This paper will briefly examine the complex and contradictory ways of representing ‘Jewishness’ in medieval Christian art. It aims to move beyond concern with images of Jews as stereotyped grotesques to the broader problem of representing the ‘nature’ of Jews by pointing to a variety of human and inhuman forms described in contemporary literary sources and pictured in visual ones. Identified alternately and simultaneously with God’s covenant, ignoble animals, freaks of nature, superseded law, incorrect interpretation of Scriptures, heretics, specific Christian vices, negative social practices, and most powerfully, Antichrist; the ‘nature’ of Jews as imagined by Christian artists and theologians was a complicated matrix that functioned in medieval Christian society not only as a negative mirror of Christian behaviour but also as an integral component of Christian experience and belief. That images of Jews continued to be written, painted, and performed in areas of medieval Christendom long after Jews had been physically expelled is a phenomenon that suggests that the reasons for the creation of the images cannot be reduced to economic tensions or political conflict. Rather, it argues that what was truly vital about Jewish-Christian relations to the Christian faithful was not direct interaction or discourse with Jews but rather the concept of ‘Jewishness’ that could be kept alive indefinitely in the minds of the faithful through works of literature, pictorial art, and dramatic performance.
Focusing on a small but representative sample of images drawn mainly from late medieval painting, it will be argued that the conceptual materials for the construction of the ‘nature’ of Jews were drawn largely from nature itself, namely the animal world; and that the resultant images served to bolster the basic tenets of Christian belief but also to express anxieties about the salvific efficacy of Christianity. In spite of relentless Christian calls to obliterate Jews, their buildings, and their books, the absence of the ‘Jewish nature’ so successfully disseminated through images that coexisted with charges of ritual murder and conspiracy would have seriously compromised – or perhaps even made impossible – the practice of medieval Christianity.
With reference to marginalia in Hebrew manuscripts featuring mondus inversus iconography (e.g. hound serving hare a drink), I will ask how the marginal position of the Jewish patrons further inverted an already upside-down world. Do these animals, once integrated into a jewish world of images, change for their viewers the natural order of things? Do we have to reconsider the natural and unnatural when viewing these animal antics?