Marriages Are Made in Heaven: Marriage and the Individual in the Roman Jewish Ghetto

By Stow, Kenneth R. | Renaissance Quarterly, Autumn 1995 | Go to article overview

Marriages Are Made in Heaven: Marriage and the Individual in the Roman Jewish Ghetto


Stow, Kenneth R., Renaissance Quarterly


The woman--dressed in the common mode of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries--stands with her right, or sometimes left, hand extended forward, the second finger raised and stretched forth. The man, dressed similarly, confronts her, ring in hand, to place on her outstretched finger. There are others in attendance, principally a figure of dignity close to the pair and perhaps as many as ten or more spectators. The description is that of a wedding, in fact, a Jewish one. The action takes place exclusively between the bride and the groom, although in one version of this picture (there are many), the dignified third figure raises a cup in hand; in others, he is reciting words of blessing. What differentiates one version from the other is the identity of the spouses: those depicted in Hebrew manuscript collections are the "typical" Jewish couple, those in various Christian paintings, notably in the works of Fra Angelico and Lorenzo Costa, are the Virgin and (an increasingly younger) Saint Joseph. The dignified third figure is either a rabbi (apparently) or the Jewish High Priest, prefiguring the Catholic clergy.(1) In a painting from Augsburg it is indeed a Catholic bishop.(2) The wedding was thus perceived by both Jews and Christians in very similar terms.(3)

But there were also differences. To begin with, Christian painters were surely unaware that the celebrant in the marriage ceremonies they depicted was performing a strictly Christian function. Their High Priest was blessing not the matrimonial state in the abstract, as does a rabbinical officiant,(4) but the spouses and, more, the rings used in the immediate ceremony, which were symbolic of the union of Christ and the Church--and of faith itself--that Christian marriage was said to embody. This blessing was also a reminder of the increasingly indispensable role, ratified in 1563 at the Council of Trent, of priests in the marital ceremony.(5) Furthermore, although the portraits do not seem to convey this, the values of Christian marriage are reemphasized during the nuptials through the mutual and freely willed plighting of troths, or consent.(6) In normative Jewish ceremonials only the groom speaks, taking the bride contractually as his own. The injection of theology thus ensured that any visual similarities between Jewish and Christian nuptial rituals were ones of form, not concept.

The "content of the form" also differed before the nuptials. For once again a similarity of Jewish and Christian forms in the rites of engagement and betrothal did not necessarily portend a similarity of outlook or, more importantly, of overall marital strategies. Jews and Christians also differed over the question of consent by the affianced to be married and the role of the clergy in the nuptial celebration. Both Jews and Christians normally predicated marriage on such matters as economic and familial or lineal advantage. However, Christians--at least in certain circles--sought to attain these ends by insistently determining whom their offspring would marry. Jews, as a rule, were willing to grant children the privilege of vetoing unwanted parental initiatives.

Moreover, for Christians this problem was doubly complicated, since for the Christian clergy, the necessary link between faith and marriage and, alternatively, the perception of marriage as a sacrament were instrumental in creating a specifically clerical, as opposed to lay, vision of the marital bond.(7) The clergy also appears to have valued fides and sacramentum more than the third benefit of marriage, proles, and it lauded couples who pledged themselves to continence if not to total sexual abstinence.(8) This emphasis on marriage's spiritual values explains why consent embodied through the spoken word, the so-called verbum de praesenti--the intent of both bride and groom--became so important. Throughout the Middle Ages its expression was said putatively to constitute matrimony under any and all conditions, to wit, even when the parents of the spouses were unaware that a marriage had taken place. …

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