The Fallen Woman

by Monika Winiarczyk, Art Historian

The Fallen Woman: Shifting Perceptions of Synagoga

Synagoga and Ecclesia first appeared in the ninth century in Northern France and Southern Germany, where they were intended as representations of the Old and New Testament and personifications of Judaism and Christianity, respectively. Through their depiction in carved ivory panels, to stained glass windows and manuscript illuminations, the figures developed a distinct iconographical tradition, which featured prominently in the pictorial arts as well as contemporary drama.[1] They were also key figures in Christian theology in commentary, exegesis, and sermons. For example, Ecclesia and Synagoga were the main actors in Pseudo-Augustine’s sixth century Sermo Contra Paganos, Judaeos et Arianos, (Sermon Against Pagans, Jews and Heretics) as well as central figures in the twelfth- century exegetical sermons of the French abbot, Bernard of Clairvaux.[2] The ubiquitous presence of the figures in medieval art and literature makes it almost impossible to engage in medieval studies without coming across Synagoga and Ecclesia.[3]

Any discussion of the figures must begin with a description of Synagoga and Ecclesia’s traditional iconography. In order to do so, it is perhaps best to turn to, what is acknowledged as one of the most celebrated examples of the motif; the south facade of Strasbourg Cathedral.[4]

On the right of the facade is the regal Ecclesia. Adopting a powerful stance, her legs are set wide apart as she throws her shoulders back in an upright posture. The heavy drapery of her robe gathers in orderly folds at her feet. She is the image of might and stability. Every movement of her body appears decisive and controlled as she tightly grips a cross in her hand. A crown sits firmly on top of her head and identifies Ecclesia as a ruling Queen. No aspect of Ecclesia’s appearance communicates inertia, uncertainty or any other weakness. Her power and strength are absolute.

Synagoga, c. 1230. Strasbourg cathedral, France

Standing across from Ecclesia, to the left of Solomon, is the figure of Synagoga. Although her beauty matches that of Ecclesia, unlike her counterpart Synagoga is the image of weakness and frailty. Her stance is weak and she is hunched over. Her movements are hectic and volatile as she appears to be slipping out of the design, with her elbows protruding beyond the facade. The drapery of her robe falls in a muddled pile at her feet giving the impression that she may trip over it. Her frailty is further emphasised by the blindfold tightly wrapped around her eyes which represents the Jews inability to see Christ as their true Messiah. In her hand she holds the tablets of the law which are slipping from her grasp and tangled up within the holds of her robe. These symbolise the Jewish attachment to the now obsolete Old Law. Like the broken staff in her hand, Synagoga looks damaged and defeated. She is isolated and turns away from the rest of the facade. Her only symbol of power is a crown located at her feet which suggests Synagoga is the overthrown Queen who was once powerful but whose time has now passed.[5] Her delicate but defeated form led Hans Reinhardt to describe her as a ‘slender reed being shaken by the wind;’ beautiful, fragile and destined for destruction.[6] From the eleventh through to the fifteenth century the theme of victory and subordination is one of the most common attributes of the motif of Ecclesia and Synagoga.[7] This opposition of two female figures, embodying such different concepts creates a powerfully dramatic and enigmatic image which suggests a deeper meaning and demands to be noticed and examined.

Synagoga’s mystique is further emphasised when studied alongside other medieval Christian representations of the Jew. In medieval politics of representation the Christian was virtuous and beautiful; the non-Christian was not. In traditional iconography the Jew is depicted as an unattractive and malicious male. An example of this can be seen in the Cistercian Psalter Crucifixion. In this illumination the Jews are represented as torturing Christ and participating in the crucifixion. The Jews are shown literally tying Christ to the cross. This reflects the medieval theological belief which identified the Jews as directly responsible for Christ’s death.[8] More importantly the three Jews are depicted as men, wearing stereotypical Jewish hats, bearded with crooked noses. Unlike the submissive, beautiful and female Synagoga the stereotypical medieval Jew is an aggressive male.

In light of her omnipresence and unique appearance it is not surprising that since the late nineteenth century Synagoga’s strikingly frail but beautiful appearance has inspired a wealth of literature and numerous interpretations.[9] The following discussion aims to examine the historiography of Synagoga, and based on the evolution of current research; determine the possible direction of future studies.

One of the earliest studies of Synagoga was carried out in 1894 by Paul Weber. His fundamental text Geistliches Schauspiel und kirchliche Kunst (Religious Drama and Church Art) studied the relationship between pictorial representations of Synagoga and her depiction in medieval drama.[10] Weber’s study viewed the figure as the embodiment of medieval anti-Semitism. He concluded that despite the figure’s beautiful appearance, like the deformed male Jew of Christian art, Synagoga condemned medieval Jews. Therefore initially the figure was seen as a further manifestation of Christian anti-Semitism as reflected in the writings of the Church fathers such as John Chrysostom who condemned the Jews and accused them of immorality and madness.[11]

This negative interpretation of Synagoga was questioned by Wolfgang Seiferth. His text, Synagogue and Church in the Middle Ages: Two Symbols in Art and Literature, reached a more ambiguous conclusion.[12] Studying the development of the iconography of Synagoga from the ninth through to the fifteenth century he concluded that due to the allegorical nature of the figure it denies any concrete definition. Seiferth traced the use of the female allegories or personification to Classical Antiquity when female allegories would often be used within a historical context to represent ideas which they did not literally represent.[13] Using the example of the two female personifications of conquered lands depicted on the amour of the statue of Augustus at Prima Porta, Seiferth shows how multifaceted an allegory could be. Removed from this context the two female figures could represent anything. The meaning of the personification is volatile and strictly dependant on the context in which they appear.

This interpretation draws from the classical understanding of the function of the personification as presented by Morton Bloomfield. He stated that the connotations of a personification are not determined by what it represents but the predicates that are attached to it.[14] As such Seiferth presents Synagoga as a far more complex figure which reflected the dual nature of Judaism in medieval Christian theology.[15] While the Jews were accused of deicide and condemned they were also acknowledged as God’s first chosen people. This can be seen in the writings of the French abbot Bernard of Clairvaux who adopting the fourth century ideology of St Augustine stated, ‘slay them not least my people forget.’[16] He believed that Jews should be protected as they are living relics of the Old Testament, and their conversion is a condition of the second coming of Christ. Thus he presented the Jews as playing a vital role in the past and future of Christian salvation history. This sentiment can also be seen in the writing of Pope Innocent III. In 1199 he wrote:

"Although in many ways the disbelief of the Jews must be reproved, since nevertheless through them our own faith is truly proved, they must not be oppressed grievously by the faithful as the prophet says: ‘Do not slay them, lest these be forgetful of Thy Law, as if he were saying more openly: ‘Do not wipe out the Jews completely, lest perhaps Christians might be able to forget Thy Law, which the former, although not understanding it, present in their books to those who do understand it."[17]

For Seiferth, Synagoga’s allegorical nature could represent the various incarnation of the Jew in Christian theology. Therefore rather than granting the figure any fixed meaning he believed that the connotations of the figure were directly related on the specific circumstances of her representation. A similar conclusion was reached by Bernhard Blumenkranz who believed that Synagoga could both condemn the Jews and communicate their position within Christianity. However Blumenkranz believed that the downtrodden appearance of Synagoga against the victorious Ecclesia always communicated a sense of subordination and represented Judaism as inferior to Christianity.

Ruth Mellinkoff’s study of medieval iconography supported this conclusion stating that the figures had a firmly established iconographical tradition which was intended on communicating the superiority of Christianity over Judaism. Synagoga’s traditional attributes of a blindfold, slipping tablets of the law and a broken banner all communicate weakness which was emphasised by the contrast with Ecclesia who’s attributes of a crown and upturned chalice are indicative of power. [18]

These studies which have focused on tracing the iconography of Ecclesia and Synagoga throughout their iconographical history have all come to conclude that the figure is a representation of the Christian theological conception of the Jew; a conception which at times appears to be almost schizophrenic. However regardless of whether the figure is a positive or negative representation of Judaism all these studies agree that the only constant attribute of Synagoga is her defeat and dissolution.

Since the middle of the twentieth century several scholars have focused on specific depictions of Synagoga in order to examine the impact a specific context could have on the figure’s reception. Most of these studies have centred on the previously described Strasbourg south facade. The earliest of these studies were carried out by Adolf Weiss, Adalbert Erler and Otto von Simson.[19] All three of their studies identified the square in front of the facade as the seat of local justice and the site of the local municipal courts. Taking into account this legal context they come to the conclusion that the eschatological theme and heavenly judgement depicted on the south facade, would be seen by medieval audiences as a reflection of the earthly judgement of medieval legal practices.[20] Ecclesia and Synagoga mirror the innocent and the guilty parties of the medieval courts while their presence in the divine sphere of the facade can be interpreted as a depiction of the saved and the damned; the innocent and the guilty parties in God’s final judgement.[21] This conclusion was confirmed by Bernard Nicolai in his 2002 article, "Orders in Stone: Social Reality and Artistic Approach: The Case of the Strasbourg South Portal."[22] In view of the function of the facade these studies concluded that within the right context Synagoga and Ecclesia could surpass their traditional roles as the personifications of Judaism and Christianity and depict the two spectrums of Christian morality; the sinful and the righteous; the damned and the saved; the guilty and the innocent.

Reviewing the landscape of Synagoga’s historiography one can see that all these studies have interpreted the figure in relation to medieval theology. Even those studies which have suggested that Synagoga can embody more than the Christian theological conception of the Jew still relate Synagoga to the theological concepts of Christian salvation history and the consequences of moral and immoral behaviour. However theological interpretations of the subject would only be accessible to educated audiences who had enough of an understanding of contemporary theology to be able to apply them to the beautiful downtrodden figure of Synagoga. Taking in to consideration the allegorical nature of the figure and the notion that not all medieval spectators would look upon Synagoga as an abstraction of complex theological ideas, two recent studies have examined the figure from a more secular perspective.

The first of these studies was carried out by Sara Lipton.[23] In her article, The Temple is My Body: Gender, Carnality, and Synagoga in the Bible Moralisée, Sara Lipton presented a new reading of the figure of Synagoga. As the personification of the worldly and flesh oriented Old (Jewish) Law, Lipton presents Synagoga as a representation of the material world and examines the connotations communicated by her figure in the thirteenth century, Bible Moralisée which were illustrated Bibles, accompanied by an illustrated commentary.[24] These Bibles took the form of a novel in order to present sacred texts and were aimed at a courtly audience.[25] Instead of examining Synagoga in terms of her opposition with Ecclesia, Lipton examines the figure in relation to the medieval rhetoric of gender and through Synagoga’s relationship with male figures in the manuscript. In the commentary to several biblical passages Synagoga takes on various female stereotypes such as the Disobedient Wife; the Seductress; the mourning Mother and the naive Daughter and the resentful sister. Depending on which of these roles Synagoga embodied, the figure altered from virtuous to sinful; from feminine to masculine to androgynous; from threatening to submissive and was transformed back again.

From this analysis the article comes to the conclusion that Synagoga as a representation of the material does not condemn the body or earthly world but rather reinforces its importance and value. This study re-evaluates the previously held belief that the Middle Ages viewed the material and spiritual world as binary opposites with the former being seen as bad and the later as good.

Nowhere in the text is Synagoga condemned or permanently ostracised. Throughout the commentary and the accompanying imagery Synagoga is punished, buried, purged but ultimately redeemed. Synagoga and her corporeal nature are presented not as an antithesis to Christianity but as an integral part of the Christian identity; like women are an essential component of society. Sara Lipton believes that this conclusion is partially dictated by the nature of the Bible Moralisée and its intended audience. As luxurious material goods which were intended to be enjoyed for their material qualities, the Bible Moralisée in which Synagoga appears praises the physical wealth which formed an integral and growing part of courtly life. Focusing on Synagoga’s femininity Lipton presents the argument that Synagoga’s female body, can in specific circumstances, be a representation of the complex relationship between medieval Christianity and material wealth.

Synagoga’s female body was also the focus of Nina Rowe’s recent studies. Began in a 2008 paper, Idealization and Subjection at the south Façade of Strasbourg Cathedral, and expanded upon in her book The Jew, the Cathedral and the Medieval City: Synagoga and Ecclesia in the Thirteenth Century Rowe focuses on the appearance on Synagoga on cathedral facades, across central Europe, in the thirteenth century.[26] Examining the opposition of the weak and beautiful Synagoga against the victorious and mighty Ecclesia, Rowe related the figure to contemporary politics and the social status of medieval Jews. She believes that the figures appearance communicated the imperial position towards the Jews. Under royal decree Jews were protected as their economic activity was vital to the wealth of the kingdom. However Jews were considered to be the king’s property. Attacking a Jew was viewed as a similar offence to attacking the King’s horse. Through interpretations of the Strasbourg, Bamberg and Reims Cathedral facades, Rowe concludes that Synagoga communicated the ideal identity and social position of the Jew in thirteenth century Christian Europe;

"she is a servile yet integral member of the Christian milieu. Her beauty marks her as an insider within the ideal Christian system. Her decrepitude ensures her submission… she conveys the virtue of a Judaism that maintains a docile presence within the Christian domain."[27]

This study does not present Synagoga as a representation of the theological Jew but rather the medieval Jew; the Jew who would cross the town square, under Ecclesia’s watchful gaze and nod a greeting to his Christian neighbour. Like Lipton related Synagoga to medieval attitudes towards the material world, Rowe interprets the figure in relation to the social position of the Jews in the thirteenth century.

These two studies can be viewed as an indication of the future historiography surrounding Synagoga. Having considered Synagoga’s relationship to Christian theology over the past century, it is now time to examine the figure in relation to the culture which created her. As Rowe stated, “Synagoga is an abstraction.”[28] She is a creation of the medieval culture. As such Synagoga needs to be understood with respect to medieval social, religious and political ideas and comprehension of the world.



[1] Wolfgang S. Seiferth, Synagogue and Church in the Middle Ages: Two Symbols in Art and Literature, trans. by Lee Chadeayne and Paul Gottwald (New York: Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., 1970), p.108; for example of drama see: John Wright, trans., Play of Antichrist (Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, 1967).

[2] St Augustine, Sermo contra judaeos, paganos, et Arianos de Symbolo, Migne, P.L. XLII, 1117-30 and Bernard of Clairvaux, ‘Sermones Super Cantica Canticorum’ 14.2.4 in Opera, ed. by Jean Leclercq et al. (Rome, 1957-77); Migne, Patrologia Latina 42, 1115-1139.

[3] Nina Rowe, "Rethinking Ecclesia and Synagoga in the Thirteenth Century," Hourihane, Colum, (ed.), Gothic Art & Thought in the Later Medieval Period: Essays in Honour of Willibald Sauerlander, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2011) p.265

[4] Nina Rowe, "Idealization and Subjection at the south Façade of Strasbourg Cathedral" in Beyond the Yellow Badge: Anti-Judaism and Anti-Semitism in Medieval and Early Modern Visual Culture, ed. by Mitchell B. Merback (Leiden: Brill, 2008), p.179 and footnote 13 for list of example of Synagoga’s appearances on Cathedrals.

[5] This crown is no longer visible but the image shows a sixteenth century engraving which shows that originally there was a crown located at Synagoga’s feet. [Cf. Isaac Brunn, Le portail sud de la cathédrale, gravure sur cuivre, 1617; Cabinet des Estampes et des Dessins, Strasbourg. Joconde. Sculptures médiévales de la cathédrale de Strasbourg: Le transept sud - "Entre 1225 et 1235, un atelier extraordinairement novateur venu de régions plus occidentales conçoit les parties supérieures du croisillon sud et le Pilier des Anges, puis les tympans des deux portails sud et le couple de l'Eglise et de la Synagogue placé de part et d'autre de ces portails. Ces deux figures de femmes, allégories des religions chrétienne et judaïque, comptent parmi les plus célèbres chefs-d'œuvre de l'art occidental du Moyen Age.
La Synagogue vaincue et l'Eglise triomphante appartiennent à une symbolique traditionnelle dont les représentations se multiplient à partir du milieu du 13e siècle.
A gauche, l'Eglise victorieuse et couronnée, tenant dans ses mains le calice et la bannière que surmonte la croix, considère avec assurance la Synagogue. Celle-ci, qui tient une lance brisée, détourne sa tête aux yeux bandés, expression de son refus de reconnaître dans le Christ le Messie attendu. Elle paraît laisser tomber les tables de la Loi, symbole de l'Ancien Testament dépassé. Ces sculptures encadraient à l'origine une figure du roi Salomon placé entre les deux portails, assis sur un trône et tenant une épée, figure aujourd'hui disparue. Selon certaines hypothèses, la clef du rapprochement de ces trois personnages se trouverait dans les interprétations faites au 12e siècle du fameux livre saint le "Cantique des Cantiques", qui les présentent comme les trois personnages principaux des événements de la fin des temps."
See also Emmanuel Noussis, L'Histoire des Arts: Sculptures de la cathédrale de Strasbourg, 26.9.2012].

[6] Hans Reinhardt, La Cathedrale De Strasbourg (Arthaud: Paris, 1972), p.108: Reinhardt’s description of Strasbourg Synagoga which conveys the weakness and beauty of the figure.

[7] Nina Rowe 2008 p.179 and footnote 13 for list of example of Synagoga’s appearances on Cathedrals.

[8] Debra Higgs Strickland, Saracens, Demons, & Jews: Making Monsters in Medieval Art (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2003) p.107

[9] See: Rowe 2008; Seiferth 1970; Nina Rowe, The Jew, the Cathedral and the Medieval City: Synagoga and Ecclesia in the Thirteenth Century (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011); Bernd Nicolai, ‘Orders in Stone: Social Reality and Artistic Approach. The Case of the Strasbourg South Portal,’ Gesta, Vol. 41, No. 2 (2002), p. 111-128; Otto Von Simson, ‘Le Programme Sculptural du Transept Meridonal de la Cathedrale de Strasbourg,’ Bulletin de la Societe des Amis de la Cathedrale de Strasbourg, Vol. 10, 1972, p.33-50 and Adolf Weis, ‘Die “Synagoge” am Südquerhaus zu Straßburg,’ Das Münster, Nr. 1 (1947), p.65-80; Ruth Mellinkoff, Outcasts: Signs of Otherness in Northern European Art of the Late Middle Ages (Oxford : University of California Press, 1993); Annette Weber, ‘Glaube und Wissen-Ecclesia et Synagoga,’ in Wissenspopularisierung: Konzepte der Wissensverbreitung im Wandel, ed. by Carsten Kretschmann (Berlin: Akademie Verlag, 2003); Herbert Jochum, Ecclesia und Synagoga: Das Judentum in der Christlichen Kunst: Austellungskatalog (Saarbrücken: Museum, 1993); Cohen, E., ‘The Controversy Between Church and Synagoga in some of Bosch’s Paintings,’ Studia Rosenthaliana, Vol.18 (1984), p.1-11; Bernhard Blumenkranz, ‘Geographie historique d’un theme de l’iconographic religieuse: Les Representations de Synagoga en France,’ in Melanges offerts a Rene Crozet, ed. by P. Gallais and Y.J. Rious, 2 vols. (Poiteres: Societe d’Etudes Medievales, 1966), II, p. 1142-57; for discussion of Jews in medieval theology see Jeremy Cohen, Living Letters of the Law: Ideas of the Jew in Medieval Christianity (London: University of California Press, 1999), for example p.134.

[10] Paul Weber, Geistliches Schauspiel und kirchliche Kunst in ihrem Verhaltnis erlautert an einer Ikonographie der Kirche und Synagogue: Eine kunsthistorische Studie (Stuttgart; Ebner & Seubert, 1894)

[11] John Chrysostom, Logoi kata Ioudaion I.6, Patrologia Graeca 48:852

[12] See: Seiferth 1970

[13] James J. Paxson, ‘Personification’s Gender,’ Rhetorica, Vol. 16, No. 2 (Spring, 1998), p.153.

[14] Morton W. Bloomfield, ‘A Grammatical Approach to Personification Allegory,’ Modern Philology, Vol. 60, No. 3 (Feb., 1963), p.165.

[15] For discussion of Jews in medieval theology see Jeremy Cohen, Living Letters of the Law: Ideas of the Jew in Medieval Christianity (London: University of California Press, 1999)

[16] Robert Chazan, The Jews of Medieval Western Christendom, 1000-1500 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006) p.37

[17] Innocent III, “Licet perfidia Iudeorum sit multipliciter improbanda, quia tamen per eos fides nostra veraciter comprobatur, non sunt a fidelibus graviter opprimendi, dicente propheta: ne occideris eos ne quando obliviscantur legis tue, ac si diceretur appertius, ne deleveris omnino Iudeos, ne forte Christiani legis tue valeant oblivisci, quam ipsi non intelligentes, in libris suis intelligentibus representant:” Constitutio pro Judaeis, Rome, 15 September 1199, Apostolic See, ed. Simsonsohn, 1:74-75, #71

[18] Mellinkoff, Ruth, Outcasts: Signs of Otherness in Northern European Art of the Late Middle Ages, vol. 1 (Oxford : University of California Press, 1993), p.49.

[19] see: Otto Von Simson, ‘Le Programme Sculptural du Transept Meridonal de la Cathedrale de Strasbourg,’ Bulletin de la Societe des Amis de la Cathedrale de Strasbourg, Vol. 10 (1972), pp.33-50; Adolf Weis, ‘Die ‘Synagoge’ am Südquerhaus zu Straßburg,’ Das Münster, Nr. 1 (1947), pp. 65-80; Erler, Adalbert, Das Strassburger Münster im Rechtsleben des Mittelalters (Frankfurt: V. Klostermann, 1954)

[20] Bernd Nicolai, ‘Orders in Stone: Social Reality and Artistic Approach. The Case of the Strasbourg South Portal,’ Gesta, Vol. 41, No. 2 (2002), pp. 111-128, footnote:70.

[21] Simson 1972 p.37

[22] Nicolai 2002 p.111-128

[23] Sara Lipton, "The Temple is my Body: Gender, Carnality, and Synagoga in the Bible Moralisee" in Frojmovic, Eva, ed., Imagining the Self, Imagining the Other Visual Representation and Jewish-Christian Dynamics in the Middle Ages and Early Modern Period (Leiden: Brill, 2002).

[24] Sara Lipton, Images of Intolerance: The Representation of Jews and Judaism in the Bible Moralisée (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999), p.1; see also John Lowden, The Making of the Bibles Moralisées: The Manuscripts, Vol.1 (Pennsylvania: Penn State Press, 2000).

[25] Gerald B. Guest, "Picturing Women in the First Bible Moralisée," in Insights and Interpretations: Studies in Celebration of the Eighty-Fifth Anniversary of the Index of Christian Art, ed. by Colum Hourihane, (Princeton: Princton University Press, 2002), p.106.

[26] Rowe 2008; 2011

[27] Rowe 2008 p.197

[28] ibid p.197

Monika Winiarczyk, "The Fallen Woman: Shifting Perceptions of Synagoga," abstract from a paper delivered at the 2nd International Students' Workshop, Central European Jewish Studies: The Students' Voice, October 2011.


Ecclesia et Synagoga
vitrales semicirculares
Vitrail de la rédemption, siglo XII
Cathédrale Saint-Étienne de Châlons, Marne, France

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