Synagoga and Ecclesia, Strasbourg Cathedral

A close look at Synagoga and Ecclesia at Strasbourg Cathedral helps to illuminate the shifting meanings of Gothic sculpture.

South Portal of Strasbourg Cathedral, c. 1230, with mid-nineteenth century restorations (lintels, Solomon, and Christ). Speakers: Dr. Steven Zucker and Dr. Beth Harris


Additional resources

The Death of the Virgin, Strasbourg Cathedral, a Smarthistory video

Depicting Judaism in a medieval Christian ivory, a Smarthistory video

Bernd Nicolai, “Orders in Stone: Social Reality and Artistic Approach. The Case of the Strasbourg South Portal,” Gesta, vol 41, no. 2 (2002): 111–128.

Nina Rowe, The Jew, the Cathedral and the Medieval City: Synagoga and Ecclesia in the Thirteenth Century (Cambridge University Press, 2011).

Nina Rowe, “Rethinking Ecclesia and Synagoga in the Thirteenth Century,” in Gothic, Art & Thought in the Later Medieval Period: Essays in Honor of Willibald Sauerländer, ed. Colum Hourihane (Penn State University Press, 2011), pp. 264-91.

Nina Rowe, “Idealization and Subjection at the South Porch of Strasbourg Cathedral,” in Beyond the Yellow Badge: Anti-Judaism and Anti-Semitism in Medieval and Early Modern Visual Culture, ed. Mitchell Merback (Brill, 2008), pp. 179-202.

[0:00] [music]

Dr. Steven Zucker: [0:04] We’re in Strasbourg at the Strasbourg Cathedral. As with many Gothic cathedrals, there are numerous portals. We’re standing at the south portal, looking at a complex sculptural program.

[0:17] What we’re seeing is quite different from what was originally here. For one thing, there was a originally a roof that would’ve protected these doorways. The roof has subsequently been removed, but many of the sculptures are missing as well.

Dr. Beth Harris: [0:30] We know what was here from a much earlier print, before many of the sculptures were destroyed in the 1790s during the French Revolution. Luckily, some have survived.

[0:40] Many of them have been moved into the museum. Some of them remain here on the portal itself.

Dr. Zucker: [0:46] Looking at either side of the two doorways, there are three jamb columns. Those would have originally had sculptures of apostles attached to them. The heads of the apostles are now in the museum.

Dr. Harris: [0:55] Just above the doorways, we see lintels. The sculptures there were also destroyed during the French Revolution, so what’s there today are copies. We see Mary’s body being carried in a procession and we see the assumption of Mary into heaven.

Dr. Zucker: [1:09] Between the two doorways, in the trumeau, we can see two figures below a canopy: King Solomon from the Old Testament and just above him, Christ. All of this is modern restoration.

Dr. Harris: [1:20] We see two tympana. Both of these relief sculptures are original. On the left, we see the Dormition of the Virgin, or the death of the Virgin Mary, and on the right, the coronation of the Virgin Mary in heaven, Mary being crowned by Christ.

Dr. Zucker: [1:34] The only other original sculptures that remain are the standing figures on the extreme left and the extreme right. On the left is a personification of the Christian Church, known as Ecclesia. On the right, is a personification of Judaism. This is Synagoga.

Dr. Harris: [1:49] These two figures are especially interesting, because although they have appeared in medieval art for centuries, we begin to see them at this time as part of a program of sculptures in the public space of the cathedral portal.

Dr. Zucker: [2:04] Clearly, these two figures are taking on an increased importance.

Dr. Harris: [2:08] For most of the Middle Ages, there weren’t very many Jews in central Europe. According to Saint Augustine, they were librarians in a sense. Caretakers of what Christians refer to as the Old Testament, this scripture that was the foundation of Christianity.

Dr. Zucker: [2:23] But this accepting view of Jews began to change when Jews migrated to western and central Europe. In fact, Jews settled in the immediate vicinity of this cathedral.

Dr. Harris: [2:35] There was a thriving Jewish community here that was involved in trade and involved in money-lending, one of the few things that Jews were allowed to do.

[2:44] What’s happening for the first time is that Christians are encountering real Jews, and they can see that the religion that the Jews are practicing is one that’s alive, that is changing. There’s an idea, in fact, of Jews being willfully blind to what seemed to Christians to be the obvious path to salvation.

Dr. Zucker: [3:03] And that’s what we see here, the personification of Judaism, Synagoga, is blindfolded. She looks away from Christ, she looks away from Solomon, she looks away from the representations of the Virgin Mary. On the left side, we can see Ecclesia, the personification of the Christian Church, looking at her.

Dr. Harris: [3:21] Beckoning her. Ecclesia’s mouth is open, as if she is speaking to Synagoga and trying to get her attention. Synagoga is either turning away, or perhaps she’s about to turn toward Ecclesia, toward finally accepting the truth of Christ as mankind’s savior.

Dr. Zucker: [3:39] Ecclesia’s posture is upright. She is stable; she holds a chalice in her left hand, and in her right she holds a standard with a flag from a cross.

[3:48] In contrast, Synagoga holds a lance that has been broken in two places. Its flag is twisted and contorted around it. In her left hand, she holds the laws of Moses, the Ten Commandments, but lightly and without conviction, almost as if she has forgotten them.

Dr. Harris: [4:03] Synagoga slumps forward, her body seems soft and malleable compared to the stability that we see in Ecclesia.

Dr. Zucker: [4:13] Synagoga’s head is down and turned away. Her hip juts out at an angle that is much more extreme than her counterpart, echoing the break of the lance that she holds. But both figures are still beautiful, both figures are elegant, with a Gothic elongation of the body.

Dr. Harris: [4:29] Both figures wear similar garments. There is a mirroring in these two figures, what we’re seeing here is the New Testament of Christianity superseding the Old Testament.

Dr. Zucker: [4:41] After these sculptures were produced, Jews would have seen them for roughly a century. But then there was a darker turn; antisemitism grew in Strasbourg, as in many cities in the Holy Roman Empire.

[4:52] Eventually, the Jews were rounded up, they were tortured, and they were burned to death. Yet the sculpture remained here, during those events and after. Its meaning must have changed for the residents of this city, because once the Jews were no longer here, the sculpture of Synagoga was less directly related to the everyday life of Christians in the city and became, to a greater degree, an abstraction.

Dr. Harris: [5:14] The space of this portal was not just a religious space, but one that had judicial functions, where cases might have been tried.

Dr. Zucker: [5:24] The figure of Solomon is important within this judicial context. Solomon here is functioning as judge and as a precursor to Christ as judge. These references to Solomon as a judge, to Christ as a judge, is carried forward if we walk through these doors into the portal, where we see a tall slender column, which is covered with large-scale sculpture.

Dr. Harris: [5:47] This is the famous Pillar of Angels. It features along the bottom four sculptures of the four evangelists, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Above that, angels blowing trumpets announcing the Second Coming of Christ and the Last Judgment.

[6:05] Above that, angels again, this time carrying the instruments of the Passion, the instruments of Christ’s torture, and we also see Christ sitting in judgment, acting as judge of mankind. What I find fascinating about art history is the various ways that we can look at the sculptures on the portal and the sculptures just inside.

[6:28] We can look at it from a formal point of view. We can look at the change in style from Romanesque to Gothic. We can look at the iconography, that is, why are these scenes here? What is their relationship to one another? What is the overall story that’s being told?

[6:43] But we can also think about what this meant for people in the 13th century who walked by these sculptures. Did the meanings change? Did it matter whether they were male or female, Christian or Jewish?

Dr. Zucker: [6:55] From my perspective, it’s necessary to bring all of these interpretations together to gain the best possible understanding of what these sculptures mean now and what they meant when they were originally made.

[7:06] [music]

Cite this page as: Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker, "Synagoga and Ecclesia, Strasbourg Cathedral," in Smarthistory, May 4, 2023, accessed April 24, 2024, https://smarthistory.org/synagoga-and-ecclesia-strasbourg-cathedral/.