Medieval Images of “Sacred Love”: Jewish and Christian Perceptions
By Ruth Bartal
Assaph: Studies in Art History, Vol.2 (1996)
Introduction: Scholars of Jewish art strongly emphasize the distinctness of medieval Jewish iconography, despite the numerous affinities between Jewish and Christian illuminations of the 13th and 14th centuries. This holds true in particular for the iconography of the Song of Songs. Although Jewish artists were presumably familiar with Christian presentations of the Song of Songs, Jewish images based on this text reveal, even more than the biblical narrative cycles, the particularity of Jewish iconography. While Jewish and Christian artists alike refer to the poem and its commentaries as the source of their inspiration, each tradition nonetheless attempts to transmit the spiritual sense of its own commentaries. Christian artists present a dynamic image, featuring the passionate relations of the “lover” and his “beloved.” Jewish illuminators present a more static and ceremonial picture, in which respect and courtesy take the place of passion and ardency. These differences in approach can be attributed mainly to the different interpretations of the poem as reflected in the respective commentaries, and to the fact that in Jewish art there is a ban on the depiction of God in human form. The present paper examines the nature of Jewish iconography by comparing it to Christian representations of the same subject – the Song of Songs. In Christian art the images appear mainly as an illumination of the initial “O” illustrating the poem or a commentary of the poem. In Jewish art they appear in the mahzor, and illuminate a piyyut, a prayer which draws its inspiration and several verses from the Song of Songs.