Depicting Judaism in a medieval Christian ivory

Plaque with the Crucifixion and the Holy Women at the Tomb, c. 870 (Carolingian, likely Metz), ivory, 23.8 x 12.3 x 0.6 cm (Met Cloisters and Musée du Louvre)

Additional resources

This work at The Met Cloisters.


Smarthistory images for teaching and learning:

[flickr_tags user_id=”82032880@N00″ tags=”synagoga,”]

[0:00] [music]

Dr. Steven Zucker: [0:06] We’re in the Treasury in the Cloisters, part of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, looking at this large ivory plaque. It’s a single piece of elephant ivory. It is completely covered in detailed relief carving. This is Carolingian. It’s entirely likely that this was the centerpiece in an elaborately jeweled cover that would have included goldwork and precious and semi-precious stones.

Dr. Ariel Fein: [0:34] This ivory plaque is one of several similar ivory plaques that likely adorned books. Surviving ivories can still be seen in a sumptuous book cover surrounded by gold and precious stones.

Dr. Zucker: [0:49] We’re at a little bit of a disadvantage, because we don’t know the book that this was intended for. But we are left with a tremendous amount of visual information.

Dr. Fein: [0:57] This ivory plaque is surrounded by a lush border of acanthus leaves.

Dr. Zucker: [1:04] Acanthus leaves are potent visual symbols. They were commonly depicted in the art of ancient Rome. To see them during the Carolingian era speaks to the way in which the artist was referencing this older classical era.

Dr. Fein: [1:20] In the upper half of this ivory, we see the image of the Crucifixion, with Christ on a cross, the Virgin and Saint John the Evangelist to either side. Above him are angels with hands open, gesturing towards Jesus, welcoming him into the heavens.

Dr. Zucker: [1:39] In between the angels, we see personifications [of] the moon and the sun, which echoes the polytheism of ancient Rome.

Dr. Fein: [1:47] On the lower half of the ivory, we see the three Marys approaching the tomb of Christ. When they arrive, they discover that it is empty. With Jesus’ death on the cross, he has ascended and risen to heaven. As a result, the souls of the saved emerge from these twinned mausolea, these domed architectural forms, just beneath the Crucifixion.

[2:14] Together, this complex iconographic program is conveying a message of the history of Christian salvation. But there are two additional figures. Just to Jesus’ right and left, we have two paired female figures. We see a woman raising her hands, holding a goblet to catch the blood emerging from his wound.

Dr. Zucker: [2:41] This is Ecclesia, that is, a personification of the Church. By personification, I mean a representation of a human figure that is meant to function symbolically. We might think most obviously of the Statue of Liberty. This is not an actual person. This is not a portrait. It’s a representation of an idea.

Dr. Fein: [3:00] To Jesus’ left is another woman, almost identical to Ecclesia. She wears similar clothing. She has a similar garment draped over her head. She holds a staff with a banner in her hands. But her back is turned to Jesus. She appears as though she’s beginning to walk away, yet she gazes over her shoulder, turning her head to look back at Jesus.

[3:27] This is Synagoga, the female personification of the synagogue. These two figures begin to appear in Christian imagery. Just at this moment, at the end of the ninth century, these two figures are used as a way of negotiating the relationship between Christianity and Judaism.

Dr. Zucker: [3:48] This is a conversation that went back to antiquity, but was most evident in the writings of St. Augustine, who describes the Jews of his era as almost librarians, caretakers of the Jewish Bible, of this foundational text to Christianity, but people who should have understood the importance of Christ.

Dr. Fein: [4:08] Christianity is always looking back to the sacred texts of Judaism. Christians read the Hebrew Bible and see its text as a foreshadowing of the stories found in the New Testament. St. Augustine was ambivalent in his attitude towards the Jewish community. He at once saw them as a protected people. But in his mind they were unbelievers.

Dr. Zucker: [4:36] I think we see that ambivalence in this plaque. The figures are both flanking Christ, and so both have places of honor. They are equally scaled. They are both beautifully rendered. But the Jewish figure does turn away. There is also a formal handling of her body that is distinct from Ecclesia, that is from the Christian figure, because she turns, Synagoga’s garments clinging more closely to her body. There is more of a serpentine quality to her form. There is a degree of physicality and even perhaps sensuality that is absent from the Christian figure.

Dr. Fein: [5:17] The elite ecclesiastical viewers of this object would have understood the complex theological messages conveyed in this narrative.

[5:26] [music]

Cite this page as: Dr. Ariel Fein and Dr. Steven Zucker, "Depicting Judaism in a medieval Christian ivory," in Smarthistory, January 3, 2023, accessed July 18, 2024,