In honor of our Jewish friends Ilene, Vincent, Ethan and Julian Park in White Plains, and many others who have graced us with their friendship over the years, I would like to make this post for the festival of deliverance, Purim. On a day that celebrates a victory over Persian enemies, we illustrate a medieval victory over hatred and fear.
The small town of Beaulieu-sur-Dordogne in the Corrèze features a central medieval core that remains almost intact. The Église Abbatiale Saint Pierre is the heart of the enclave and is entered from the south instead of the west portal. Over that portal is a magnificent tympanum. Because of the importance of visual detail in this post, I am posting a link to a larger version of the photo that will open in a separate window.
The iconography of the tympanum is beautiful and unique, featuring the Second Coming of Christ. His figure is unusual; bare-chested and showing the wounds of his Passion, Christ is flanked by angels blowing trumpets. Behind are workers on the cross; it is as if He had just descended from the crucifixion. Apostles and angels are arrayed around him, but the most interesting figures are those below. First, there is a group of seven figures (four on the right, three on the left). At their feet we can see the dead rising from their tombs just above the horizontal line. This is a wonderful visual representation of the relationship of life, death and a Hell represented by apocalyptic beasts rending the bodies of the damned. Below that (not shown in this photo) is a second layer of Hell with demons waiting for the damned to arrive.
The seven living figures, however, carry an important meaning. Normally, the iconography would suggest that these men represent souls waiting for judgment, but this is not the case. They are clothed while the bodies leaving the tombs are naked. It is clear that these seven are living people. They are presenting to the risen Christ their claims to salvation. While four are either praying or pointing toward Jesus, three are lifting up their robes.
Henry Krause in his book The Living Theatre of Medieval Art convincingly demonstrates that these three are Jews, “raising their hems in order to show that they were sons of Abraham, who by his circumcision sealed his people’s covenant with the Lord.” This is a wonderful illustration that the Jewish people were eligible for salvation during the Middle Ages, based on this great covenant.
There are many sad examples of persecution of Jews during this period of intense religious belief, but no lesser figure than Bernard of Clairvaux sounded a clarion call against their mistreatment.
At the time of the Second Crusade, a monk named Raoul in Mainz sparked anti-Jewish riots. Bernard came to Mainz to defend the Jews, calling Raoul arrogant, without authority, a preacher of mad and heretical doctrines, a liar and a murderer. “The Jews must not be persecuted, slaughtered, nor even driven out. Inquire of the pages of Holy Writ. I know what is written in the Psalms as prophecy about the Jews. ‘God hath commanded me,’ says the Church, ‘Slay them not, lest my people forget.'” This carved stone tympanum in the Dordogne echoes the words of the great reformer.