02 July 2020

An image at Lichfield
Cathedral that recalls
mediaeval antisemitism

The figure of Sinagoga, blindfolded by a snake, at Lichfield Cathedral … a motif surviving from mediaeval art depicting a hidden antisemitism (Photograph courtesy Clive Read)

Patrick Comerford

I was writing yesterday about the Crucifix on Charles Bridge, and how it became a symbol of antisemitism in the Czech capital from 1696, when Elias Backoffen, a Jewish community leader, was punished for an alleged blasphemy by a Jewish businessman and was forced to pay for gold-plated lettering in Hebrew around the head of Christ in a misappropriation of a sacred Jewish liturgical text.

But a collection of photographs taken by Clive Read around Lichfield and posted later in the day in a Facebook group, reminded me that there is another figure on Lichfield Cathedral that appears on cathedrals throughout Europe too and that is often interpreted as a mediaeval antisemitic image.

Notre Dame Cathedral in the heart of Paris is among the most visited sites on the planet and a splendid example of Gothic architecture.

Two statues, known as Ecclesia and Sinagoga and often seen as pair on mediaeval cathedrals. Ecclesia is often dressed in fine clothing and appears to be bathed in light, while Sinagoga is dishevelled, with a large snake draped over her eyes like a blindfold.

Together, this pair forms a common mediaeval motif that represents the theological concept known as supercessionism, in which the Church is triumphant and the Synagogue is defeated. Sinagoga is sometimes seen – for example in Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris – with head bowed, broken staff, and the tablets of the law or Ten Commandments slipping from her hand and a fallen crown at her feet. Ecclesia stands upright with crowned head and carries a chalice and a staff adorned with the Cross.

Images mocking Jews and Judaism and encouraging antisemitic violence have been common throughout Europe since the early Middle Ages. In a time when many were illiterate, these images were the political cartoons and posters of the age, and the ridicule and carnage they promoted was both routine and sanctioned by the secular and religious authorities of the day.

Ecclesia and Sinagoga often appear as large, sculpted figures on either side of a church or cathedral portal. Famous examples include those at Strasbourg Cathedral. They are also found in Romanesque art standing on either side of the Cross at the Crucifixion.

In images of the Crucifixion, Ecclesia may hold a chalice catching the blood flowing from Christ’s side, while Sinagoga may hold a sheep or goat or its head, signifying Temple sacrifice, in contrast to Ecclesia’s chalice representing the Eucharist. If she is not blindfolded, Sinagoga is usually looking down.

They first appear in documents in the early ninth century. They appear in Crucifixion scenes from the 11th century, and reappear in the 12th century in a more strongly contrasted way that emphasises the defeat of Sinagoga. From then on, blindfolded Sinagoga is seen with a broken lance becomes usual. The portal figures at cathedral portals date from the 13th century on.

These figures reflect a Christian view, often known as Supersessionism, that held that Judaism was no longer a valid religion with a covenantal relationship with God, and that all Jews should convert to Christianity.

Mediaeval Sinagoga’s blindfold reflected the charge that Jews had stubbornly failed to ‘see’ that Christianity had replaced Judaism. This view spread throughout the mediaeval church and became an excuse for antisemitism, typified in the vile anti-Semitism expressed by Martin Luther and others. Today, this has been replaced generally by dual-covenant theology.

The covering over Sinagoga’s eyes is derived Saint Paul’s words in II Corinthians:

[We are] not like Moses, who put a veil over his face to keep the people of Israel from gazing at the end of the glory that was being set aside. But their minds were hardened. Indeed, to this very day, when they hear the reading of the old covenant, that same veil is still there, since only in Christ is it set aside. Indeed, to this very day whenever Moses is read, a veil lies over their minds; but when one turns to the Lord, the veil is removed (II Corinthians 3: 15-16, NRSVA).

The paired figures are generally found on the cathedrals of larger cities in northern Europe that had significant Jewish communities, especially in Germany. They were intended to remind Jews of their place in a Christian society. Many Jews, like Christians, conducted business in churches, and, coming and going, they would pass through these figures.

There are examples on the portals of the cathedrals at Minden, Bamberg and Freiburg in Germany, and Paris, Metz and Strasbourg in France. There are remains of pairs in England at Rochester, Lincoln, Salisbury and Winchester. There may have been pairs in London and York too, but this is the first time I have realised there is a similar image at Lichfield Cathedral.

In most cases, they date to the arrival of larger Jewish communities in Western Europe from the late 10th to the 12th centuries, and to the 12th-century Renaissance debates between Christian and Jewish scholars on interpretations of the Hebrew Bible.

But what is surprising about the Lichfield Sinagogia is that until now mediaeval Lichfield seems to have had no considerable Jewish presence. Perhaps this is an area for further research and exploration.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Thanks for this - most informative and supports my study on this course https://www.futurelearn.com/courses/antisemitism