06 October 2023
‘The Jewish Window’
in York Minster and
blind ‘Synagoga’ in
a church in York
The ‘Five Sisters’ window in the north transept of York Minster was reputedly paid for by a loan from the Jews of York. This five-light window is executed in abstract grisaille work The 13th century window is filled with grisaille glass – from the French for ‘greyness’ – or finely painted clear glass that is set into geometric designs with jewel-like points of coloured glass making the pattern.
It is said the creation of the window was funded in part by York’s Jewish community, notably the wealthy Aaron of York, leading to the windows being called ‘the Jewish window.’
The window dates from ca 1250-1260 and is named in the Guinness Book of Records as ‘the largest ancient stained-glass window in the British Isles.’
The five lights feature a grisaille design comprising 100,000 pieces of glass. Each light measures 16.31 metres high and 1.56 metres wide, separated by columns of stone and Purbeck marble, with foliaged capitals. The design includes clusters of grapes and leaves, together with some early examples of embryonic naturalistic leaf forms. The pattern is said to be an elaborate but restrained arrangement of the foliage of the Planta Benedicta or herb Bennet. The plain border surrounding the glass was inserted in 1715.
The window is without human representation, which is in accordance with the dominant tradition in Jewish art.
The massacre of York’s Jews at Clifford’s Tower in 1190 overshadows the fact that from the 1210s on there was once more a thriving Jewish community in the city, living and working in mostly harmonious relations with Christian neighbours.
Aaron of York, whose supposed funding lead to the windows being called ‘the Jewish window,’ was one of the three leading members of the post-1190 Jewish community who lived on the west side of Coney Street in York. Aaron of York lived where Next is now, his father-in-law, Leo Episcopus, lived where Boots is, and his son-in-law and nephew, Josce le Jovene, lived where Waterstones and Fabrication are.
Recent research suggests the mediaeval synagogue was to the rear of today’s No 19 Coney Street, York Fabrication.
Leo and Aaron both served as chief representative of the whole Jewish community of England, and in the 1230s and 1240s Aaron was considered to be the richest man in the country.
There is documentary evidence of Aaron of York co-operating with the senior clergy of York Minster in purchasing the large stone building that became the city’s Guildhall, the mediaeval civic centre, ensuring that the city had a central meeting-place and contributing greatly to York’s civic history.
It is said that Aaron co-operated with the Minster on other major civic projects, including the construction of the ‘Five Sisters’ window in the Minster itself, previously known as the ‘Jewish Window’, in return for land extending the mediaeval Jewish cemetery in York.
At the bottom of the central light, however, is one panel of earlier Norman glass (ca 1180), showing Habakkuk feeding Daniel in the lions’ den. The design includes ivy, symbolising love and sacrifice, and maple, symbolising victory. It probably came from a medallion window and may have been moved into the Five Sisters window during the 17th century.
The ‘Five Sisters’ window also shows Cistercian influence. The window was restored in 1923-1925 and rededicated to women who were killed during World War I, the only memorial in the UK dedicated to these women.
A fragment of 13th century wall painting from the Chapter House depicts an allegorical ‘Synagoga.’ It is preserved at the Minster, but is not generally on view to the public. However, a Victorian representation of ‘Synagoga’ can be seen carved in stone in the portal or tympanum of Saint Wilfred’s Roman Catholic Church, Duncombe Place, close to York Minster.
The image of ‘Synagoga’ appears on cathedrals throughout Europe and is often interpreted as a mediaeval antisemitic image. Two statues, known as ‘Ecclesia’ and ‘Sinagoga,’ are often seen as a 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 were 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 anti-Semitism, typified in the vile anti-Semitism expressed by Martin Luther and others. Today, this has been replaced generally by dual-covenant theology.
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, and 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 York Sinagogia is that it is found on modern church. Saint Wilfred’s Church, a Grade II building, was designed by the architect George Goldie in 1862-1864. It is now the Oratory Church of Saint Wilfrid, also known as York Oratory, and is considered by many to be one of the most perfectly finished Roman Catholic churches in England
The arch above the main door has the most detailed Victorian carving in York. But it was not until last weekend that I noticed that it included a detailed Victorian repetition or interpretation of ‘Blind Sinagogia.’
It is disturbing how this antisemitic trope continues to have a presence today, unnoticed by churchgoers as they enter or lave the church, and without any notice to explain their significance and the frightening consequences of perpetuating antisemitic imagery.