On Sunday my wife and I visited the Cloisters, home of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Unicorn Tapestries and other marvelous medievalia at the northern tip of Manhattan. On special display are six wonderful stained glass windows from Canterbury Cathedral belonging to a sequence depicting the lineage of Christ.
Imagine my surprise to discover perched upon the head of Abraham’s father Terah (called in the Vulgate Thare) a classic medieval Jewish cap! After all, it was Abe who got the revelation that led to the Jewish people’s attachment to the God of, you know, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Terah, according to Joshua 24:2, “worshiped other gods; i.e. he was a Chaldean idolater. Terah the Jew?
Then there was the image of Lamech, Noah’s Dad, also with the Jewish hat. And swarthy Jewish features to boot. Both he and Terah sport yellow cloaks emblematic of depravity. Of course, neither Abraham or Noah have the hats or the cloaks. They look like nice Christian gentlemen.
So what’s the story? The simplest explanation is that the Jewish hat was no more than a convenient way to mark out Christ’s bad ancestors — Terah the Idolater and Lamech the personification of the corrupt human generation that had to be destroyed by the Flood. A less simple explanation is that it was a way to show that just as good guys Abraham and Noah superseded their not-so-good progenitors, so did Christianity supersede Judaism.
Beyond that, something ought to said about the place of Jews in England at this time. The windows were constructed between 1178 and 1180, not long after the murder of Thomas Becket had turned Canterbury into a major pilgrimage shrine. Henry II, who ordered Becket’s death, was in the latter years of his reign, and antagonism towards the Jews, whom he protected, was on the rise. In 1190, the year after his death, massacres of Jews took place all over England.
The representation of Terah and Lamech as Jews may have signified a subtle slap at Henry, the Jews’ protector, by those in charge of the resting place of the man Henry martyred. Be that as it may, the use of the Jewish hat to mark out bad guys did not bode well for English Jewry.