History Books

The best books on Reinterpreting Medieval Art

recommended by Marc Michael Epstein

The professor of religion explains how medieval Jews and Christians collaborated. He recommends five books that have changed the way we look at medieval art.

Interview by Beatrice Wilford

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Why is it important that we look at medieval art differently?

Let’s back up and fire a counter question, which is why is it important that we look at medieval art at all? We tend to use use medieval as an adjective of derogation, ‘Oh, what went on in Guantanamo Bay or Abu Ghraib was so medieval,’ or ‘ISIS is so medieval,’ or, ‘The church is so medieval.’ In fact the Middle Ages were quite a mixed bag, some of it by our standards was quite appalling and feels—to use a word no-one likes to use any more—rather ‘primitive.’ But much of it was as vibrant and dynamic and alive and multi-cultural and multi-perspectival as anything we experience today. Sometimes, for me, even more so. I know there are philologically-oriented people who could go on about the Middle Ages in a way that would put anyone to sleep just to listen to them. But, to me, without getting all ‘Society for creative Anachronism’ and putting on a Viking helmet, I still feel there is a lot in the Middle Ages that is relevant to us.

It was a time of cultural collision and collusion and I’m really interested in looking at it—here comes the answer to your question—in a different way than it’s been looked at before. I feel that to do the Middle Ages justice, we have to think of it in really post-modern terms. We have to understand it as a collection of cultures of encounter even if we don’t like the way cultures were encountering each other, or it doesn’t jibe with our contemporary sensibilities. We have to understand that any period that’s a period of cultural negotiation necessarily involves people and ideas, concepts, works of art, works of literature that are interstitial, that are in between categories. Nowadays we’re very much enamoured of the categories that fall in between categories and I would argue for the revival of interest in the Middle Ages as an era that in that sense was very much like ours.

Can you talk to about the Jewish medieval experience in the context of this newer scholarship on the Middle Ages?

I got into the Middle Ages many years ago when my father—who was an escapee from Ultra-Orthodox, Hassidic, Yeshiva institutes of higher learning; he left to draw the nudes at the Brooklyn Museum Art School and became a student of Mark Rothko and Ad Reinhardt—used to take me to the Cloisters in Manhattan, which is the medieval branch of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It consists structurally of many pieces of actual cloisters that were purchased under shady circumstances in Europe and brought back to America so that people could experience them here. That place made a huge impression upon me. I found myself very much enamoured of the Unicorn tapestries and with various aspects of medieval visual culture that were very different to my own as a Jew. I was taken by them but I realised simultaneously that had I lived during the Middle Ages, I wouldn’t have been taking part in the fabulous culture of the court, the cloister, and the cathedral. I would have been one of the ‘others.’ As far as I could tell, that was not a particularly sanguine position to be in. So when I began to think for myself about the roles of Jews in the Middle Ages, I found that my teachers and the literature that I was reading that looked at medieval Jewish art—what they called ‘medieval Jewish art’, I don’t call it that—visual culture made for Jews in the Middle Ages, they found it to resemble visual culture made for Christians and therefore they labelled it ’emulative.’ I said to myself, “That’s interesting.” If Jews are stealing stuff that’s going on iconographically and stylistically in Christian society, it must have a different meaning. If the unicorn represents the Messiah for Christians that is very distinctively the Christian Messiah, who’s also the son of God, which is an impossibility in Judaism. If we have a unicorn in Jewish art, it must represent something else. Even if it represents the Messiah, maybe it’s a counter-Messiah to the Christian Messiah. So I began to think about the relationship between Jews and Christians over visual culture as something of what Freud would have called ‘a love story in aggressive garb.’ That is, a fascination of Jews with art made in the wider society, but always using that art to poke at or respond to, or angrily object to what was going on in Christian art.

“To do the Middle Ages justice, we have to think of it in really post-modern terms.”

My first book, which was called Dreams of Subversion in Medieval Jewish Art and Literature, was based around that thesis of an adversarial yet emulative relationship. So I moved from where my teachers were—who said, “The Jews wanted to be like everybody else, they were just copying what was going on in the wider society,”—to this thesis that if they were in fact adopting, they were also adapting in a variety of ways. But over the years, and with the aid of developments in the field of consideration of Jewish visual culture, I’ve come to realise a number of things. First of all, the very reason that I don’t speak about ‘medieval Jewish art’ is that the majority of the material that we’re looking at—that which survived wars and various acts of violence and burnings of books, what survives is relatively little—looks very much like what was produced for Christians and the truth is that much of it, or even most of it, was actually produced by Christians. So, thinking about what I used to call ‘medieval Jewish art,’ and I now call ‘art produced for medieval Jews,’ I began to realise that in order to create art that would be used by Jews, Christians and Jews had to exist in a collaborative relationship.

When the practice of manuscript illumination moved from the monasteries, where Jews were not wont to go, to the high streets and cathedral streets of every city in Europe, anyone, provided they had the wherewithal, could walk in to a manuscript shop and order a manuscript. The terms of the conversation changed. It was a relationship. What I’ve learned over the years because the scholarship has shifted, is that the position of Jews in the Middle Ages, while often quite awful, was not constantly awful. That is, you had neighbours, everybody had to buy eggs, if you sold eggs you sold them to Jews or to Christians. If you ordered a manuscript, you probably ordered from a Christian illuminator. Yes, occasionally violence broke out in those societies, but on a day-to-day basis, there was more communication than conflict. My view of the way interactions worked over the creation of visual culture has shifted in the past several decades, from this idea of a love story in aggressive garb to what I would call a mutual fishing expedition. That is, Jews and Christians are both sitting on the shores of a stream of culture that is flowing past them and they’re each fishing. They each pull out a unicorn because there are unicorns in the culture. The Jew says, “Oh, a unicorn, a symbol in the Bible of the strength of God associated with the Messiah, clearly the Jewish Messiah, the son of David, not yet arrived.” The Christian pulls out a unicorn, “Ah, associated in the Bible with God, the Messiah, clearly Christ, because what other Messiah is there?” So they’re utilising the same symbols to say different things and sometimes the difference is troped in an aggressive way, and sometimes it’s simply difference.

I’m very pleased to understand things in this way now because the evidence of the visual culture makes more sense to me. In a manuscript like the Würzburg Rashi—one of the earliest extant Jewish manuscripts, illuminated in Franco-Germany around 1270 to 1290—with an image that says, “And God spoke to Moses,” you see Moses standing on one side and to his right there’s this burnished gold half-circle. The paint flakes. You look under the flaking paint and you see there’s an image of Jesus with his hand up in the Greek blessing, wearing the cruciform halo. You say, “Oh wow, I see what happened: the Jew orders the manuscript, tells the Christian, “God spoke to Moses,” the Christian puts Jesus obviously as God. The Jew sees the manuscript and says, “Oh no, we don’t do Jesus,” “Well, what do you want?” “I don’t care, scrape it off, put some gold there, do anything, but just take the Jesus out of my manuscript, it’s wrecked!” That’s called being in a relationship, it’s not an adversarial relationship, it’s a collaboration.

So that’s where I am with the idea of Jewish cultural production in the Middle Ages. It relates to, it doesn’t replicate, but it utilises a lot of the material that exists in Christian material culture, and in fat it’s created by some of the same people who create Christian visual culture. That’s the short answer.

Your first book is The Sexuality of Christ in Renaissance Art and in Modern Oblivion why did you choose it?

Leo Steinberg —I emphasise that name—he was a fascinating guy. He was a tough character, a kind of fussy old codger at the time I knew him. I used to have students of mine call him and ask him questions about the book and he would yell at them for interrupting his nap, but then he would go on and give brilliant answers. I emphasise Steinberg because what’s interesting about the book is not necessarily what’s immediately obvious. The book is about—my students call it “the Jesus penis book”—about the fact that Jesus’s genitalia, either juvenile or adult, are emphasised and focussed upon—literally as the conversion point of the orthogonals—in many works of renaissance art, and that this had a particular function and meaning. It was about humanation, it was about the maleness of Christ, and it had particular parallels in sermonic literature, homiletic literature. All that has been lost in modernity—nobody noticed it—and Steinberg noticed it and began to discuss it and of course he got all kinds of flak and he responded to the flak by writing a second part of the book, which is a response to all his critics.

I’m interested in the book for a very specific reason. It has less to do with the content, than the fact that this guy noticed. In the course of my thinking about what I would do myself as a medieval art historian if the art was so pervasively Christian I began to think about the fact that, almost without exception, all the famous, important, innovative art historians of medieval Christian art in the twentieth-century in the post-war period were emigré Jews. Whether it was Warburg, or Gombrich, or Krautheimer, you can’t name a name that’s not a German Jewish name. Someone once said that art history in the post-war period consisted of Jewish professors teaching Catholic art to Protestant students. I began to think why this should be, and particularly why such innovative observations—from people like Meyer Shapiro—were made, and I remembered going to art museums with my father—who was this Yeshiva boy manqué—looking at these paintings. There’d be a huge crucifixion scene with about a million people in it, a Northern Renaissance crucifixion scene, and I’d be interested in Jesus—I was six or seven years old—”What did he do? Why is he up there?” My father once in a while would say to me, “That’s what happens to bad little Jewish boys,” but by-and-large he would say something like, “Look over here, down here, far to the left. Do you see that fat man in the red hat? He looks just like his horse, doesn’t he?” My father taught me to avoid the main subject, which was so Christian, and to look at the peripheral and the apparently random or indeterminate, or unimportant. And I realised this: all these German émigré art historians—and you could name 15 or 20—came from households in which there were observant Jewish parents, or maximially, grandparents. They themselves were cosmopolitan citizens of the world, they’d left that all behind, and yet they couldn’t bring themselves to look at medieval Christian art from a devotional perspective, so they had to find alternative perspective.

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Steinberg for me is representative of the idea that you look at something that people who are in the business—say, of Christianity—have not looked at, and you, because you are on the edge, see it in a different way. That’s why the fact that Steinberg was a Jew was so important. Because, let me tell you, very few people with Christian backgrounds or even secularised, nominally Christian backgrounds are going to be doing very much thinking about Jesus’s penis. Steinberg, as what we used to call a “confirmed batchelor” and a Jewish man, was able to see things other people weren’t.

A lot of the criticisms of this book I read were people saying there’s no textual evidence for what he said. Does what he does make us more able to see pictures as separate to texts?

If we did that we would be mistaken. There are two equally infelicitous alternatives: people who say, “I can’t say anything about an image unless I have a text to pin it on,” and people who say, “Images exists completely independently in the artist’s mind from texts.” It’s not that images are wedded to texts, but images are wedded to culture, and culture is influenced by texts, and by sermons, and by conversations that people have in the street. It would be a mistake to think about looking at art completely divorced from its cultural contexts. But it would also be a mistake to say, “Here we have a picture of x, y, z and here I found the text that explains it exactly, thank you very much.” First of all it’s really boring, but secondly it’s very reductionist. Steinberg helps us to move toward looking at the image. But when you look at the image, you realise people were saying things in sermons like, “Jesus’s maleness is important, Jesus’s humanity, his maleness is part of his humanity, etc., etc.”

Your next book is Image on the Edge by Michael Camille.

Michael Camille was a fascinating art historian who died too young. He did, in a sense, what Leo Steinberg did. He said, “Let’s look at a bunch of stuff that nobody really noticed before, or they found playful, or just weird.” He argued that one could read the margins of manuscripts as responding to what was going on in the text; sometimes in very literal and literary ways and sometimes in more abstract ways. He opened people’s eyes to the fact that you could have a very solemn text that was created by and for monastic patrons and the margins of the page could depict monkeys fucking each other, or cranes sodomising lions. Rather than think of these things as light relief, he argues that they had significance. He does it brilliantly, and he adduces texts and sociology and talks about the different contexts of margins and marginality.

This is helpful for me because when I look at manuscripts made for Jews, I’m at an advantage because in the Jewish tradition the marginal area of manuscripts and printed book serve particularly as the commentary area. In a way this is a thesis ready-made for the study of medieval visual culture created for Jews. I just love this idea of the literally edgy. My next book is called Extremities: Mapping the Margins of Jewish Visual Culture and it’s about literal margins as well as conceptual ones. So Camille was a tremendous influence and I’m sorry that he’s left this world.

So, can talk about the social edges at the same time as the edges of manuscripts?

Yes, you could.

How does that relationship work?

It indicates a self-awareness on the part of the protagonists of religious acts—monks—that there is always this side of life that is tempting, that is weird, that is outré, that they either have to resist, or admit that they came from a situation where they were fallen and they indulged in it. But this sense of self-reckoning, where you realise that the world is a world in which one hopes that the centre will hold, but in which the periphery—in which there’s always unbelief and there are always poor people, and challenging disabilities, and other kinds of threats to the idea of God’s perfectly ordered universe—is waiting to encroach and the question is: are they part of your world, or are they something that is utterly abhorrent and must be kept out? The answer is that if they were utterly abhorrent and had to be kept out, they wouldn’t be in the cathedrals or the books at all.

But they’re there, which means that they are part of that world and they need to be reckoned with. It’s an answer to the black-and-white, good-and-bad of religious morality and moralising and theology.

The next book is The Reformation of the Image.

This is a hard book, it can’t be read—or summarised—in the sort of light way the other two can.

Do you want to just outline its argument?

Sure. when we think about Protestants and their art, we think of—at least in America—whitewashed Congregationalist churches on the green in New Haven, or Boston. In fact, argues Joseph Leo Koerner—another Jew—there was a Protestant art, and it was particularly didactic. It involved, for instance, images of Luther facing an audience, with Luther on the right, the audience listening to the sermon, divided by sex, on the left, everybody’s dressed very Protestant and the image is very spare—it’s just a stone room—and yet, in the middle of the image, is an image of the crucified Christ, and there are rays coming from Luther’s mouth. You realise that Luther’s sermon is making real, making manifest, the crucified Christ just as transubstantiation made the real presence of Christ made known to a Catholic congregation. Paul’s assertion that “We preach Christ crucified,” is here literally manifest, and so the image becomes very important in Protestantism.

The most fascinating thing for me is to see the same artists—the Cranach family—Lucas Cranach the elder and the younger, in transition between being Catholic artists and being Protestant artists. You’ll see a crucifixion from BL—Before Luther—and it’s a crucifixion that takes place in historical space: it has the three Marys, it has the bad Jews and Romans, it has the Centurion, and it has the thieves, and then you’ll see a crucifixion by the same artist that happens after Luther, and all you’ll have there is the Centurion. He’ll be saying—in German—“Truly this one is the son of God.” It encapsulates what Protestantism is, which is the idea of sola fide, ‘only faith,’ and of individual faith at that.

“The Middle Ages was an extremely fluid, dynamic period that in all its impulses, even though it talked a lot about tradition, mitigated against stasis.”

People tend to think that history works in neatly periodised soundbites. That one goes to sleep on the evening of December 31st 1299 someplace in Italy in the Middle Ages and wakes up January 1st 1300 and says, “Feels like the Renaissance this morning.” It didn’t happen that way, everything was happening simultaneously. Everything was a process and, to me Koerner’s book both liberates us from the idea Protestants had no art and explains what Protestant art was. It explains that really there were no Protestants. Just like when Jesus was hanging around with a bunch of guys in Galilee, there were no Christians, there were Jesus-people. What were they? Were they Jews? Yeah, were they Christians? Not yet, not quite. Same thing with the Reformation. You heard Luther’s message, but could you dump all your Catholicism? No, so it was a gradual process.

This book really exemplifies for me—that word again—the interstitiality, the in-betweenness, the liminality of one’s theological position.

Your next book is Early Medieval Bible Illumination and the Ashburnham Pentateuch. Can you tell me about this manuscript that Dorothy Verkerk writes about?

So this is an early Christian manuscript, one of the earlier Christian illuminated manuscripts, and it contains scenes from the Hebrew Bible: the old Testament. And Dorothy Verkerk is also someone who thinks differently. It had been previously thought that when one read a sequence of iconographical narrative interventions, one read them because they were linked with a text that—say the Hebrew Bible—in the order in which they appear in the text. Verkerk’s brilliant analysis, which does many many other things, says that one can read across the page chiasmically, like an ‘X’. Or one can skip and go back. In other words, it seems that the reading of images is not necessarily linear, sequential and chronological. The reason she concludes this—and here again the written text intervenes—is the fact that sermons for catechumens, that is people converting to Christianity, very often jumped in ways that the iconography of this manuscript jumped: in order to make particular Christian didactic points and connections. Here’s a technique being employed in visual culture that’s also being employed in the sermons and the conversionary material of Christian literary and homiletic culture. She’s not arguing that these texts illustrate sermons and homilies, rather she is saying that these texts require the same method in reading or understanding that homilies and sermons require.

That’s what I got out of that book, the idea that one could read across the page.

Does it tell us about the interaction between Jewish and Christian art?

One of the things that’s interesting to think about with it is the uses to which the Hebrew Bible is put. That is, in a Jewish context an illustration of the Tabernacle in the wilderness may mean one thing. In a Christian context it comes to mean another thing. It’s the same basis but it gains a sort of polyvalency. What that says about the relationship between the two cultures is difficult to say, because we don’t have that much information about the backdrop of this particular manuscript.

The next book is Anachronic Renaissance by Alexander Nagel and Christopher S. Wood. Tell me about this book.

This is another very very difficult book, not because it’s jargony, but because the ideas are very deep and very sophisticated. It’s about time, and it’s about time in the sense that it looks at how a work of art relates to the images and iconography that come before it, and also that it has an afterlife and that all of that needs to be taken into account when we talk about the work of art. For instance, one of the images that Nagel and Wood evaluates is an image of St. Jerome in his study. So you have the image of St. Jerome, who’s a Christian saint of a particular late antique time period and in his study there are artefacts related to pagan religion and to nascent Christianity. Within the image there are other images that talk about the historical genealogy of the image that we’re looking at. And those images have a relationship to still other images. Every image, according to Nagel and Wood, is a compendium.

They also talk about things like non-actual histories of architecture. So, if I’m going to imagine the Temple in Jerusalem, I’m going to imagine it as a Herodian, late-Roman kind of building, in obviously Romanesque style, which it was, and for which we have both archaeological and textual evidence. I can do that, but wouldn’t it be better, since I live in France in the fourteenth century, to imagine it as a Gothic cathedral? These questions of representation and what we do with architecture and history led me in my own work to look more carefully at architectural detail. I notice that in one of the books that I’ve worked on—a haggadah, a liturgy for the home service of Passover Eve, from Franco-Germany in the 1300s—Egypt is represented not with Anubis and Osiris, but with romanesque architecture: rounded arches. This makes sense because in that book Egypt represents a stratum of the Jewish past. We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt. In 1300, of course, the up-and-coming style is the new Gothic.

The most elaborately new, extravagant Gothic buildings shown in the manuscript is an image of the temple in Jerusalem. It says “Next year in Jerusalem.” The words “Next year in Jerusalem,” repeated every year on passover, are an incorrect translation. In fact, the Hebrew text says “Within the coming year may we be in Jerusalem.” If you say “Next year in Jerusalem” it is a consummation devoutly to be wished; it is something that is always eternally deferred. But if you say “Within the coming year,” it means Now! So this Gothic depiction of the Temple means, “This is the building we want to see built now!” So I learned from Nagel and Wood that architecture teaches us something particular when it’s anachronic.

This links back to what you were saying originally about the medieval being used as an adjective of derogation, an era of confusion and mess. This anachronism isn’t medieval and renaissance artists making errors, it’s very deliberate.

Very deliberate, and it’s a mitigation of staticness. What we think of as medieval is what Gilbert and Sullivan in Patience called, “Anglo-Saxon attitudes,” people frozen in stained glass in three quarter views, with their hands in ridiculous positions. This has nothing to do with the Middle Ages. The Middle Ages was an extremely fluid, dynamic period that in all its impulses, even though it talked a lot about tradition, mitigated against stasis. In this Jews and Christians participated equally.

Interview by Beatrice Wilford

October 27, 2015

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Marc Michael Epstein

Marc Michael Epstein

Marc Michael Epstein is the Professor of Religion on the Mackie Paschall Davis & Norman H. Davis Chair at Vassar College, New York. He has written on various topics in visual and material culture produced by, for, and about Jews. His book, The Medieval Haggadah: Art, Narrative, and Religious Imagination was selected by the Times Literary Supplement as one of the best books of 2011. His most recent book is Skies of Parchment, Seas of Ink: Jewish Illuminated Manuscripts.

Marc Michael Epstein

Marc Michael Epstein

Marc Michael Epstein is the Professor of Religion on the Mackie Paschall Davis & Norman H. Davis Chair at Vassar College, New York. He has written on various topics in visual and material culture produced by, for, and about Jews. His book, The Medieval Haggadah: Art, Narrative, and Religious Imagination was selected by the Times Literary Supplement as one of the best books of 2011. His most recent book is Skies of Parchment, Seas of Ink: Jewish Illuminated Manuscripts.