Creating the stereotyped root of evil


The canard of the money-loving Jew, raised most recently by the owner of Wigan Athletic football club, is, of course, a centuries-old prejudice. It also has a familiar face. From medieval manuscripts, to the Elizabethan stage, to the pages of Dickens and Trollope, to Nazi propaganda, the figure of the duplicitous, avaricious Jew - inevitably a usurer, banker, or "capitalist" - tends to look the same. In art, illustration, and film he (and it is always a "he") is easily recognisable, displaying a hooked nose, full lips, heavy eyebrows, stubbly or bearded chin, and swarthy complexion as he flourishes a bulging bag of coins. This ugly caricature serves to signal the Jew's ugly inner self, as well as to distinguish him from his innocent, gentile victims.

Yet, though Jews were called materialistic, worldly, and flesh-bound as far back as the earliest Christian writings, it took more than a millennium for the full-blown visual stereotype of the greedy Jew, with his distinctive profile and dark colouring, to develop. Moreover, when medieval images began to give shape to the "materialistic Jew," they did not initially highlight the Jews' economic activities. Instead, the figure took varying forms and served varying purposes, changing as the concerns and needs of Christian society did.

It was St Paul who introduced the idea of the "worldly, materialistic Jew." Although Paul was himself a Jew, he insisted that Jewish law no longer had to be followed literally. Christ's coming had ushered in a new era of "the spirit," under which the Hebrew Scriptures were to be read and obeyed "spiritually," or metaphorically.

When his fellow Jews objected, he accused them of being slaves to the flesh, body, and material things. This charge had nothing to do with Jews' financial activities, sexual proclivities, or ethnic qualities - it was an argument over interpreting religious law. But it set the stage for the stereotype of the materialistic Jew.

For many centuries, Christian authors would echo Paul in associating Jews with the "world," the "letter" and the "flesh." But these phrases did not inspire any visual stereotypes. Early medieval art developed no anti-Jewish caricature and devised no sign for the alleged materialism of the Jews.

Judaic figures first start to look "different" and "worldly" in 12th-century artworks. In stained glass windows, enamel objects, and manuscript illuminations both biblical Hebrews and "modern" Jews are bearded and wear antique-looking, pointed hats, based on the headgear of ancient Persian priests. These features symbolise their allegedly outdated nature and attachment to ritual. In addition, Jews were often shown focusing erroneously on a physical, material sign while conspicuously "missing" a spiritual one. So, for example, in a window from the Abbey Church of Saint-Denis, the Israelites gazing reverently at the Brazen Serpent that healed them (Numbers 21:4-9) fail to see the "real" giver of life rising out of the serpent's body - Christ on the cross.

Such images are visual versions of Paul's denunciation of Jewish literalism and materialism. They arose not because 12th-century Jews were more literalistic or ritualistic than their early medieval forebears had been, but because Christians were. Christian scholars had begun studying the Bible in new ways, including by learning Hebrew, trying to understand the literal meaning of the text, and even consulting Jewish Bible experts. They had also begun to decorate their churches with gloriously glittery and image-drenched ritual implements, spurring some critics to complain that churches were starting to look like the Jewish Temple. Artworks like the Saint-Denis window were a way for art-loving Christians to have their cake and eat it, too. They proclaimed that luxurious objects such as the Brazen Serpent were sanctioned by the Bible, but they also insisted that the Christian way of looking was different from the Jewish way of looking - more spiritual, less distracted by "matter."

The uses of the "materialistic Jew" didn't stop there. The explosion of church decoration was made possible by commercial revival. Though Christians dominated economic activity throughout Europe, including the new practice of moneylending, Jews were also deeply involved. Jewish as well as Christian merchants transported goods up and down the roads and rivers of northern Europe, and Jews as well as Christians acted as moneychangers, minters, lenders, and toll-collectors. Some churchmen worried about the morality of the new money-based economy. In order to discourage Christians from chasing after profit, moralists played up the connection between Jewishness, greed, and sin.

Art helped Christians displace these problems on to materialistic Jews, whose "worldliness" and "fleshiness" was underscored by luxurious clothing and exaggerated facial features, especially large, hooked noses. By the end of the Middle Ages, as the pointy-bearded, fur-lined-caftan-wearing follower of Antichrist in Luca Signorelli's fresco of 1500 attests, the figure of the dark-faced, hook-nosed Jew had become readily recognisable and universally loathed, the embodiment of almost every depravity plaguing the western world.

The point of such images, from their makers' perspective, was to improve Christian morals by associating sin and impiety with hideous and hateful figures.

Christians were not notably purer or less avaricious than they had been 300 years earlier. But they were unquestionably more anti-Jewish. Art did not effect this change alone, of course. But it played a powerful role in the process.

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