The Museo del Prado is focusing on the role of images in the relations between Jews and Christians in medieval Spain

The First Art Newspaper on the Net    Established in 1996 Saturday, June 22, 2024

The Museo del Prado is focusing on the role of images in the relations between Jews and Christians in medieval Spain
Image of the exhibtion galleries The lost mirror. Jews and conversos in medieval Spain Photo © Museo Nacional del Prado.

MADRID.- Curated by Joan Molina Figueras, head of the Department of Spanish Gothic Painting at the Museo del Prado, The lost mirror. Jews and conversos in medieval Spain, organised in collaboration with the Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya, presents a fascinating survey of the role of images in the relations between Jews and Christians in medieval Spain (1250-1492).

The central discourse of the exhibition is the perception held by Christians of Jews and, from 1391 onwards, of the converts (conversos) descended from them. The definition of a visual otherness with regard to these two sectors of society was determined by religious, social, political and even racial reasons; ultimately, by the beliefs, fears and concerns of Christians. The images in the exhibition remind us that while difference exists, otherness is constructed.

While numerous works on display are notable for their aesthetic merit (including creations by some of the greatest masters of Spanish Gothic art such as Pedro Berruguete, Bartolomé Bermejo, Fernando Gallego and Bernat Martorell), the exhibition also includes others of a different type created outside the canons of the history of styles, such as caricatures, garments imposed on victims of the Inquisition, engravings and unconventional sculptures. The intention is thus to offer the most complete and rigorous vision of a subject that can only be approached from a perspective which transcends the traditional boundaries of art history.

Between 1285 and 1492 images played a key role in the complex relations between Jews, conversos and Christians. While on the one hand they were an important medium for the transference of rites and artistic models between Jews and Christians while also providing a space for collaboration between artists from the two communities, on the other they contributed to spreading the growing anti- Judaism that existed within Christian society. In this context, the visual stigmatisation of Jews was a faithful reflection of the Christian vision, its beliefs and concerns, as such constituting a powerful instrument of identitary affirmation.

Following the mass conversion of Jews to Christianity as a result of the pogroms of 1391, cult images occupied a central position in the debate, becoming the proof required to confirm the new Christians’ sincerity or, conversely, to accuse them of practising Jewish rites. The spread of these images suspected to be Judaizing and heretical lies at the origins of the founding of the Spanish Inquisition in 1478. Aware of the power of images, the new Inquisition made intensive use of them, either to create imposing settings or to define formulas that visually identified converts.

One of the exhibition’s unique features is its presentation of a group of works and iconographic programmes that are unique in Europe as they reflect the particular circumstances that determined inter-religious relations in the Peninsular kingdoms between the 13th and 15th centuries. These are the images associated with the problematic issue of the conversos, conceived either to encourage conversion or to confirm the new Christians’ sincerity. Equally original are the cycles and images conceived during the early period of the Spanish Inquisition, both programmes for churches and works of a propagandistic nature.

The exhibition includes 69 works in different media (painting, sculpture, illuminated manuscripts, goldsmiths work, drawings, etc) loaned from around thirty churches, museums, libraries, archives and private collections in Spain and abroad.



Every image we create is a mirror that reflects a way of seeing. We look at the world and at others in relation to ourselves, through our own mentality and attitude. Using a broad selection of works, this exhibition recreates a medieval mirror that shows how Jews and conversos (converts to Christianity) were portrayed by Christians in Spain from 1285 to 1492. Images played a key role in the complex relationship between all three groups during this period. On the one hand, they were an important vehicle for the transmission of rites and artistic models between Christians and Jews and provided a space for collaboration between artists from both communities. On the other—the grim flipside— they helped spread the growing anti-Judaism embedded in Christian society.

In this respect, the visual stigmatisation of the Jews was a faithful reflection of the Christians’ mirror, of their beliefs and anxieties, and accordingly a powerful means of asserting their identity. Following the mass conversion of Jews to Christianity resulting from the pogroms of 1391, cult images became the centrepiece of the controversy. They were taken as evidence for confirming New Christians’ sincerity or, on the contrary, for accusing them of Judaising. The spread of these unfounded suspicions of Judaising heresy lay at the root of the establishment of the Spanish Inquisition in 1478. Aware of the power of images, the new institution used them intensively, either to design powerful settings or to define methods for visually identifying conversos. The images featured in this exhibition remind us that while differences exist, the idea of otherness is a construct.

Christians and Jews inhabited a shared space with permeable religious boundaries. Despite the differences between the two communities, Jewish artists produced works for Christians and Christian masters executed pieces for Jews. Transfers and exchanges were often encouraged by the patrons themselves. In a display of acculturation, the Jewish elite commissioned illuminated manuscripts—notably haggadot—similar in format and type to Christian codices. For their part, some Christian painters and patrons drew on their intimate knowledge of Jewish customs and rituals to devise portraits of various kinds: from positive depictions of traditional environments and practices to scenes designed from a clearly polemical perspective. The images show that for Christians no religious adversary was more familiar—and therefore more difficult to ignore—than the Jews.

Haggadot: Christian Masters in Jewish Works
A haggadah (‘telling’ in Hebrew) is an account of the Exodus—the Israelites’ departure from Egypt towards the Promised Land—that is required to be read at home during the Seder, the ritual Jewish Passover meal. The largest and most splendid group of medieval illuminated codices was produced in Catalonia. These manuscripts closely follow the models of contemporary Christian books, both in the style of the miniatures and in the iconography of the Genesis and Exodus scenes. Even the Seder illustrations, which depict rituals exclusive to Judaism, sometimes include elements drawn from Christian visual culture. All these works provide evidence that Christians and Jews worked in partnership.

Jewish Rites and Life in Christian Scenes
The images drawn from the Jewish world that we find in Christian art reflect realities of close contact and exchange between the two communities. The faithful portrayals of synagogues, liturgical objects and ritual clothing attests to this. Some pieces—such as the scene with Zacharias on display here—demonstrate a remarkable knowledge of Jewish customs that enabled the artist to depict an esoteric tradition inspired by the Zohar, the foundational book of the Kabbalah.

Others, however, reinterpret some of the basic rites of Judaism, such as circumcision, anachronistically in order to strip them of their original meaning and subject them to a new Christian reading.

According to the Christian concept of Salvation History, the so-called Old and New Testaments are inextricably linked. That is why prominent Jewish kings and prophets were common subjects of Christian iconography, where they were

represented as prefigurations of the New Law. In contrast to this positive view, from the 13th century onwards Christian theologians developed a distinctly belligerent attitude of negatively stressing the Jews’ inability to accept Jesus’ divine nature.
Images, like texts, echoed this controversy through the explicit metaphor of the Jews’ blindness, a theme that was widely disseminated and reproduced in all kinds of works and media. Although many authorities continued to argue that it was posible for the Jews to convert to Christianity, the visual recreation of this blindness paved the way for constructing their alterity. Through their denial of the Messiah, the Jews began to become the Other.

The Church and the Synagogue
Medieval theologians and church leaders subscribed to the idea of the need for Jewish people to exist within Christendom in order to remind the world of their obstinacy, their blindness in refusing to recognise the Messiah. They were following the assumptions of Saint Paul and Saint Augustine, who prophesied that the Jews would accept the Scriptures and convert at the end of time. Allegories of the Church and the Synagogue and scenes of preaching prefigure this future acknowledgement of Christianity. However, the frequent use of discriminatory and negative visual features to evoke Jews’ blindness further accentuated their stigmatisation, hindering the possibility of reconciliation.

Matfre Ermengaud,Breviari d’amor
Christian prejudice about Jewish blindness is expressed in a large series of images in the Breviari d’amor, an encyclopaedic text composed by the Franciscan Matfre Ermengaud around 1288. The work was widely circulated during the 14th and 15th centuries in the south of France and in Catalonia, where sumptuous illuminated copies were produced. In some codices, such as the one on display from the British Library, the Catalan text is accompanied by a Hebrew translation of the biblical passages which, according to the author, the Jews refuse to accept as prophecies of the coming of the Messiah. The images emphasise this misinterpretation and attribute it to the intervention of the devil.

A varied anti-Jewish iconography began to develop in the late 13th century in a context of systemic violence against the Jews. It ranges from portraits based on caricatures and distinguishing signs (clothing and round badges) to scenes portraying the Jews as enemies of the Christian faith. As in the rest of Western Europe, besides expressing intolerance and prejudice, these degrading images often stemmed from strategies for asserting the Christian identity. We need only look at the scenes showing acts of desecration of cult images and the host, or at the Passion cycles. From a Christian viewpoint, many of these representations were regarded as an effective means of ratifying beliefs that had sparked heated controversy within the Church—for example, the cult of images and of the Eucharist— or of spreading Christocentric devotions. The distorted image of the Jews as desecrators and deicides was a reflection returned by the Christian mirror—an expression of the beliefs, fears and anxieties of the faithful of the Roman Catholic Church.

The Power of Images
Stories of icons, crucifixes and statues of the Virgin coming to life enabled the Church to legitimise the cult of images in the face of those who considered it an idolatrous practice. As part of this process, the Christian imagination turned Jews into agents of violent desecrations that highlighted the miraculous nature of the images. Some are recorded in the Cantigas de Santa María, a compilation promoted by King Alfonso X the Wise (its ‘author’ in the medieval sense) of a broad range of illustrations of Marian miracles. It includes miracles inspired by Byzantine tales and others from European repertoires that reflect many of the anti-Jewish myths, ranging from their association with the devil to accusations of desecration of images and ritual crimes.

Eucharistic Miracles
The combination of growing anti-Jewish sentiment and the development of the cult of the Eucharist—on the rise since the establishment of the feast of Corpus Christi in 1264—sparked the appearance of numerous libels accusing the Jews of desecrating the Eucharistic host. The specific details of each accusation vary, but they all share a common feature: the Jews attack a sacred host, which miraculously begins to bleed. Like the debates on images, depictions of bleeding hosts were an effective means of publicising such a complex and controversial theological concept as the real presence of Christ in the consecrated host during Mass. The flipside was the increasing stigmatisation of the Jewish people.

Christian notarial ledgers known as libri iudeorum record the financial transactions of Jews in the Crown of Aragon, especially their loans. Many include caricatures
of Jews that reproduce a stereotype repeated since the 13th century, characterised by exaggerated facial features such as a disproportionately large nose and eyes and an unkempt beard. This iconographic device is based on ideas from the ancient world that equated physical diversity with the exotic and monstrous. Actually, these facial deformities should be interpreted as a way of expressing a supposed moral inferiority and give rise to strange, even menacing, individuals. Ultimately, they are used to construct the paradigm of the Other.

In the Passion
Saint Augustine had assumed the Jews’ ignorance during the Passion of Christ: according to him, they did not regard Jesus as the Son of God. In medieval anti- Jewish literature, this mitigating circumstance gradually gave way to the idea that they had acted with full awareness and were therefore guilty of outright deicide. This terrible accusation was echoed in texts and images produced in connection with various late medieval devotional movements that advocated an empathetic approach to the Passion of Christ. The device was simple: emphasising the wickedness of the Jews in order to heighten faithful Christians’ feelings of commiseration and pain at Christ’s suffering. The images varied in intensity and spanned the whole spectrum from strictly incriminating to blatantly anti-Judaist.

Following the pogroms that devastated many of the Jewish quarters on the Iberian Peninsula in 1391, large numbers of Jews were forced to embrace Christianity. Far from putting an end to the tensions, the mass conversions fuelled unease that Christianity was now under threat from Judaism from within. Accusations of Judaising caused fears and anxieties to be redirected towards New Christians—that is, conversos and their descendants. In this situation, unique in Europe, images were an active and powerful means of expressing a wide range of desires and concerns. On the one hand, Christians in favour of evangelisation used them to stress the need for all those who remained faithful to the Law of Moses to convert. On the other hand, the growing climate of mistrust prompted many conversos to commission religious images to allay suspicions of Judaising. In both cases, images were at the centre of the controversy.

Evangelisation and Preaching
The forced conversions that took place after 1391 were combined with an intense policy of evangelising the Jewish communities remaining on the Peninsula. Taking up the assumptions of Saint Augustine and Saint Paul, Christian preachers argued that the Jewish people could be saved if they acknowledged their error and joined in a universal conversion that would unite Old and New Christians. These catechetical methods of persuasion were implemented at the same time as new discriminatory measures were enacted, such as the Laws of Ayllón (1412), which put further pressure on the Jews. There is evidence that proselytising and preaching were always accompanied by threats and segregating measures.

New Christians and Images
These four representations of Christ reveal the significance that images held for New Christians. One of them, the Christ of the Vine, is a miraculous testament to conversion. Another, the crucifix commissioned by Alonso de Burgos, seems to express a more orthodox position. The pressure on conversos and the increasingly common accusations of Judaising made religious images certificates of Christian identity, as in the case of the busts of Antoniazzo Romano and Juan Sánchez de San Román. Also noteworthy is the great variety of aesthetic options, which range from the most bizarrely rustic to the most exquisitely sophisticated, visible in the combination of Flemish naturalism and traditional Byzantine models.

Jewish Details in Worksby Conversos
The existence of a vast movement of false converts or crypto-Jews was a figment of the inquisitors’ imagination. The few conversos who continued to hold beliefs characteristic of Judaism all belonged to small, unorganised groups with no doctrinal corpus. It is quite another matter that some images showed a Christian perspective with Jewish overtones—the same attitude that led many converts to maintain some of their ancestors’ traditions and customs (such as keeping the Sabbaths or certain eating habits). This original perspective seems to be reflected in certain paintings by Bartolomé Bermejo, probably a converso painter of Jewish descent who is known to have maintained a close professional relationship with a dynamic community of New Christians during his fruitful stay in Daroca (c.1470-76)

Conversos and Jews at the Court
Despite the increasing pressure on the Jews and mounting suspicions about conversos, there were gestures of tolerance and desires for reconciliation. Certain works commissioned by Castilian nobles or monarchs express this ambivalent relationship. One of them is the Arragel Bible, an example of cooperation between Jews and Christians stemming from Luis de Guzmán’s wish to have a faithful translation of the Hebrew Bible. The Fountain of Grace, probably destined for the court of John II or his son Prince Henry, expresses the line of thought of prominent converso bishops of the period, such as Alonso de Cartagena. This bishop advocated a tolerant attitude towards what theologians of the time called the blindness of the Jews, in the hope that they would be able to attain the true light of Christianity.

The Arragel Bible
In 1422 Luis de Guzmán, master of the Order of Calatrava, asked Rabbi Moshe Arragel of Guadalajara to translate the Hebrew Bible into Spanish. Arragel incorporated his own commentaries into the text and provided iconographic guidelines for the Toledo-based Christian painters who illustrated the codex. The result was a highly original iconographic cycle. These bibles in a Romance language were banned in 1492 as they were considered a source of misinterpretation, though some nobles beyond suspicion were allowed to own them. Luis de Guzmán’s curiosity and tolerance are expressed from a position of social and religious superiority. This is evidenced by the clichéd portrayal of Arragel as a Jew—bearded and wearing a round badge—in several of the codex’s illustrations.

During the 15th century animosity towards conversos grew and eventually led to the establishment of the Inquisition (1478). Specific to the kingdoms of Spain, this institution was founded to persecute new Christians suspected of Judaising.
Religious suspicions were joined in 1449—the date the first statutes on purity of blood were enacted in Toledo—by racial prejudice: the idea that conversos were corrupt because their blood was impure. Religious images once again played a prominent role in this atmosphere of persecution and suspicion. Accusations of their desecration became one of the most common arguments levelled against people prosecuted for Judaising heresy. Images were also the means of designing rhetorical programmes justifying and glorifying the Inquisition’s repressive agenda. Lastly, the creation of an iconography that stigmatised Judaising conversos paved the way for a new and shameful visual otherness. This intense production process reached
its peak around 1492, when the expulsion of the Jews was decreed.

Fortalitium fidei
The Franciscan Alonso de Espina, confessor to King Henry IV, wrote Fortaleza de la fe (‘Fortress of Faith’, c. 1460) from sermons he had preached in Castile. The result was one of the most violent pieces of literatura directed against Jews and conversos.

From a position of utmost religious intolerance, the work fiercely defends the Christian faith against its doctrinal enemies: heretics, Jews, Saracens and demons. The manuscript from El Burgo de Osma on display here is the oldest surviving version and was commissioned by Bishop Pedro de Montoya. Given its instant success, the text was translated into several vernacular languages and presented in luxurious copies, some with high-quality miniatures made in Flanders, as well as in printed editions distributed throughout Europe.

Images as Incriminating Evidence
Just as advocates of persuasive catechesis held that images were necessary to encourage conversos to practise forms of Christian devotion, so did inquisitors deludedly regard the mistreatment of these images as the perfect grounds for accusing and convicting them of Judaising practices. Indeed, charges of flogging a crucifix frequently appear in the records of the Inquisition tribunals, as well as in the convictions inscribed on sambenitos (penitential garments worn by condemned heretics). In the growing climate of intolerance that marked the second half of the 15th century, Jews and conversos had to be very careful about their relationship with Christian cult images. Any suspicion of irreverent handling could prove fatal.

Tomás de Torquemada, Pedro Berruguete and the Staging of the Inquisition
Tomás de Torquemada, the inquisitor general of Castile, converted the Dominican friary of Santo Tomás in Ávila into one of the main headquarters of the Inquisition. For this purpose he enlisted the services of Pedro Berruguete, one of the most famous painters of the time, who executed various works between approximately 1491 and 1499 as part of a rhetorical project to decorate the friary’s church. Notable among them are the three altarpieces in the chancel—dedicated to Saint Thomas Aquinas (still in place), Saint Dominic and Saint Peter Martyr— and smaller compositions such as the Auto-da-fe. Their interpretation was reinforced by the hundreds of sambenitos (penitential garments worn by condemned heretics), convictions and other shameful signs of the condemned displayed on the walls

The Holy Child of La Guardia
The case of the Holy Child of La Guardia is one of many anti-Jewish ritual crime libels that occurred throughout Europe during the Middle Ages. Amid a climate of heightened tension following the murder of the inquisitor Pedro de Arbués and intense inquisitional activity, in 1490 a group of Jews and conversos were accused of abducting a boy from Toledo and subjecting him to the tortures suffered by Christ during the Passion. They were tried at a highly publicised auto-da-fe in Ávila shortly afterwards. The case is a characteristically Spanish variant of the accusation of ritual infanticide as it incriminates not only Jews but also converts.

Today's News

October 7, 2023

Sculptures that don't have to add up to work like magic

Art Institute of Chicago exhibiting work by French artist Camille Claudel

North Carolina radio station won't ban Met Opera broadcasts after all

Rehs Contemporary presents captivating new works by renowned Japanese artist Mitsuru Watanabe

Jay-Z: Brooklyn Public Library exhibit is 'More Than What I Deserved'

Major fashion exhibition featuring Alexander McQueen and Ann Ray opens at Columbia Museum of Art

Otobong Nkanga wins the Nasher Prize for Sculpture

CODART Research: Role of curator has fundamentally changed

The Claude de Marteau Collection series achieves more than US$15.6 million at Bonhams

Nara Roesler announces the representation of Jose Dávila

Explore the world of Paul Klee's 4,000 artworks from the collection at Zentrum Plaul Klee

Jumana Emil Abboud brings 'The Unbearable Halfness of Being' to Cample Line

The Museo del Prado is focusing on the role of images in the relations between Jews and Christians in medieval Spain

Russell Sherman, poetic interpreter at the piano, dies at 93

A 'School Dance for Adults' embraces the aughts

Robert Glasper leans into the drama

Karrabing Film Collective presents films at Goldsmiths CCA of existing and new work

National Gallery of Ireland announces new landmark collaborations

The Box hosts National Gallery's 'Dutch Flowers' and Yinka Shonibare CBE RA's 'End of Empire'

Roland Hicks to create and exhibit brand new artwork 'The Fourth Wall' at Hastings Contemporary

First solo exhibition of artist Kate Pincus-Whitney in Belgium, now on view at GNYP Gallery

Dimensions of geological shift visible in art of Radenko Milak at Priska Pasquer Paris

Belgian painter Jan Van Imschoot has first major retrospective at S.M.A.K.

Works by Dan Davis, Phillip Maisel, and Henna Vainio at Casemore Gallery

Elevate Your Home Decor with Handmade Oil Painting Reproductions from Mus3ums

MS in the USA: Know Your Eligibility and Best Universities To Choose From

What is Bitcoin Cash (BCH)?

Embracing Futuristic Styles: Web Design Trends in 2024

Museums, Exhibits, Artists, Milestones, Digital Art, Architecture, Photography,
Photographers, Special Photos, Special Reports, Featured Stories, Auctions, Art Fairs,
Anecdotes, Art Quiz, Education, Mythology, 3D Images, Last Week, .


Ignacio Villarreal
(1941 - 2019)
Editor & Publisher: Jose Villarreal
Art Director: Juan José Sepúlveda Ramírez
Writer: Ofelia Zurbia Betancourt

Royalville Communications, Inc
Founder's Site. Hommage
to a Mexican poet.

The First Art Newspaper on the Net. The Best Versions Of Ave Maria Song Junco de la Vega Site Ignacio Villarreal Site
Tell a Friend
Dear User, please complete the form below in order to recommend the Artdaily newsletter to someone you know.
Please complete all fields marked *.
Sending Mail
Sending Successful