Sunday, February 25, 2007

I Didn't Know That

I vaguely remember this painting:-

But I didn't know this:-

There is a famous depiction of the Last Supper by the thirteenth-century Sienese artist Pietro Lorenzetti in the lower church in Assisi. Christ and the Apostles are gathered in a circular chamber, defined by elegant pillars, but what is striking is Lorenzetti’s expansion of the scene. To the left, by the door, two men converse, probably the master of the house, elegantly dressed, and his head servant. The door seems to lead to a kitchen, depicted within a high narrow oblong. Here, next to a roaring fire where presumably the food has been cooked, a cat is warming itself, while a dog is licking a dirty plate, and a scullion is bending forward as he wipes another plate and empties its contents into the dog’s plate; another, better-dressed servant, leans over him, apparently engaging him in conversation. Earlier art historians enthused about Lorenzetti’s way with perspective and domesticity, but recently scholars have begun to explore the symbolic content of the scene. The fire, they say, shows the Old Testament sacrifice, a lamb killed and eaten for Passover, while next door we see the new sacrifice anticipated by Christ, himself the Passover Lamb, in order that Christians may come to a new and purely spiritual sacrifice, ritually re-enacted in the Mass.

A closer look brings a shock to our liberal sensibilities: we may be happy to go along with the abstractions described so far, but baulk, perhaps, at certain aspects of the medieval imagination. For what is this dishcloth with which the scullion is wiping the plate? It is nothing other than the tallith, the Jewish ritual shawl. This domestic kitchen, then, with its cosy cat and dog, is the stinking physical world of the Old Testament, for St Bonaventure tells us that those who want real flesh as opposed to the spiritualized flesh of the Lamb of God are dogs who must be excluded from the Eucharistic banquet. This is strong stuff to emanate from so noble a painting, but it is indubitably there. Or is it – quite? For what is the other servant, the one who bends over the scullion, pointing to, if not to his own prayer shawl, this time correctly covering his shoulders? Does not the emphatic gesture of his left hand suggest that he is reprimanding the scullion for desecrating this piece of ritual clothing, asking that it be reinstated in some sense, reminding us, the viewers, that it stands for the very world out of which Jesus emerged? After all, is it not this very same shawl that we see worn with pride by the Virgin’s father in another painting by Pietro Lorenzetti, of the Nativity, now in the cathedral museum in Siena?

This come from a book review by Gabriel Josipovici on Steven F. Kruger's THE SPECTRAL JEW: Conversion and embodiment in medieval Europe and here's a bit more:-

Steven F. Kruger does not mention these paintings by Lorenzetti in The Spectral Jew, but their complex arguments and ambiguities are precisely what his fascinating new book explores. For the Christians of the Middle Ages the Jews represented a problem: the Jew was the Old Man of St Paul, who had been overcome and transcended by the New Man ushered in by Christ. The Jews were defined by their blindness in refusing to see that Christ was the Son of God, and this blindness was a sign of their carnality, their irredeemable physicality. In this they were like women, an Other against whom many medieval Christian men defined themselves. But there was a paradox, the seed of an anxiety: for Jesus himself was a Jew and it was out of Judaism that Christianity had come. Hence the desperate need to make Jews see the light, to convert them, to make them confess that they had been wrong and the followers of Jesus right all along.

Their refusal to be converted was, of course, a sign of their blindness, their stubbornness, but it left just the trace of a suspicion that perhaps they knew something that was hidden to Christians. Kruger shows that this paradox, already present in John’s Gospel and the Pauline Epistles, deepened after 1096 and the First Crusade, as Christians became more aware of the Jews in their midst (and the Muslims at their borders), their scholars began to learn about Jewish traditions, and, as in Spain, Jews came to prominence in many professions. For not only were individual Jews clearly intelligent and thoughtful men, hardly the stereotypes of the Gospels, but it turned out that Judaism itself was not a single monolithic religion, stuck in its stubborn denial of Christianity, but a continuously evolving entity.

In the great disputations which took place, mainly in Spain, in the later Middle Ages, it was most often Jewish converts who were selected to make the Christian case, and they did so now by arguing not just with the Old Testament, but with the Talmud. These disputations were, however, always rigged, for the power lay with the Christians who had organized them and dictated the rules by which both parties had to abide. The outcome was in effect decided beforehand, and the argument of the Christians was often contradictory, to the point (for us, with hindsight) of absurdity: the Talmud, the Christians argued, was a pack of lies from beginning to end; but it also, amazingly, recognized the divinity of Christ, even though the Jews refused to see this.

In response, as Kruger shows, the Jews, constrained to appear under threat of death, for themselves and their communities, retreated into silence, refusing to damn themselves out of their own mouths, maintaining the final freedom of the oppressed; but, of course, by this token giving the Christians the impression that they had no answer to their probing questions. At least in John 8 both sides are given equal weight: the Jews find it absurd that anyone should think any man the Son of God, the Christians think the Jews are being wilfully blind in refusing to see that Jesus is precisely that.

In the Catalonian city of Tortosa, in 1413, by contrast, Pope Benedict XIII opened the proceedings by saying, “It is a known thing with me that my religion and faith is true, and that your Torah was once true but was abolished”. The frightening thing about this is not only that he believes it but that he has to believe it or he could no longer call himself a Christian. And surely Christians will have to go on believing it, however much they call for interfaith dialogue. At a time like the present, when another Benedict sits on the papal throne and the secret Other is no longer primarily the Jew but the Muslim, Steven Kruger’s book should be of interest not only to scholars of medieval culture and theology but to every thinking person, whatever his or her own faith or lack of it.

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