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Dark Mirror: The Medieval Origins of Anti-Jewish Iconography

by Sara Lipton

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This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
In her introduction, Lipton states her research was based off her observation on how Jews are not only portrayed in Christian images, but how the emphasis became the Jews as witness or viewers in Christian art. With her focus established, she concentrates her examples and discussion around the initial images from each century as she covers the changes that take place with the iconography of Jews from ca. 1015-1500.

I was excited to receive the book and started on it right away. Lipton has nice examples of each new set of iconography and discusses them thoroughly. The images are in black and white and somewhat difficult to make out the details, but overall it was helpful to have the images. As Lipton moved through the centuries the chapters were nicely organized, her discussions were informative, but I found them a bit too dense at times and it slowed my progress through the book. Lipton has done a great deal of research, but her observations are not always substantiated with her discussions.

At the midway point, my interest was piqued with the chapter on Chartres Cathedral. The reader is able to put themselves in the shoes of the thirteenth-century viewer as Lipton walks through portal and discusses the sculpture and stained glass throughout. In addition to the theories on Jewish iconography at Chartres and the other occurrences in medieval manuscripts in the body of the book, Lipton did an impressive amount of research and the notes at the back of the book are not to be missed.

Overall I did found myself easily distracted and at times lost in her theories. Perhaps her focus was too broad and she was trying to accomplish too much. I would not write the book off entirely though and will definitely keep it in my personal library of art historical reference books to refer to and use the notes as a great bibliographic reference. ( )
  artlib14 | Dec 17, 2014 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
I read far too much about Jewish hats which weren't even Jewish or even worn, apparently. However, I made the connection between Jewish hats and witches hats and was happy to see the author brought up the connection in the conclusion. Like others, I found the black-and-white photos hard to see and the lack of description under each figure further confounded me for some reason.

What bothered me most, however, was that the author admits in her conclusion that anti-Jewish sentiment wasn't all that straightforward or constant during the period in question. She admits that life began to imitate art, and there was no real "anti" anything that prompted the beginnings of the negative images other than a, supposed, need for Christians to feel better about themselves as they strove to stress the New over the Old and the need for visual images of faith. Seems silly that clerics and artists would go to such lengths, but yet aren't the same things still going on today? We tend to believe what we see or are shown rather than thinking for ourselves.

I received an uncorrected proof thru LibraryThing Early Reviewers. ( )
1 vote seongeona | Nov 11, 2014 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
I think that people who consider this book might expect a bit more of it than they're likely to get, but that's not the author's fault. I think the author chose a specific topic, tried to stick to it, and carried it out as objectively as possible. But in the end, this is an art history book, and reminds me a bit of my struggle with art history class in college. Basically, we're talking about a topic which is presented in a dry fashion and which, in my opinion, places a bit more value on speculative interpretation than is justified. I'm not saying that it isn't appropriate to assert a given meaning to a particular gesture or appearance if it's consistently shown to be the case in repeated images of the era, just that I'm more comfortable with the author indicating that the presence of, for example, snakes in the hands of observers of the crucifixion which bite them on the chin or seem to whisper in their ear being of symbolic relevance than I am with the author indicating a symbolic relevance in the appearance of the eyes, the direction of the gaze, or the fact that a character is pointing or gesturing with a finger in a given situation. Especially given that I would credit the creators of much of this imagery with perhaps an intention to propagate a particular belief, but not necessarily the artistic skill to do so. The illustrations referenced in the copy I received (unfortunately but understandably not color illustrations for this advance readers copy) left me thinking at times that the assertions the author was making might have been as easily attributed to the failings of a less practiced artist as to any desire to propagate a particular belief. Let's face it, the art of Medieval monastics might be fascinating, but Albrecht Durer these guys were not. But I think the author may have been tilting at windmills to some degree.

The reason I say this is that the very nature of the study implies an effort to understand Anti-Jewish attitudes as they were expressed in Medieval art. But the author plainly states that anti-Jewish attitudes existed in Christian society prior to the development of anti-Jewish iconography in Christian art. So if one wishes to understand the existence of anti-Jewish iconography, presuming that its origin is in the art itself is probably not the best way to do so. The premise of the book is to understand the origin of anti-Jewish iconography, not to understand the origins of anti-semitism or to understand fully the cultural and social differences that might have led to artistic expressions of anti-semitism. Can it help in that regard? Yes, perhaps. But is it a comprehensive explanation of the phenomenon? No, and it doesn't seem intended to be. It's an explanation of exactly what it claims, the origins of anti-Jewish iconography in Christian art. That's a small part of a much, much broader topic that gets people highly emotional. One can't expect that the primary audience to consider picking up this book would be satisfied with just a work on the emergence of visual aids to anti-semitic trends through history, they more likely are seeking a greater understanding of (or vindication of their view of) anti-Jewish feelings and history in general. Thus, through no fault of the author except perhaps in her choice of subject, they may be disappointed. But I'd still recommend it as worth a read. It does seem like she put a lot of effort into it, and quite frankly by the standards of works on art history, I can't find much to fault in it. ( )
1 vote IbnAlNaqba | Nov 10, 2014 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
I am not in a position to assess the veracity of Sara Lipton's conclusions. But I was not convinced by them. Their presentation and defense is simply too narrowly argued and tediously repetitive to boot. Ultimately this ought to have been a book that explored the social and cultural relationship between Medieval Christians and Jews and how that was represented in and influenced by depictions of Jews in art. Instead there is almost no discussion of actual historical relations.

The book seems to be composed almost entirely based on conclusions drawn from looking directly at pictures without further investigations into the world that produced those works. It sounds dangerously like the sort of overwought BS spun in college art crits where teachers are more concerned with how much can be fluffed up out of thin air than actual technique. I won't begrudge her for her proposals, but a proposal means very little without sound evidence. There is some logic in her arguments that often depictions of Jews in Medieval imagery served to support the story that Christianity wanted to tell, rather than represent Jews as they existed at the time. However she gets into treacherous territory as depictions of Jews became more and more hateful. Continuing an argument that minimizes the connection between grotesque depictions of a minority group and what the authors and audiences of those depictions thought of that group is both baffling and irresponsible.

Frankly, it's just unbelievable that, with as much time as we spend hearing about the shape of hats and who's wearing what kind of hat, we don't get any credible discussion of what Christian and Jewish relations were actually like at the time. ( )
1 vote fundevogel | Nov 9, 2014 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
I received this book as an early reviewer and I thoroughly enjoyed the experience. It is a scholarly work requiring a little more attention, but it is completely worth it! The narrative is engaging and thoughtful. The subject lends itself to interest as the author does a wonderful job of describing her research and findings in an even handed way. The one negative were the pictures as they sometimes were hard to see what was being described. With that said, the author's explanation more than made up for this issue. As a result of this reading, I am interested in visiting old churches to look for the signs the author describes. As I read the book, it was clear that the pictures themselves would not have been enough for the average person to understand what was being communicated, that the message in churches was where anti-Semitic beliefs were generated. ( )
  fran36 | Oct 23, 2014 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0805079106, Hardcover)

In Dark Mirror, Sara Lipton offers a fascinating examination of the emergence of anti-Semitic iconography in the Middle Ages

The straggly beard, the hooked nose, the bag of coins, and gaudy apparel—the religious artists of medieval Christendom had no shortage of virulent symbols for identifying Jews. Yet, hateful as these depictions were, the story they tell is not as simple as it first appears.

Drawing on a wide range of primary sources, Lipton argues that these visual stereotypes were neither an inevitable outgrowth of Christian theology nor a simple reflection of medieval prejudices. Instead, she maps out the complex relationship between medieval Christians’ religious ideas, social experience, and developing artistic practices that drove their depiction of Jews from benign, if exoticized, figures connoting ancient wisdom to increasingly vicious portrayals inspired by (and designed to provoke) fear and hostility.

At the heart of this lushly illustrated and meticulously researched work are questions that have occupied scholars for ages—why did Jews becomes such powerful and poisonous symbols in medieval art? Why were Jews associated with certain objects, symbols, actions, and deficiencies? And what were the effects of such portrayals—not only in medieval society, but throughout Western history? What we find is that the image of the Jew in medieval art was not a portrait of actual neighbors or even imagined others, but a cloudy glass into which Christendom gazed to find a distorted, phantasmagoric rendering of itself.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:16:04 -0400)

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