Water has damaged the 18th-century frescos, but visitors to the cloister of the Cathedral of Saint Mary of Toledo in Spain can still discern a haloed boy nailed to a cross depicted on one side of a doorway. On the opposite frame, the artist Francisco Bayeu painted the child’s abduction. In both works ominous, bearded men look on, reflecting the typical portrayal of Jews in connection with the historic accusation of blood libel.
The frescoes appear in an otherwise idyllic cloister, located about a 10-minute walk from Toledo’s Sinagoga del Tránsito, and another five minutes from the former synagogue of Santa María la Blanca, which is now a church. The anti-Semitic imagery hides in plain sight in an otherwise tranquil spot, the soft brush strokes masking a violent message.
The child in the picture is the so-called holy infant of La Guardia, whose body was never found, yet a court convicted and executed two Jews and six conversos (Jews who converted to Catholicism) for the murder. Per custom, the defendants were also charged with defiling the host.
Darker layering shapes the tourist experience in ways that are not always apparent or transparent.
The painter who chose to glorify this violent incident, Bayeu, might not be a familiar name to many, but he was brother-in-law to the renowned Spanish painter Francisco Goya. The crime scene, so to speak, is also significant; the cathedral where the painting appears is the seat of the Archdiocese of Toledo. Construction began in 1227 for the structure, which is built on the site of a sixth-century Visigoth cathedral and former mosque. Spanish buildings changed hands often in those times, as Christians and Muslims, and occasionally Jews, jockeyed for local control. The two former synagogues are a study in contrasts. Tránsito is now a museum and memorial, while the local church runs Santa María la Blanca.
As Spanish houses of worship underwent religious makeovers, there were conscious efforts to erase Jewish symbols and inscriptions. But traces of those Jewish pasts—and anti-Semitic iconography—remain, if one knows where to look. Darker layering shapes the tourist experience in ways that are not always apparent or transparent. Ghosts and monsters from the past surface in seemingly innocuous ways and emerge somehow sanitized. But in the city of Seville, one man has set out to change the way Europe enlists art to tell the history of its Jews.
The Man With the iPad
In Seville, the Parroquia de San Nicolás de Bari, a small 18th-century church, contains a troubling altar. In a golden niche, a young boy, clad in a flowing white-and-red altar boy rochet with a red ribbon beneath his chin, hangs crucified above a Madonna and child, sitting enthroned above a crescent moon. A label used to identify the boy as Dominguito del Val, a legendary figure alleged to have been murdered by the Jews of Zaragoza. As with the boy at the Toledo cathedral, this death—real or imagined—served as a pretext for a pogrom.
So explains Moisés Hassán-Amsélem, 51, a Jewish tour guide in Seville and lecturer on anti-Semitism and the Holocaust at Pablo de Olavide University, on a recent visit to the church. The stop, like virtually all of the ones on Mr. Hassan-Amselem’s tour, illuminates absence rather than presence.
A slight man, Mr. Hassán-Amsélem is an unlikely David taking on several Goliaths at once. He has been asked, he says, not to bring tourists to see the San Nicolás de Bari church, and the city has requested that he not lead visitors to a below-ground parking garage, which is set upon a Jewish cemetery. And yet his tour still visits the church and the parking lot; and when I visited the church with him, a caretaker symbolically blocked his entry before finally yielding.
Mr. Hassán-Amsélem, who often shows images and inscriptions on his iPad during tours, has been told that there are complaints about the “bald man with the iPad.” He suspects that the church removed wording from the label referring to the boy being murdered by the Jews in response to his tours. The replacement label, however, still stated that the boy was crucified, which Mr. Hassán-Amsélem sees as thinly veiled anti-Semitic code. That too was eventually removed, and when I visited the altar for this boy, it was the only one in the church without any identifying text.
Should troubling traces of past violence and hatred be removed altogether, or, if they ought to remain as witnesses?
But now the plaque mentioning the crucifixion of the boy is back, according to a subsequent conversation with Mr. Hassán-Amsélem. “Clearly, all the parishioners do think that not only he existed—no evidence of that—but also he was murdered by the Jews,” he says. “I very often see people praying in front of the altarpiece. They definitely consider him a saint.”
This conflict is local in nature, in some ways, but it raises broader questions about memory and history. To what degree, if at all, ought these be remembered and memorialized? Should troubling traces of past violence and hatred be removed altogether, or, if they ought to remain as witnesses, how should they be contextualized? And what are the responsibilities of religious institutions in this regard?
To Mr. Hassán-Amsélem, the answer is clear. “My intention is for this altar to be dismantled,” he says of the commemoration of Dominguito del Val. “This is what should be done. It’s the 21st century. Such a thing should not exist.”
What Luther Wrought
Some of the most egregious examples of anti-Semitic art appear in German prints, paintings and sculptures. Many German woodcuts, for example, depict horned Jews associating with devils and pigs. Some of these illustrations show Jews feeding at the anuses of large pigs, says Ori Soltes, a professor at Georgetown University and the former director of the B’nai B’rith Klutznick National Jewish Museum in Washington.
This motif, called the Judensau, “Jew pig,” received attention last year as Germany celebrated the 500th anniversary of the start of the Protestant Reformation. Writing in Christianity Today, Deborah Pardo-Kaplan noted that a church in Wittenberg, St. Mary’s, where Luther preached regularly and where he married his wife and baptized six of their children, contains a 14th-century sculpture of the Jew-pig on its facade.
The sculpture is one of up to 200 on the theme made between the 13th and 18th centuries. Not only was it not removed or covered up, but it was cleaned in anticipation of the many visitors who would come to celebrate the anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, Ms. Pardo-Kaplan reports. She quotes a Lutheran sister in Germany, Joela Krüger, who wants the sculpture removed and who said, “The Judensau grieves people because our Lord is blasphemed.”
Anti-Semitic iconography also surfaced in exhibitions about Martin Luther at U.S. museums, including the Minneapolis Institute of Art’s 2016 exhibition “Martin Luther: Art and the Reformation.” Luther’s “Treatise on Usury,” for example, a pamphlet published in 1520 in Wittenberg, included a caricature on the title page of a Jewish man dressed lavishly. “Pay or give interest,” a German inscription states, “for I long for profit.” Luther may not have been responsible for the illustration, but “it hints at the reformer’s animosity towards the Jews,” the exhibition catalog notes.
Another object in the exhibition, a green earthenware fragment from a wall fountain found in the garden of Luther’s house, shows a hooded Jewish man with a hooked nose. “This hideous face was meant to thoroughly vilify a Jewish witness to the Crucifixion,” according to the catalog. “It can be seen in the context of the emergence of viciously anti-Semitic caricatures and tropes, which haunt us to this day.”
The Notorious William of Norwich
A less obvious but no less disturbing example of anti-Jewish artistry can be found in a mid-12th century church in Norwich, England. The work, which appears on the church’s rood screen, depicts Jews crucifying and draining the blood from the young William of Norwich in 1144. The artwork is fading, but it shows the 12-year-old boy on a kind of spit beside a tree. A menacing Jew stabs him in the chest and holds up a receptacle to catch the blood. Bystanders observing the ritual murder smile approvingly or scowl violently. The painting suggests the charges leveled at 12th-century Jews, who were said to have subjected the boy to all the tortures that Christ endured, including crowning him with thorns, lynching him and gagging him, before stringing his corpse up in the woods.
“Synagoga and Ecclesia in Our Time” takes a problematic piece of iconography and recasts it as an interfaith study in partnership.
Aiding in the persecution of 12th-century English Jews was another problematic symbol, which was also prominent in Germany and France: the side-by-side depiction of Synagoga and Ecclesia. One such depiction can be found at the 12th-century baptismal font at St. Peter’s Church in the Cotswold village of Southrop, Gloucestershire. The stone carving shows the personification of the synagogue blindfolded by a pennant from a broken staff she carries, while the church is personified as a crowned woman bearing a chalice and a cross.
Another example of anti-Jewish iconography in medieval English art is a cross of walrus ivory that dates from c. 1150 and is currently in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s collection at the Cloisters. The altar cross, which is thought to come from the English abbey at Bury Saint Edmunds in Suffolk, has no fewer than 92 figures and 98 inscriptions, according to the Met’s website, and is “the vehicle for a complex iconographic program that is unrivaled in Christian art.” On one side of the cross, Synagoga, her eyes covered, stabs the Lamb of God with a spear.
“The richness of subjects and the overall intellectual character suggest intense theological dialogue,” the Met site adds. “Though it is impossible to know precisely who commissioned this piece and with what aims, the cross offers some indication of the anti-Jewish sentiment prevalent in England at this time. Indeed, by the end of the 13th century, Jews were expelled from the country.”
Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia has attempted to wrestle with this history with a makeover of the Synagoga and Ecclesia iconography. In 2015 the school unveiled Joshua Koffman’s sculpture “Synagoga and Ecclesia in Our Time,” which it had commissioned. In that work, both seated figures are on the same level and face each other. The church holds an open book adorned with a cross, while the synagogue cradles an open Torah scroll. Where the work’s medieval ancestors illustrated tension, the modern take, in which the Jewish stand-in wears no blindfold, is an interfaith study in partnership. Adam Gregerman, a Jewish studies professor at Saint Joseph’s, said the sculpture conveys “what Pope Francis has called the ‘journey of friendship’ that Jews and Catholics have experienced in the past five decades.”
The Path Forward
Two other prominent examples of anti-Jewish art can be seen in Brussels and in Trent.
In the Royal Square in Brussels, a statue devoted to Godfrey of Bouillon depicts an 11th-century French nobleman on horseback wearing a crown and carrying a flag and a shield. “I was taken aback when I saw it,” says Sara Lipton, professor of history at the State University of New York at Stony Brook and author of Dark Mirror: The Medieval Origins of Anti-Jewish Iconography. “His only claim to fame is as one of the leaders of the First Crusade—a very brutal and religiously intolerant episode we now presumably do not want to glorify,” she says. “I am willing to believe that most Belgians do not know about this,” Ms. Lipton says, “and so do not intend to glorify that part of his history.”
In Trent, paintings and sculptures throughout the city depict Simon of Trent, whom the Jewish community allegedly murdered in 1475. “He is shown as an angelic cherub—very much presented as a saint, even though he is not on the official Catholic list,” Ms. Lipton recalls. “Not all of those objects are labeled, so visitors—and residents too—cannot know that no such saint exists, or that his only claim to sanctity and fame is a horrible libel.”
What should be done with anti-Jewish works in Europe? Ms. Lipton distinguishes between objects and displays that endorse, honor or exalt anti-Semitism or anti-Jewish messages and those that do not.
In Trent, paintings and sculptures throughout the city depict Simon of Trent, whom the Jewish community allegedly murdered in 1475.
“If the answer is that a viewer would very likely assume that the display does amount to an endorsement, then I think that the object should be removed, moved, or at least, if possible, clearly labeled as an object of hate, which is being displayed in order to atone for and disavow its message,” Ms. Lipton says. In a museum, however, where no one would assume the work is being displayed to endorse a hateful message, Ms. Lipton thinks labels can help contextualize the anti-Jewish content.
Alternatively, she agreed with the bishop in Sandomierz, Poland, who several years ago elected not to remove paintings in the cathedral that depicted an alleged 18th-century ritual murder of Jews. Ms. Lipton spoke about anti-Semitism at a January 2013 one-day symposium that the cathedral organized. “I thought it was a brave and useful event,” she says, calling it “a real attempt to grapple with the church’s dark past. Removing the paintings would have had the effect of simply erasing that dark past.”
When churches, or other spaces, confront troubling iconography, they should beware of false positives, cautions Ms. Lipton, who often receives emails from people who see standard medieval or Renaissance passion scenes in museums and feel they are anti-Semitic. “I tell them that, ‘Yes. It would be good if the label mentioned and disavowed the portrayal of Jews as evil, ugly persecutors of Christ. But I do not want all museums to remove all those lovely [Andrea] Mantegnas and [Albrecht] Dürers!”
These artworks are “relics of a hateful time, and they represent the worst of European history.”
Mr. Soltes agrees. “I think that such imagery should be pointed out, not ignored or for that matter removed—perhaps even highlighted and discussed in terms of the implications,” he says. “I am not an advocate of erasing history; I am an advocate for confronting and learning from it.”
Barry Trachtenberg, director of the Jewish studies program at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, N.C., distinguishes between anti-Jewish and anti-Semitic imagery. The latter term typically applies to modern incarnations of medieval anti-Jewish hatred. In the Middle Ages, Jews could convert to escape religious persecution and charges of killing Christ, but in the late 19th century, as religious differences waned, the new kind of anti-Semitism became a charge that Jews could not escape by converting.
Mr. Trachtenberg, who calls himself an “intensely curious” traveler, laments the prevalence of anti-Jewish images in Europe’s tourist destinations. The artworks are “relics of a hateful time, and they represent the worst of European history.” There needs to be sustained discussion about what ought to happen to these sculptures and paintings. “They shouldn’t remain as they are,” he says, whether communities decide to remove the works, relocate them, destroy them or add interpretive material.
When tourists visit Europe, they tend to feel they are traveling back in time, but for many people who live in those cities and towns, the works are very much in the present, and they continue to shape the ways many people view their world theologically. “Europe isn’t just a museum. It’s still a place where people live and act according to religious beliefs,” Mr. Trachtenberg says.
Contextualizing anti-Jewish works, he says, requires more than a sentence or two. The labels ought to point out that the painting or sculpture in question is emblematic of a particular, anti-Jewish worldview that existed at a certain time and reflected popular sentiments about Jews. Knowing that many visitors do not read labels, the institutions ought to commission graphic designers to craft the labels, and the works should be hung separately, not where they get lost amid another 50 works on the wall.
“You treat this with care,” Mr. Trachtenberg says, “the way you would treat a potential weapon or poison.”