On Crowns and Pointy Hats

1 01 2007

I just found this fascinating picture from the Levi Machzor of Hamburg, c. 1350 CE. The depiction appears to be of a bride and groom, and it features a quote from the Biblical Song of Songs:

synagoga.jpg

I find this picture rather fascinating, for the Jewish woman is depicted blindfolded in a manner reminiscent of Synagoga. Ruth Bartal¹ notes that the chapter from which this verse is taken in Song of Songs commences with the line, “Your eyes are like doves behind your veil” (4:1), and argues that we should not be too quick to draw a comparison between this example of Judaic art and the anti-Judaic artworks of the Christians. Nonetheless, Ivan Marcus² makes a good case for his belief that this picture constitutes one of many examples of Jews appropriating and then re-appropriating images that had once been used against them.

Arguments in Marcus’ favour include the pointed hat on the head of the kneeling Jew, as well as the presence of the crown on the woman’s head: an indication that the image had been deliberately inverted. That Jews were in the practise of identifying with anti-Jewish polemic for their own purposes is also testified to in numberous writings that Marcus quotes, one of which commences with the (apparantly serious) question: “Why are most gentiles fair-skinned and handsome while most Jews are dark and ugly?”³ Arguments, however, in Bartal’s favour include the manner in which the artwork appears to be representative of Song of Songs in other respects as well. The setting within a garden is reminiscent of Songs 4:6, 12-15 and the manner in which the trees form a rooftop for the couple is reminiscent of Songs 1:17.

Neither author mentions it anywhere, but the scene is also reminiscent of a Jewish marriage. According to tradition, the bride must have her face covered, and the groom must approach her to secure her identity prior to the nuptial ceremony. I do not know of the antiquity of this tradition, but it is said to relate to the manner in which Jacob was fooled by his father-in-law and given the wrong bride. The fact that the woman here is sitting on a cushion (coupled with her regal manner of dress) would seem to indicate that she is a bride; it may be that the gentleman in our picture is her lover, come to ascertain her identity before the marriage ceremony.

Whatever the reason for the veil and pointed hat, the picture is a fascinating one. The quote that decorates its borders reads: “With me from Lebanon, my bride; from the peak of Amnah, leap down” (Songs 4:8). It is actually a misquote, and the word “leap down” has been placed two words too late. There may have been an exegetical purpose behind this, the words “peak of Amnah” being also translatable as “beginning / peak of faith”.

¹ R. Bartal, “Medieval Images of “Sacred Love”: Jewish and Christian Perceptions“, 100
² I. Marcus, “A Jewish-Christian Symbiosis”, Cultures of the Jews: A New History (ed. D. Biale; New York: Schocken Books, 2002), 449-516 (496-500)
³ Marcus, op.cit. 500.

Addendum
To better put the imagery into perspective, it is worth bearing in mind a pair of statues known as Ecclesia and Synagoga. Appearing some time in the 11th century, they have come to adorn a variety of churches (the most famous, perhaps, being the cathedrals of Strasbourg and Bamberg), and imagery related to their form has found its way into numerous artistic representations of Christianity and Judaism, respectively. Both figures are of women, and are believed by some to be related to the manner in which the Romans personified Judea. Ecclesia stands erect with a ruling staff in one hand and a crown upon her head; Synagoga stands in a dejected manner with a broken staff in one hand, a crown in the process of falling off her head, and a blindfold over her eyes. The imagery is direct and reasonably obvious: Judaism has been usurped by Christianity and now stumbles, bereft of all spiritual power, like a beggar in the dark.

In the interests of further clarification, a Machzor is a festival prayer-book. Many European Machzorim featured graphic depictions (the Biblical prohibition against iconic representation only extending to anthropomorphisms of the godhead), and the Levi Machzor is no exception. Furthermore, the image above is not the only example of a blindfolded woman being portrayed in Jewish art from this period. Despite the manner in which one might be able to provide alternative explanations of the motif, the imagery of Synagoga was sufficiently well-known to belie the possibility of the association being accidental.

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2 responses

2 01 2007
Conrad

Could you say a bit more about how this relates to anti-Jewish polemic, as I don’t understand that part.

2 01 2007
Simon Holloway

My apologies. I didn’t realise that I’d skipped over this issue; the post has now been updated.

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