The Medieval Review 11.10.33

Rowe, Nina. The Jew, the Cathedral, and the Medieval City: Synagoga and Ecclesia in the Thirteenth Century. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011. Pp. 325. $90. ISBN 978-0-521-19744-1. . .

Reviewed by:

Pamela A. Patton
Southern Methodist University

Depictions of Ecclesia and Synagoga stand among the Middle Ages' best known visual tropes. Their personification of a Christian Church triumphant over a defeated Synagogue found a place in nearly every medium: ivory book covers, church furnishings and service books, stained glass windows, and of course the monumental portal sculptures that are the focus of the book here under review. Scholarship on the symbolic pair has been commensurately prolific, blossoming in the mid-twentieth century with the work of Wolfgang Seiferth, and Bernhard Blumenkranz and advanced by a lively international scholarship up to the present day. Nina Rowe's fine study merits pride of place among these works for the thoughtfulness, thoroughness, and originality with which it elucidates the two personifications' place in a trio of monumental portals that reflect the reconception of northern Europe's Jewish-Christian relations at a key moment in their history, the tumultuous mid-thirteenth century.

Art historical treatments of Ecclesia and Synagoga often hew to one of two poles, either offering a sweeping survey of the pair's manifestations over time or closely scrutinizing a specific genre or variant of the motif within its particular time and place. Ambitiously but intelligently, Rowe's book takes a hybrid approach, situating its relatively focused examination of three related case studies against a well fleshed-out panorama of the historical, social, and cultural patterns to which they owe their genesis--and, more important, against a discussion of the immediate and meaningful social shifts that are so powerfully reflected in these works. A clean-edged and fluently written Part One introduces both the historical place of Jews in northern Europe in the thirteenth century and the genesis and trajectory of the Ecclesia-Synagoga motif; it lays an effective foundation for the heftier and very thoroughly researched Part Two, in which Rowe undertakes close, contextualized analyses of the monumental portal sculptures of Ecclesia and Synagoga at Reims, Bamberg, and Strasbourg cathedrals.

In Part One, the first chapter's survey of Jewish-Christian relations in northern Europe is succinct, freshly written, and very well-grounded, displaying both a mastery of the historical evidence and a keen sense of the varied and often conflictive scholarly trends that shaped the historical narrative predominant today. Within this overview, Rowe highlights a development that will be key to later arguments: the rise of a dichotomous Christian desire to position Jews abstractly as an integral part of salvation history while simultaneously striving to control and diminish the role of actual Jews within a living Christendom. The subsequent chapter, which traces the emergence of the visual motif of Ecclesia and Synagoga over the course of the Middle Ages, locates its origins in two loosely related practices derived from both Roman imperial imagery and early Christian ideology. The first is the Roman deployment of female allegorical figures to personify abstract concepts--whether "Empire" itself, the lands it conquered, or specific qualities or natural forces--whose juxtaposition with images of rulers symbolizes the extension of temporal rule over subordinate places and peoples. A second tendency, emerging primarily in early Christian allegorical texts, is the habit of conceiving of such personifications as directly opposed to each other, as when the Virtues are arrayed against the Vices in Prudentius' classic Psychomachia. This tendency paved the way for a similar opposition when, under the influence of medieval rhetorical and polemical texts, personifications of Ecclesia and Synagoga began to take visual form. In these works, as Rowe shows, the two personifications often continued to appear as oppositional figures conceived in close relation to images of masculine rulers who wield authority over an ideally-ordered world.

Part Two, the self-described "heart" of the book, comprises a trio of studies that ask how images of Ecclesia and Synagoga functioned as part of major public sculptural ensembles at Reims, Bamberg, and Strasbourg. Although each of these chapters would stand well on its own--and indeed, two are more-developed versions of earlier-published articles--they are linked by several thematic commonalities. Beyond the group's loose stylistic affiliation, each portal under discussion incorporates representations of Ecclesia and Synagoga into a larger, highly orderly sculptural program; each disposes the figures in relation to a centralized masculine ruler whose dominance over the pair, like that of a Roman emperor, reflects his authority over an ideally ordered system; and each resonates powerfully with issues of particular concern to its ecclesiastical community at the time when the portal was under construction. Rowe's consistent emphasis on matters political and social, rather than the stylistic or theological issues that have proved the focus of much prior scholarship on these works, allows a very rich reading of each portal's significance.

Rowe's reading of the south fa├žade of Reims exemplifies the virtues of this approach. Here, in an ensemble completed circa 1241, the figures of a broken and powerless Synagoga and a triumphant Ecclesia are interposed amid a series of standing kings ranged on either side of the rose window. While on one level the kings may allude to the cathedral's significance as France's traditional coronation site, Rowe argues that the pairing of Ecclesia and Synagoga with these monarchs also resonated with the French Crown's efforts to impose a new social order through the establishment of tight new controls over Jewish life there in the first half of the thirteenth century, among them the famous Talmud trial in Paris in 1240. A further claim, that the presence of these personifications might have reinforced the reconception of the French kings themselves as the figurative heirs of great Israelite rulers like David and Solomon, follows logically on royal efforts to repress actual Jews in their realm and is well supported by the increase in such references in both theological writing and liturgical texts used at this time.

A strongly temporal reading is made of the F├╝rstenportal at Bamberg cathedral, where Ecclesia and Synagoga flank a tympanum of the Last Judgment resting above a portal that opened directly onto a view of the cathedral's so-called Bamberg Rider. In this arrangement, Rowe sees a visual and conceptual link that was central to the significance of the two personifications in that it revives in its most literal form the Roman imperial formula of a centralized temporal ruler flanked by his symbolic subjects. Presenting the rider as an idealized ruler figure rather than a portrait, as has been suggested by some, Rowe links the vitality of the imperial formula here to Frederick II's wide-ranging efforts to impose order on the societies he ruled through the crafting of a new, comprehensive legal code and a rationalized approach to his Jewish subjects, an agenda shared by Bamberg's ecclesiastical community. Rowe reads the drooping, docile posture of Synagoga, which would have been enhanced by a changing viewpoint during ceremonial processions, as illustrative of the ecclesiastical viewer's understanding of the Jews as both servi of the emperor and subjects of Bamberg's powerful bishop, and thus fully subordinated to the vision of earthly order articulated by the portal.

Strasbourg's famous south portal provides a more unusual case in that here, the two personifications flank a Biblical king, Solomon (perhaps reflecting the Strasbourg bishop's less than cordial relations with his temporal ruler, Frederick II), and because of its openness to a diverse public audience in its role as a site for ecclesiastical and penitential ceremony. According to Rowe, this broad potential viewership would have endowed the personified Church and Synagogue, along with other figures on the portal, with an array of meanings particular to their experience and concerns. Penitents, for example, might have seen the submissively resigned Synagoga, who turns languidly away from an Ecclesia who seems to call out to her, as an ideal embodiment of their own now-conquered reluctance to submit to theological justice, while the cathedral's clerics might have seen the same figures as expressive of their hopes for local Jewish conversion. Both this apparent multivalency and the portal's accessibility to the well-to-do Jewish community living just to the north of the cathedral also permits Rowe to ask a question that is rarely asked enough: what did the Jews of Strasbourg think of their representation as a defeated and obsolete figure? Drawing on contemporaneous polemical literature, Rowe argues, not too surprisingly, that many Jews would have both understood and resisted how the Strasbourg figures aimed to articulate their place in a Christian world.

A brief epilogue concludes the book by tracing the apparent symbolic thinning of Ecclesia and Synagoga images produced in later centuries, in many of which the figures' meaning seems to revert to a simpler polarity of good versus evil. One wonders if this may be too teleological a view, since the bold and complex sculptures studied here did coexist with many more symbolically impoverished exemplars in prayer books, service books, and church furnishing that had less public exposure. The persistence of these more formulaic works, in fact, could be said to justify the study of the portals discussed here, in the contrast that they offer to the brilliance and energy with which these sculpted ensembles capitalized upon their potential to serve as a visual bully pulpit.

One of the most interesting and original aspects of this book is the effort made by the author to reimagine how each portal would have been viewed in the course of use by its most likely constituencies: how physical movement in procession, vistas created by ceremonial choreography, the visibility (or lack thereof) of each portal from nearby buildings or spaces, and even the original colors of the stone and its polychromy would have shaped visual experience of the sculptures. Evocative verbal description and well chosen illustrations allow the reader to envision, for example, how for the clergy processing toward and through the Bamberg portal, the figure of Synagoga appeared progressively more broken and angular as the image of the Bamberg Rider gradually took shape in the darkness of the cathedral interior, a silent performance of the authoritative relationships to which the sculptures pertain.

Rowe's approach to her work is impressively versatile, drawing historical, textual, and material evidence into synthesis with formal and stylistic observations to walk the line attentively between the worm's-eye and the bird's-eye view of her subject. The breadth and soundness of the resulting book will interest a wide range of scholars in fields from art history and Jewish studies to theology, anthropology and beyond. The Jew, the Cathedral, and the Medieval City offers significantly more than its modest outline might promise; it represents a masterful scholarly accomplishment and a signal contribution to medieval studies.