Receiving of the law: Visual language and communal identity in medieval Ashkenaz

Sarit Shalev-Eyni*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

2 Scopus citations


This article sheds new light on some Ashkenazi images by interpreting them as evidence of religious and cultural identity created by Jewish minority groups living in urban Christian centers between the thirteenth and fifteenth century. As a case study, it analyzes several images of the Receiving of the Law, one of the central biblical events that played a continuous role in the debate between Jews and Christians. In medieval northern Europe, the round-topped tablets of the Law were crucial components in this debate; in the thirteenth century they found their way into Hebrew illuminated manuscripts. The use of Christian signifiers in Ashkenazi illumination occasionally stimulated the simultaneous presence of opposing views. This active aspect of the visual language, alternating between Christian and Jewish meanings, could exist as long as the artistic language of the surrounding Christian communities was in use. Its effectiveness was especially dramatic in such ambiguous images as the one found in the Bird's Head Haggadah, where a multiplicity of tablets invites conflicting interpretations. In the fifteenth century the tablets were sometimes replaced by the Torah, the scroll that comprises the five books of the Pentateuch and is read publicly in the synagogue. This new type avoided the dual meaning of the scene and directed the viewer's focus to the public liturgical domain. In both its direct form and its later, hidden version, the polemical aspect of the Law was apparent in the images and played a significant role in forging the visual cultural memory of medieval Ashkenaz.

Original languageAmerican English
Pages (from-to)239-255
Number of pages17
JournalGESTA-International Center of Medieval Art
Issue number2
StatePublished - 1 Aug 2016

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
Copyright 2016 by the International Center of Medieval Art. All rights reserved.


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