Academic journal article German Quarterly

Jews in the cathedral

Academic journal article German Quarterly

Jews in the cathedral

Article excerpt

FORUM The window of our apartment in Cologne looks out on a chocolate factory on one side and a brewery on the other. Directly in front across the Roncalli Platz loom the filigree spires of the cathedral, thrusting up into the gray mist hanging over the city. When the aromatic waves of chocolate mixed with bratwurst and sauerkraut overcome me, I descend into the streets below and often pass by the cathedral to look at another set of stained-glass windows or one of the chapels. I am drawn to a fifteenth-century painting of the adoration of the Magi by Stephen Lochner, a noted artist of the Cologne School. The three Wise Men are offering gifts to the Child Jesus, seated on the lap of his young mother, who is dressed in a slate-blue cloak fastened with a pearl-studded brooch. Unlike most medieval depictions, the three Wise Men do not represent the three continents, Europe, Asia, and Africa, but rather the three ages of man. The old bald king in a red velvet chasuble genuflects before the plump naked baby on Mary's lap. The middle-aged king on the right offers the child an ornate silver vessel. Standing at the back in the shadows is the third king, a curlyhaired adolescent with a chalice of carved red jasper in his hand. A brilliant gold church wall, judging from the gilded tracery at the top, serves as a backdrop. Floating angels hold a gold curtain embroidered with blue birds behind the mother and child, suggesting a throne.

A few prominent city leaders are represented in the painting, which was commissioned by the city council in 1445 for its new chapel, erected on the ruins of a synagogue destroyed in 1424. The Jews had been beaten and cruelly driven out of the city in 1423, having been blamed for poisoning the water wells and considered unworthy of living in the "holy city of Cologne." The destruction of the synagogue was intended to prevent their return and herald the triumph of Christianity over Judaism. Pillars in the old synagogue provided a foundation for the gothic entrance to the chapel, pointedly named St. Marie in Jerusalem. In light of this, it is odd to find, on either side of the Virgin in the rear, four full-bearded figures wearing elegant "Judenhute," the pointed hats Jews were required to wear in medieval Germany. One of the figures on the left in a peaked hat of red brocade cradles the old king's fur hat, while the figure on the right is holding the wide-brimmed hat of the second king. They appear to be nodding at one another, not looking at the baby.

I am struck by the attitude and presence of the Jewish figures. The fifteenth century was notorious for its intolerance; in a stained-glass window on the opposite side of the cathedral, an ominous figure with a hooked nose and a peaked Jewish hat is whipping Christ as he drags his cross toward Golgotha. As I learned from an exhibit at the Jewish Museum in Frankfurt, this frightening stereotype of the Jew is prevalent in medieval painting. Lochner, however, depicts the Jews in his painting in a neutral, almost flattering manner. The first time I was studying these figures, I suddenly found myself surrounded by a class of German school children. Their teacher, a smiling woman in her forties wearing jeans and a parka, spoke in a soothing voice and drew the attention of her charges to the sumptuously dressed men portrayed at the back of the painting.

"You will notice the figures of Jews in the background," she observed. "You may wonder why they are there." Two girls, arm in arm, directly behind me giggled while a slender blonde boy jabbed his taller classmate in the side.

"The artist wanted to stress the fact that the Jewish religion is the basis of Christianity," she continued, gently drawing the blonde troublemaker closer to her, "to show the power of the Judeo-Christian tradition in the life of Cologne at that time." Her emphasis on "at that time" reminded me that the few children I saw in German churches were usually touring the church rather than participating in services. …

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