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Making And Breaking Monsters: The Image In Early Exorcism And Propaganda

Between Worlds: Dybbuks, Exorcists, and Early Modern Judaism
By J.H. Chajes
University of Pennsylvania Press, 2003

Saracens, Demons, and Jews: Making Monsters in Medieval Art
By Deborah Higgs Strickland
Princeton University Press, 2003

Though first published in 1967, Marshall McLuhan’s “The Medium is the Message: an Inventory of Effects” still remains the sourcebook on new media; its 160 pages of provocative text captivate the reader and prophetically forecasted the dominant role new media currently assumes. The book embeds images amongst the text somewhat more sparsely than most adult readers who have graduated the picture book medium would expect, but the meditation on language and communication proves far too deep to dismiss as child’s play. Early on, McLuhan argues that “All media work us over completely. They are so pervasive in their personal, political, economic, aesthetic, psychological, moral, ethical, and social consequences that they leave no part of us untouched, unaffected, unaltered.” What, then, can McLuhan’s analysis contribute to a discussion of Jewish images?

In “Essential McLuhan” (1995), Eric McLuhan and Frank Zingrone quote McLuhan’s essay, “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” where he argues that “the arts and sciences serve as anti-environments that enable us to perceive the environment.” Anti-environments involve alternate realities that reflect back upon the real world. Thus, anti-Semitic portrayals of Jews with hooked noses are anti-environments, when they convince viewers that Jews really have hooked noses. This is a point where art no longer copies life, but creates it.

Both J.H. Chajes’ “Between Worlds: Dybbuks, Exorcists, and Early Modern Judaism” and Deborah Higgs Strickland’s “Saracens, Demons, and Jews: Making Monsters in Medieval Art” address notions of images; Chajes discusses exorcism and many of the amulets associated therein, while Strickland explores medieval propaganda images that literally demonized Jews.

In McLuhan’s terminology, Strickland’s book addresses anti-Semites who use art to turn Jews into monsters (thereby creating a kind of reality), while Chajes’ book explores exorcists’ use of images to banish an uninvited reality (dybbuks).

Strickland’s chapter “Christians Imagine Jews” explains the difficulty of “drawing a line between the actual and the fantastic during the Middle Ages given the constructed views of living non-Christians were nearly entirely stereotyped and imaginary.” Like Shakespeare, who likely created his Shylock without having ever met a Jew, the Christians invented their anti-Semitic images entirely without real life models: “Christian portraits of Jews tell us next to nothing about medieval Jews, but they reveal a great deal about medieval Christians.”

Medieval Christians, in Strickland’s estimation, hated Jews for denying Christianity and for, in effect, misinterpreting their own Bible. Strickland cites Peter the Venerable’s treatise “Against the Inveterate Obstinacy of the Jews”: “O Jews, you who up until now deny… How long, wretched ones, will you not believe the truth? Behold… you alone remain blind, deaf, like stone.”

Strickland’s excellent analysis introduces aesthetics: “Pictorial imagery… was far more influential in hammering this point home since it was accessible in public and private contexts.” In the famous Cloisters Cross, Caiaphas (the High Priest) and Pontius Pilate (the Roman governor) are seen arguing. Caiaphas is easy to identify – he wears the dunce cap and the long pointed beard – while Pilate wears a short beard and a helmet that fits his head in a far more natural manner.

The dress and the facial features immediately create a class structure: Pilate is noble and superior and Caiaphas the Jew juvenile and trivial. In another medieval work that depicts the Jews in hell, a massive cauldron – supported by some creepy monster – houses a community of sinners cast inside by the demon entourage. You can easily identify the Jew in the central, most devastating spot in the cauldron: he wears a money bag around his neck. In general, Jews are easily identifiable by their profile views (the saints are frontal views), by hooked noses and funny hats and by their luggage such as money bags and the like.

If Strickland’s research explores images that Christians hijacked to convince viewers that Jews were everything they were not, Chajes’ work centers upon images that magically exorcise demons. Chajes delivered a lecture at the Harry G. Friedman Society of the Jewish Museum last March entitled “Exorcizing a Dybbuk,” in which he discussed how aesthetics interacts with Jewish magical objects. Chajes spoke of amulets as a medium for exploring medieval Jews’ needs and desires, and he argued that “the love amulets look a lot like the hate ones.” These amulets were used to dispel undesirables from the house, for invisibility and for estranging spouses. Although Jewish magic tends towards the verbal, “the physical shape of the amulet is as important as what it is,” Chajes argues. Even as the objects carried a utility – dispelling, hiding, estranging – the physicality of the object and its aesthetics proved necessary. The format also evolved based on the aggressor it was intended to shackle: dybbuks initially were demons, while only later did they emerge as souls of the deceased possessing people.

The amulets carry their own typography, which involves a complicated network of “tagin” (crowns that adorn certain Biblical letters) and rectangles used to offset certain key phrases. In “Lilith Amulet” from Sefer Raziel, allegedly coined by Raziel the angel, three animal forms (presumably angels) named Senoi, Sansenoi and Samangeloph are intended to protect pregnant women and their babies from Lilith, who apparently aimed to disturb childbirth. The text above the forms says “Adam and Eve [Get] Out Lilith,” which leads the viewer to believe that the forms on the right may represent Adam, Eve and Lilith respectfully.

If the visual currency of the anti-Semitic icons was hate propaganda, the amulets are largely tools for healing. “The angels are basically bureaucrats,” Chajes says. “All you have to do to get a bureaucrat to do something is have the right document and the right signature to get through the door.” In this sense, the amulet or the exorcising document serves as the necessary paperwork to allow the magician, with G-d’s permission and directive, to capture and to banish the dybbuk.

Medieval images thus carried two tremendous, opposing powers in them. They were at once creative and destructive. Ironically, the propaganda images created realities that were oppressive and destructive in nature, while the exorcism images destroyed the dybbuks, which, like losing an electron, proved to be a creative act ultimately. But these notions of iconography reveal the underlying idea that has remained hiding beneath the surface all along: power. The Christian artists used their images like battleaxes. They used their art to control the Jews and to turn them into manageable pests that everyone would find easy to hate. The exorcists used their images as means for control as well. They used tangible materials to pursue the invisible spirits and to contain them.

But the ultimate difference between the two is the perspective. The propaganda images are sluggish and lifeless. They have an idolatrous component to them, for they reduce everything to surfaces. The Jew is simply the composite of a hooked nose, a profile face, a funny yellow or red hat and a money bag all sewn together. However, the exorcism images have a dynamic quality to them that turns them into bureaucratic documents, with their keen attention to typography, to drawing and to layout; after all, they need life and oomph to them if they are to outsmart the dybbuks.

And when it comes down to it, the amulets trump the propaganda, for if the Christians create the monsters, the amulets exorcise them.

Menachem Wecker edits the Arts and Culture Section of the Yeshiva University Commentator. As an artist, he has trained at the Massachusetts College of Art. Menachem may be contacted at: mwecker@gmail.com.

About the Author: Menachem Wecker, who blogs on faith and art for the Houston Chronicle at http://blogs.chron.com/iconia, welcomes comments at mwecker@gmail.com.

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