Monday, 9 March 2015

Visions of Prejudice: Synagoga

Politics is not the only stage upon which instances of prejudice are enacted; culture has been host to prejudices and biases throughout human history. We can easily recall examples of discriminatory and propagandist imagery in modern and contemporary history, however this phenomenon stretches back centuries.

A prevalent example of anti-Semitic iconography used throughout the Middle Ages is the figure of Synagoga. A notable appearance of the figure is upon the fa├žade of the south transept of  Strasbourg Cathedral, built from 1015-1439. 

Ecckesia and Synagoga

Synagoga is the feminine personification of Judaism; she stands opposite to Ecclesia who in contrast, represents the collective body of Christianity. The two female figures flank a statue of Solomon. The juxtaposition of the two female figures symbolizes the transition from the Old Law (Judaism) to the birth of the New (Christianity) announced by the incarnation of Christ.

The significance of Synagoga is from the very start dependent on her correlation and contrast with Ecclesia. From a Christian theological perspective, the confrontation of the two women marks the displacement of the Jews from their place as God’s chosen people and their replacement by Christians: the triumphant birth of Christianity through the overcoming of its predecessor, an idea stretching back several centuries. 

Synagoga is shown , unlike the triumphant figure of Ecclesia, as a figure of abandonment and submission. She is blindfolded, averts her head from the direction of Ecclesia and the cathedral’s portal, her spear is broken and surmounted by a banner, while she feebly holds the tablets of the Old Testament, implying, the obsolescence of Judaism in Medieval Christian society. Her drapery is  transparent and fluid compared to the glorious massiveness of Ecclesia’s straight lines. Her weakness, encoded in her posture, would have been probably recognized even by illiterate visitors of the cathedral. 

She is wearing a veil which perhaps symbolises the idea of “Jewish blindness” - the perceived failure of the Judaism to 'recognise' Christ as the son of God. 

Isaac Brunn’s engraving of 1617 reports that originally a crown was laid at her feet, while a scene probably alluding to the biblical murder of Abel by his brother Cain was inscribed on the corbel above her. These are all especially negative iconographic associations, which do not only attest to her defeat by Ecclesia, but also enact certain characteristic stereotypes attributed to Jews during the period. Synagoga’s contemporary  costume transports the biblical story of the first fratricide; an immemorial crime;  into the context the 13th century. This narrative technique implies that medieval Jews are collectively culpable and accountable for every crime historically attributed to them.

The idea of collective responsibility does not only highlight the prejudicial understanding of the Jewish members of Christian societies in an uninterrupted continuity with their ancestors, and thus still guilty for their trespasses, but is also a reminder that in contemporary society, individuals are still targeted and expected to feel guilty and responsible for the actions of their ancestors or other members of their religious  or ethnic communities. 

---Hailey Maxwell

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