European culture has at times shown forms of intolerance towards Jews. However, this has not always been the case.
Initially, the relationship between Christians and Jews was positive. A 5th-century mosaic in the church of Santa Pudenziana in Rome shows disciples gathered around Christ. Among them, on the opposite sides, St. Peter and St. Paul are crowned by two female figures, respectively the personifications of the Hebrew Church and the Church of the Gentiles (as non-Jews were called by those following Judaism). Both have the same visual space and dignity, a sort of recognition of their common roots. Until the year turn of the 11th century, the relationship with Jews was that of mutual respect and there is no differentiation in their representation.
The situation changed in 1096, when the First Crusade was proclaimed by Urban II. A group led by Peter the Hermit carried out violent acts on Jews, accused of killing Christ. Art also recorded this change and for the first time Jews were portrayed in a different way, not yet through physical features, but in their clothing. Among the first images that document this change in feeling, there are the miniatures of the Lobbes Bible, a manuscript of 1084 where the prophets are depicted, as Jews, with pointed hats. We will find the same headgear in many other images. An example, the Andata al Calvario [Crucifixion] in the door of the Church of San Zeno in Verona (1138), a bronze tile where men with pointed hats push Christ towards the cross.
In 1178 in Parma, the bas-relief with the Deposition of Christ by Antelami shows how far we have come from the mosaics of Santa Pudenziana. Here, among the characters appear two symbolic figures on either side of the cross, the “triumphant Church” holding the crusader banner in one hand and the chalice with the blood of Christ in the other. On the opposite side, there is the “Synagogue”, a woman with a broken banner at her feet, surmounted by an angel who ruthlessly forces her to bend her head. During the 13th century, the distance from Judaism became ever more profound and this aspect clearly emerges in the manner in which the West depicted Judas – a negative stereotype was created that then extended to all Jews. At the end of the century, the figurative model was already consolidated.
In Giotto’s Scrovegni Chapel, Giuda has red hair and beard, an beastly face with a low forehead, a hooked nose, a big mouth that in some works is black (to emphasize the kiss of betrayal), a yellow dress, and lacking a halo generally, or without rays in the case of Giotto. The negative connotation of the image will remain over time, sometimes even Judas is portrayed with black skin. Giotto did not go this far, however in the scene of Betrayal of Judas, he placed a black demon behind the traitor. The demon’s face has the same profile.
The use of colours is far from random. Hair and beards are not really red but rather fawn, a dull colour that does not shine like vermilion and that in the Middle Ages indicated an evil nature. Yellow, which in the classical world was a positive colour associated with that which was sacred, had gradually been devalued to become the colour of falsehood and therefore emblematic of Judas and Jews. Around 1250, in western iconography, Jews always wore something yellow. In the meanwhile, that which the art represented would become reality. In some European regions, Jews were forced to wear a distinctive sign that was often yellow or red, such as a star or a wheel, the symbol of the 30 deniers with which they sold Jesus.
These symbols would remain one of the most recurring emblems, as also attested by many miniatures. In some countries of the Germanic area, on the other hand, they were forced to wear a pointed hat. Even Pope Innocent III, in the Council of 1215, obligated Jews to carry a distinctive symbol or marking (decree 68). This identification of the Jew as a different culture would continue in the Renaissance. A panel painted in 1504 by Raphael, the Marriage of the Virgin, shows on the bottom, around the circular building, men with conical hats. The “Jewish” appearance of the figures in the foreground is placed in the shadow. Their clothing, headgear and hairstyles do nothing to make them different from Italian aristocrats. Only the figures on the bottom are identified as Jews. However, there are no derogatory intentions, making the pointed hat simply an element of recognition. Therefore, Raphael proclaims the extraneousness of Jews, a path from which the West would struggle to return.
Anna Maria Calabretta