The Elephant and the Law: The Medieval Jewish Minority Adapts a Christian Motif

By Epstein, Marc Michael | The Art Bulletin, September 1994 | Go to article overview
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The Elephant and the Law: The Medieval Jewish Minority Adapts a Christian Motif


Epstein, Marc Michael, The Art Bulletin


(Figures 1-17 omitted)

It was in these pages nearly half a century ago that there appeared a study by William S. Heckscher entitled "Bernini's Elephant and Obelisk." Heckscher's contextual reading of the eponymous monument, erected in 1667 on the Piazza della Minerva in Rome, reveals the intellectual process through which Bernini recast the symbolism of the elephant from its traditional trionfo context to a celebration of divine wisdom. Heckscher's examination of the emblematic and historical sources of the work's "apparently incompatible elements" serves to elucidate the synthesis intended by Bernini in what Heckscher called "this startling combination of baroque elephant and pagan stone in front of a church."(1)

A similarly "startling" juxtaposition of seemingly incongruous elements appears in a setting which only slightly postdates Bernini's project, yet is considerably removed from it in geography and intellectual milieu; also public, yet considerably more intimate; emanating not from the epicenter of Counter-Reformation Catholicism, but from the burgeoning spiritual capital of Europe's preeminent minority culture. Elephants appear on the walls and in the domes of painted wooden synagogues in early eighteenth-century Poland, in spaces which are near to or flanking the Ark of the Law.(2)

It is surprising that elephants, which seldom figure in rabbinic literature and not at all in the Bible itself, should appear in a Jewish setting, let alone in proximity to the central focus of the synagogue, the Ark of the Law.(3) It is stranger still how little attention these unusual images have received, for although few in number, they are found time and again in compendia of photographs of the art of the wooden synagogues. They share this neglect with their counterparts in medieval Jewish art, such as the magnificent elephant on the opening page of the book of Deuteronomy in the so-called Duke of Sussex Pentateuch, a South German manuscript of the early fourteenth century, now in the British Library,(4) and an elephant which opposes a dragon in the Worms Mahzor, a festival prayer book completed in 1272, housed in the Jewish National and University Library in Jerusalem.(5) These images, with so little apparent intrinsic Jewish meaning, tend to be underrated as "merely decorative" or "borrowed" from the surrounding culture, particularly since they appear stylistically similar to those in contemporary Christian art.(6)

This dismissive attitude is not without precedent: Jewish art is often rather summarily described as having adopted the stylistic and iconographic conventions of the larger societies in which it was created. Current approaches to the study of medieval Jewish illumination are generally extremely conservative, modeling themselves on the traditional modes of analysis of medieval Christian art before its incorporation into the "methodological toolbox" of cultural studies.(7) Stylistic analyses of various manuscripts or of the work of specific artists and schools are common, as are discussions of the origins of Jewish iconographic conventions and of the cross-cultural transmission of motifs through art and literature concentrating upon the presence of supposedly Christian motifs in Jewish art. In general, these are attributed to the "fact" that Jewish art is a subset, of sorts, of medieval art; evidence is adduced from the marked stylistic confluence between medieval Hebrew illuminations and contemporary Latin examples. Conspicuous iconographic differences are often ascribed to the influence of the midrashic tradition, and where stylistic or iconographic similarities exist, they are usually represented as borrowings. Their origins are traced, and their affinities are attributed (with varying degrees of puzzlement, condemnation, or celebration, depending on the point of view and religious-political agenda of the author) to the influence of the surrounding culture on Jewish life, and hence on art.

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