By Sara Lipton
Metropolitan. 390 pp. $37
Hatred of Jews goes back a long way. Early on in her new book, “Dark Mirror,” Sara Lipton cites David Nirenberg’s “Anti-Judaism: The Western Tradition,” which shows that hundreds of years before the birth of Christianity, various societies found it useful to attack their Jewish minorities, establishing the model for Western scapegoating. The French express this type of injustice broadly: On est toujours le Juif de quelqu’un — one is always somebody’s Jew, meaning that anyone can become somebody else’s victim.
But hostility toward Jews has different functions in different cultures. To get the most out of attacks on Jewishness, societies need images — signs of the “despicable Jew” easily recognized by ordinary people. By the early modern period, there were visual cues that labeled a figure as Jewish, but this was not the case in earlier epochs. Where did these cues come from? How did they evolve?
“Dark Mirror” addresses these questions by tracing the development of the image of the Jew in Europe from the 11th through the 15th centuries. Although there were other types of people represented in medieval art, most other hated groups didn’t get “a visual vocabulary of infamy.” It was in the decades after the year 1000 that figures began to appear that viewers were supposed to recognize as Jewish, although they often needed some textual pointers to get it right. Many people like to say they know what Jews look like, but Lipton emphasizes that the images created were not based on experiences with real people. Instead, the pictures reflect disputes in theology, changes in economic relations and, by the 1400s, urbanization.
Lipton shows that this visual vocabulary emerged very slowly. Synagoga, an early female figure for Jews, was not characterized by a consistent set of physical attributes. Instead, she was portrayed blindfolded to signify that she had not seen the truth of redemption through Jesus. Jewish blindness, a failure to apprehend the truth of the Gospels, was a recurrent theme in visual representation; Jews were said to be flawed witnesses — but not beings whose outward appearance indicated a fundamental human difference. “If Christians came to hate Jews,” Lipton writes, “. . . it was not because they were seen as different from Gentiles in essence or ability.”
Jews were said to see the world differently from Christians or to be focused on the material world, incapable of understanding life’s deeper, spiritual meaning. “Once spiritual vision is attained,” Lipton writes, “ ‘Jewishness’ by definition is left behind, utterly excluded.” In the second half of the 12th century, though, a much more menacing hostility was wedded to this notion of Hebrew anachronism. There were new narratives of Christ’s suffering, and his tormentors were, it was emphasized for the first time, Jews.
By 1200 the ingredients were in place for a noxious brew: devotional attention to the suffering of Jesus, “passion treatises” emphasizing Jewish responsibility for the crucifixion and an emotionally potent accusation that Jews ritually murdered Christian children. This last element drove some people into a frenzy of hatred as the persecution of innocents was given a contemporary framework, with the Jews once again responsible.
How to represent such dreadful people? The beauty of Christ and the purity of the innocent children were made clear through contrast with the representation of the hideous Jew. The long, hooked nose, the hostile, glaring expressions, the distorted features — all these were formed into the “Jewish face” in the Gothic period from the 13th to 14th centuries. But still, Lipton stresses, this did not amount to “assigning to Jews an essentialized and meaningful physical difference.” Some Gentiles were given Jewish features, and some Jews were not caricatured in the hues of hatred. She wants to make sure we don’t use stereotypical thinking to understand the history of a stereotype.
Lipton’s book provides a vivid account of the pressures for change and the weight of tradition in the medieval period. “High medieval Christendom waged a tug of war over truth and vision, matter and spirit, knowledge and faith,” she writes, “all fought over the body and via the face of the Jew.” Representations of Jewish women were not immune from these struggles, although only in the late 1400s did evil Jewishness become more important than weak femininity in European art.
Lipton sees the emergence of “obsessive anti-Judaism” by the 1400s as a response to an increasingly urban society. As people lived more closely together, and as their commercial dealings became more complex, fear of treachery and secrecy became themes of civic culture. Surveillance and anxieties about being watched were becoming facts of life, and the “fear of secrecy and hiddenness was most obsessively expressed in regard to Jews.” By the 15th and 16th centuries, Jews were expelled from ordinary life and forced into ghettos, removing them from the routines of most Christians. But non-Jews could still respond to pictures of Jews, which often would stoke their anxiety and hostility.
In compelling and accessible prose, Lipton shows how images we may take as perennial have a rich and contested history. She wears her deep erudition lightly, but it still comes through in this powerful, effectively illustrated account. “Whenever we create images of a stranger,” she concludes, “we should bear in mind that we are also creating an image of ourselves.” It’s not always a pretty picture.