In the present essay for example he successfully identifies midrashic sources that likely inflected Jewish response to Mosaic motifs, yet he does not mention the function of the Moses illumination in relation to the texts of the Haggadah or the Passover ritual more generally. Also left out of the analysis is the fact that the miniature under discussion is one of a larger narrative ensemble and makes up only one quadrant of a fully illuminated page.

Michael Batterman addresses questions of viewership and the larger visual landscape in his own study of Jewish adoption and reinterpretation of Christian motifs: „Bread of Affliction, Emblem of Power: The Passover Matzah in Haggadah Manuscripts from Christian Spain.“ Similar to Epstein, Batterman considers Jewish appropriation of Christian signs as a potentially subversive act, conceptually challenging the social, political and religious might of the majority. Batterman focuses on the monumentalized, iconic images of matzah (unleavened bread) in Sephardic Haggadah manuscripts. He relies on mystical textual formulations found in the Sefer ha-Zohar („Book of Splendor“) to demonstrate how late 13th- and 14th-century Castilian Jews often conceived of the matzah as a manifestation of the Shekhinah or „Divine Presence,“ hence justifying the glorified illuminated renderings of what otherwise might be considered a culturally-significant cracker. But this iconographic investigation is bolstered by a compelling comparison of matzah images to Christian forms such as images of the consecrated Host, cosmographical diagrams of a Christian ordered-world, as well as notary marks, seals and heraldry. Perhaps the most fascinating section of Batterman's analysis deals with the visual and theological analogies made between the matzah and the Host by both Jews and Christians in the high Middle Ages. Batterman's account of the Jewish-Christian contest played out symbolically around two species of unleavened bread offers a model for analyses of the confluence and clashes between symbolic modes within cultural discourse more generally.

Illumination as site of Jewish self-identification also is the subject of Eva Frojmovic's second essay in the collection, „Messianic Politics in re-Christianized Spain: Images of the Sanctuary in Hebrew Bible Manuscripts.“ Frojmovic examines stylized representations of sacred objects presented in Jewish manuscripts from 13th- and 14th-century Spain and considers these images to be indices of the cultural climate in which they were produced and viewed. Frojmovic defines the representations under investigation as Sanctuary images, appearing as they do in a type of Bible known as the Mikdash-yah („Sanctuary of God“). These Sanctuary images are fairly consistent. Placed within rectangular, subdivided frames are sacred objects described in the book of Exodus such as the menorah, the Tablets of the Law and Aaron's flowering rod; typically the images are surrounded by textual inscriptions. Frojmovic analyzes various Sanctuary images and their attendant texts in relation to the theological and political contexts at three specific moments: The reign of Alfonso X in Castile (1221-1284), the generation after the 1263 disputation (public trial) in Barcelona, and the age leading up to the 1391 massacres and mass conversions of Jews throughout Christian Spain. Her particularized analyses of specific manuscripts (useful in their own rights) ultimately contribute to a larger conclusion: In various ways at various moments, the Mikdash-yah manuscripts respond to contemporary midrash and these exegetic interpretations express specifically messianic hopes in the face of repeated (and increasingly aggressive) Christian hostility and proselytization. Though Frojmovic does not explore the issue, her conclusions are particularly compelling if one considers graphic strategies evident in the Jewish manuscripts in relation to Christian practice. In a society saturated with images of the Christian messiah incarnate-as child, as king, as bleeding victim-Jewish communities could make plain their distinctive chosen status by representing their messianic hopes through objects not bodies, demonstrating a rigid adherence to God's Second Commandment.

The contributions from Sara Lipton and Annette Weber take Christian images as their subjects, examining how pictorial motifs referring specifically to Jews and Judaism could function as signs for a variety of threatening communities. In „The Temple is my Body: Gender, Carnality, and Synagoga in the Bible Moralisée,“ Lipton analyses the use of a female personification of the Synagogue (Synagoga) within allegorized picture Bibles, known as the Bible moralisée, created for the French royal court around 1225. Here she expands upon propositions put forth in her book on the image of the male Jew in these manuscripts, Images of Intolerance (1999) [3]. In this essay, Lipton seeks to complicate and nuance discussion on visual representations of Synagoga, particularly stressing the fact that in the Bible moralisée, Synagoga (perhaps for the first time) is presented as a character within narrative cycles rather than being a static form within a figurative ensemble. In these moralized manuscript contexts, Lipton argues, Synagoga is not simply anti-type for the Holy Church, represented as the feminized figure Ecclesia. Rather, Synagoga became a mutable sign that could convey notions ranging from the enduring status of Hebrew scripture in Christian theology to the (now lost) honor of God's original „chosen“; from the debasement of the Jews for their rejection of Christ to the wanton sensuality, insubordination and peevishness of women in general. Lipton's argument is especially compelling in her discussion of the gendered identities ascribed to Synagoga in relation to medieval medical texts on male and female reproductivity. This discussion contributes useful insights to a field that long has acknowledged that there is something to be said about the gendering of Synagoga as female, but until now has not mined the historical record for material to explore the issue.

Annette Weber's „The Hanged Judas of Freiburg Cathedral: Sources and Interpretations“ moves the discussion from the intimate realm of the manuscript to the monumental arena of the church façade. Included within the figurative ensemble at the west porch of Freiburg Münster (c. 1300) is an image of Judas at the moment of his suicide. Judas hangs from a tree and is surrounded by Jewish men. The 30 denarii Judas holds attest to his betrayal of Christ. The intestines that burst from his stomach mark his internal decrepitude. Weber attributes this new iconographic type in part to developments in liturgical dramas as well as to mendicant preaching which emphasized lively exempla tales to appeal to broad urban publics [4]. Weber is particularly attentive to audience. She considers the limited accessibility to the Freiburg porch, visible on high feast days and the site of the Freiburg municipal tribunal. She observes that the distinctive audiences who used the Freiburg porch could have viewed the hanged Judas in a variety of ways: As strictly a character in a biblical episode, as a warning against avarice, as a condemnation of Jewish greed. The core of Weber's argument is a recognition that in the semi-public realm of the Münster porch, an iconographic motif of Judas could be semiotically indeterminate. It is unfortunate, though that Weber stops short of theorizing how the material qualities of such works invited multiple interpretations-that is, how style and format may have contributed to this multivalence.

The final two essays in the collection return to images made by Jews, for Jews. Diane Wolfthal's „Imaging the Self: Representations of Jewish Ritual in Yiddish Books of Customs“ focuses on a manuscript Sefer Minhagim (a book of religious customs) from northern Italy, c. 1503. This book, written on paper, is the only surviving illustrated manuscript written in the Yiddish vernacular and so prior to any analysis, Wolfthal makes an important contribution simply by drawing scholarly attention to the work. The text of the manuscript reviews the rituals and necessary prayers for rite-of-passage celebrations such as weddings and circumcisions as well as for yearly holidays such as Sukkot, Passover and Purim. The margins are filled with pen-and-wash drawings, renderings of ritual activity that are completed with identifying captions. Wolfthal compares these images with woodcut prints in contemporary Christian books on Jewish ritual such as Johannes Pfefferkorn's Libellus de Judaica Confessione (1508). It comes as little surprise that the Christian images denigrate Jews, incorrectly representing Jewish ritual garments, depicting Jews as blind, ugly or rude while in the Sefer Minhagim Jews are industrious, pious and joyous. Particularly compelling, though, is Wolfthal's comparison of the manuscript to later printed Jewish custom books, especially their representations of women. In printed custom books from 1593 and 1600, women are relegated to the ritual margins, whereas they are central to the imaged celebrations in the manuscript Sefer Minhagim. Historical evidence about the visibility and ritual participation of women in northern Italy in the early 16th century enriches Wolfthal's discussion, though one is left asking questions pertaining to medium. The 1503 manuscript was a privately-produced, amateurish work while the 1593 and 1600 editions were mass-produced, luxury volumes. Such differences are not addressed. A footnote states that this article is part of a larger book-length project where, one expects, such questions concerning this fascinating manuscript can be explored more deeply.

The final essay in this collection, Thomas Hubka's „Medieval Themes in the Wall-Paintings of 17th- and 18th-century Polish Wooden Synagogues,“ considers the endurance of antique and medieval motifs in the early modern world. Hubka limits his discussion to the wall-paintings of a wooden synagogue in the town of Gwozdziec in the southern Ukraine, a 17th- and 18th-century structure that was destroyed during the Second World War, but which was extensively photographed and documented beforehand. The building 's interior was covered from floor to cupola-ed ceiling with a dense carpet-like decorative scheme. Hubka seeks to show that the rich animal, vegetal and architectonic figures interwoven here with textual inscriptions derive from Jewish Ashkenazic illuminated manuscripts. The 18th-century painted forms could thus be a visual analogue to the Yiddish language. Just as, in the period around 1350, waves of German speaking Jews moved to the Polish kingdom, encountered eastern-European languages and slowly developed the Yiddish vernacular, so goes Hubka's theory, so too were Ashkenazic pictorial motifs transplanted in the east and there developed into a new visual vernacular. This is a compelling argument. The problem is that few medieval illuminated Hebrew manuscripts from northern Europe survive. Given the limitations of the evidence, Hubka is to be applauded for his efforts, though his conclusions can always only be speculative. The argument makes a digression at its core, analyzing the possible meanings of animal motifs in the eyes of 18th-century viewers by turning to discussions of the animals in popular medieval Jewish ethical and mystical texts. Here as well, Hubka's propositions must remain tentative, but they are nonetheless suggestive, evoking an affective bond between displaced Ukrainian Jews and a temporally remote, yet emotionally present medieval Ashkenazic culture.

Ultimately this volume of essays makes an important contribution to an expanding and increasingly refined field. Most of the essays focus on iconographic questions. It is the hope of this reviewer that future studies will take into greater account the material and ritual contexts of images within the medieval Jewish-Christian nexus.

[1] For an alternate assessment that considers this Sarajevo Haggadah facsimile specifically in relation to Zionist politics, see the article by Michael Batterman in the forthcoming, Excavating the Medieval Image: Manuscripts, Artists, Audiences, eds. D. S. Areford and N. A. Rowe (London: Ashgate Press, 2004).
[2] Marc Michael Epstein, Dreams of Subversion in Medieval Jewish Art and Literature (University Park: Penn State University Press, 1997).
[3] Sara Lipton, Images of Intolerance: The Representations of Jews and Judaism in the Bible Moralisée (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999).
[4] Weber raised related issues previously in her article, „Die Entwicklung des Judenbildes im 13. Jahrhundert und sein Platz in der Lettner- und Tympanonskulptur - Fragen zum Verhältnis von Ikonographie und Stil,“ Städel-Jahrbuch 14 (1993), 35-54. Related issues are explored in J. Jung, „Beyond the Barrier: The Unifying Role of the Choir Screen in Gothic Churches,“ Art Bulletin 82 (2000), 622-657.

Recommended Citation:
Nina Rowe: [Review of:] Frojmovic, Eva (Hrsg.): Imagining the self, imagining the other. visual representation and Jewish Christian dynamics in the Middle Ages and early modern period ; [International Medieval Congre, Leiden [u.a.] 2002. In: ArtHist.net, Nov 11, 2003 (accessed Jun 1, 2020), <https://arthist.net/reviews/21>.

Creative Commons BY-NC-NDThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 4.0 International License. For the conditions under which you may distribute, copy and transmit the work, please go to https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/4.0/

Frojmovic, Eva (Hrsg.): Imagining the self, imagining the other. visual representation and Jewish Christian dynamics in the Middle Ages and early modern period ; [International Medieval Congre, Leiden [u.a.]: Brill Academic Publishers 2002
ISBN-13: 978-90-04-12565-0, XXII, 242 S

Review published: Nov 11, 2003

Editor: Claudia Sedlarz

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