Synagoga's Blindfold: Its Symbolism

Synagoga: Venerable yet Vulnerable

The Symbolism of Synagoga's Blindfold

• Synagoga is blinfolded, not to see the Messiah.[1]

• In pre-humanist tradition, the blindfold signified a disability.[¿]

• The female figure of blindfolded Synagoga, which adorned many late medieval churches, was a visible and public testimony and reminder of the failure of the Jews to recognize their Messiah. With a veil or blindfold covering her eyes, and sometimes holding a broken standard which served as a contrast to the victorious Ecclesia, Synagoga was a permanent sign of Jewish blindness and stubborness, which had led Jews to murder their unrecognised saviour.[?]

• Synagoga is blinfolded, as Jews refuse to see that Jesus was the Jewish Messiah, and so that Judaism has become obsolete.[+]

• The blindfold represents moral or spiritual blindness or darkness, sin, and ignorance.[2]

• Covered eyes once had negative connotations. A blindfolded and bent figure, Synagoga, representing the Old Testament, denoted that Judaism was blind to the light of Christianity.[3]

• Synagoga is blindfolded, symbolizing the blindfold her blindness to the truth of the New Testament.[4]

• The blindfold symbolizes exclusion, for the Jews had rejected the Messiah and medieval Christian culture held the Jews irredeemably responsible for killing Christ.[5]

• Synagoga is blindfolded, because she has not yet recognized the revelation of Jesus Christ.[6]

1. Shalom Sabar, Jerusalem, March 2013 (StudyBlue).
¿. Also Resnik and Curtis, Representing Justice, p. 63.

?. Brian P. Levack, Demonology, Religion, and Witchcraft: New Perspectives on Witchcraft, Magic, and Demonology (2002), Routledge, 2013, p. 181 and n. 96, where he refers to Gertrud Schiller, Ikonograhie der christlichen Kunst, 4 vols., Gütersloh, 1976, vol. 4, pt. 1, pp. 45-56, 242-55.
+. Cf. Nina Rowe, The Jew, the Cathedral and the Medieval City: Synagoga and Ecclesia in the Thirteenth Century, Cambridge UP, 2014.
2. Mary Ann Sullivan, Ecclesia et Synagoga, Bluffton University, Ohio: "Church and Synagogue were common allegorical figures in the Middle Ages. Draped females, they are ways of representing the transition from the Old Law to the New. Church typically wears a crown, carries a cross, and holds a chalice, representing the Redeemer's blood. Synagogue is always a blindfolded figure, the blindfold representing moral or spiritual blindness or darkness, sin, and ignorance. Often a crown falls from the inclined head of Synagogue and the Tables of the Law fall from her hands."
3. Judith Resnik and Dennis Curtis, From Fool’s Blindfold to the Veil of Ignorance, Yale Law Report, Winter 2011, pp. 14-15: "Covered eyes once had negative connotations. A blindfolded and bent figure, Synagoga, representing the Old Testament, denoted that Judaism was blind to the light of Christianity. Ecclesia, the New Testament, was ramrod straight and clear-eyed." In addition, "Lady Justice’s familiar blindfold did not become an accessory until well into the 17th century. And even then it was uncommon because of the profoundly negative connotations blindfolds carried for medieval and Renaissance audiences, who viewed them as emblems not of impartiality but of deception [...]. Sight was the desired state, Professors Resnik and Curtis write, connected to insight, light and the rays of God’s sun" (Randy Kennedy, Yale Law Professors Fix their Eyes on Blind Lady Justice: That Lady With the Scales Poses for Her Portraits, The New York Times, 15 December 2010).

"Christianity embraced "sol justitiae"--Christ--as the god of Light, who will appear ablaze when he will judge mankind. Medieval Europe saw depictions of the Virtue Charity holding a torch to denote the light of God" (Resnik and Curtis, Representing Justice, p. 64).

"Like many other symbols, blindfolds were demostrably polysemic, which is to say that their import changed over time and place" (Resnik and Curtis, Representing Justice, p. 62).

"what today we call a blindfold, [...] in earlier centuries was sometimes termed a 'bandage'" (Resnik and Curtis, Representing Justice, p. 62).

Not always the blindfold was intended to be read unambiguously. See, for instance, Resnik and Curtis, Representing Justice, p. 62.

"for Medieval and Renaissance audiences, the blindfold was laden with negative connotations". Ibid.

"in the context of the dominant pre-humanist tradition[, ...] the blindfolded signified a disability". Ibid., p. 63

"The idea that sightlessness is problematic, and sometimes unequivocally bad, can be found throughout the [ancient Western] cultures and literatures [...]. Such imagery is predicated on classical and biblical texts that repeatedly cast light as representing light and darkness as misguidedness. The parallel was that the sighted were informed and the blind limited. As either fact or metaphor, blindness signified a variety of deficits. Blindness is not the equivalent of the willful act of being blindfolded. Yet, the rare mentions in biblical texts of blindfolded persons make it plain that they were disadvanteged.{16} [...] To be struck blind was [...] a form of punishment imposed by God.{18} [... W]hen humans punish each other, they sometimes put blindfolds on their victims.{19} [...] Metaphorically, blindness exemplified ignorance or abandonment [...] and impared judgment"{22} (Ibid., p. 64).

p. 428
{16} In some English versions [of the biblical texts] reference is made to "bandaged" or "veiled" eyes. In several Ripa editions the terms "blindfold" and "bandaged" are used interchangeably. However, the word bandages is today associated with wounds, while a blindfold is presumed to be obstricting vision.
{18} Job 18:20 - "Blindness will fall on the wicked."
{19} Jesus himself was made sport of--blindfolded, beaten, and mocked (Mark 16:65; Luke 22:63-64).

Isaiah proclaims, "The prophets should be the eyes of the people, but God has blindfolded them" (Isaiah 29:34 in The Goods News Bible with Deuterocanonicals/Apocrypha, Today's English Version, New York: American Bible Society, 1976; the term was translated in earlier versions as "hath he covered;" Resnik and Curtis, Representing Justice, pp. 65 and p. 428, n. 34).

"biblical lessons became fixtures in Medieval and Renaissance literature and art, which reiterated that bandaged, covered, or blindfolded eyes--as well as those who were physically blind--signified profound limitations." (Resnik and Curtis, Representing Justice, p. 65).

More generally, the physically blind were portrayed as objects of pity in need of charity. Alternatively, by the Middle Ages, blind personifications were sometimes 'endowed with terrifying power'"{39} (Ibid., p. 65).

p. 428
{39} Moshe Barasch, Blindness: The History of a Mental Image in Western Thought, New York: Routledge, 2001, p. 78

p. 65 - Resnik and Curtis, Representing Justice, p. 65, excerpt from chap. 4: "On Eyes and Ostriches"

Synagoga: Blind to the "Light" of Christianity
Two female figures--Synagoga and Ecclesia--and the iconography and literature that surrounded them inscribed blindness as liability. Synagoga, 'a purely Christian creation', was deployed to signify the Old Testament and, sometimes, Jews in general.{42} Ecclesia stood for the New Testament and, at times, Christianity. These two were familiar fixtures in Medieval Europe, to be found 'on ivory tablets, in stained-glass windows, on church implements, in manuscript miniatures, and in monumental statuary'.{43}

[Such pairs can be found at Strasbourg, Rheims, Bordeaux, Paris, Bamberg, Magdeburg, Worms, Lincoln, Salisbury, and Canterbury.]

The variation in depictions of Synagoga reflect the complexity of relations between Christianity and Judaism. Because the Old Testament is an important source for New Testament traditions, some versions of Synagoga have a measure of dignity, acknowledging that the New Covenant built on as well as (from the vantage point of Christianity) rose above the Old Covenant. [... In some cases,] Synagoga is almost the same height as Ecclesia. But unlike that ramrod-straight, crowned, sharp-eyed, regal woman (the "bride of Christ"), Synagoga is a fallen queen, shown slumped with her rod broken and her eyes covered by a blindfold.{50} Their hierarchical relationship is plain.{51}
Among Synagoga's attributes, the blindfold was her 'principal motif,' demonstrating that she was blind to the "light" of Christianity.{{52}} Yet, the bandage around her eyes suggested that her fault could have been remedied. Synagoga was not blind but blindfolded--willfully obstinant, refusing (rather than unable) to comprehend the "light of redemption."{{53}} Other versions of synagogue were more aggressively hostile, reflecting antagonism toward Jews and the spread of anti-Semitism.{{54}} In those iterations is not only blindfolded but also made to look demonic--shown with a serpent wrapped around her head, on a donkey, holding a goat's head (denoting lust) or disheveled [...].

p. 428
{42}. Michael Camille, The Gothic Idol: Ideology and Image-Making in Medieval Art, Cambridge, Eng.: Cambridge UP, 1991, p. 178.
{43}. Wolfgang S. Seiferth, Synagogue and Church in the Middle Ages: Two Symbols in Art and Literature, New York: Frederick Ungar, 1970, p. 96. See also Margaret Schauch, "The Allegory of Church and Synagogue," Speculum 14, 1939, 449. Beginning some time in the early Middle Ages, both the "New Law" and the "Old Law" were depicted through female figures, but they did not frequently appear paired in an apparent confrontation until some time in the eleventh century (Ruth Mellinkoff, "Three Mysterious Ladies Unmasked," Jewish Art 14-15, Jerusalem: Center for Jewish Art, Hebrew University, 1984, p. 10).
p. 429
{50}. Seiferth, Synagogue and Church in the Middle Ages, p. 32. Synagoga is "the antithesis of the Church. While Ecclesia's luxuriant robe provides stability, Synagoga's diaphanous drapery falls in a tangle around her ankles" (Nina Rowe, "Idealization and Subjection at the South Portal of Strasbourg Cathedral," in Beyond the Yellow Badge: Anti-Judaism and Antisemitism in Medieval an Early Modern Visual Culture, ed. M.B. Merback, Leiden: Brill, 2008, p. 180).
{51}. Rowe put the imagery in the context of the era in which "keeping the Jews in their place was a central component of keeping order more generally" (Idealization and Subjection, p. 182).
{52}. Seiferth, p. 29. For example, Giotto showed Synagoga turning her head left toward darkness and away from the "light that is Christ in the Gospel of John" (Laurine Mack Bongiorno, "The theme of the old and New Law in the Arena Chapel," Art Bulletin 11, 1968, 13-14). According to Moshe Barasch, in the thirteenth century, Albert the Great mandated a description that added the blindfold in lieu of shaded or otherwise obscured or darkened eyes (Barasch Blindness, p. 86). {58} For the more literate, "bibles moralisées" also displayed images of Synagoga, blinded to Christianity´s light. See Katherine H. Tachau, "God's Compass and Vana Curiositas: Scientific Study in the Old French Bible Moralisée," Art Bulletin 7, 1998, pp. 12-19.
{53}. Barasch, Blindness, pp. 79, 83.

p. 429, n. 52. The Prado collection [...] includes an [...] example of Synagoga shown as a man. In the 1430 painting The Fountain of Grace and The Triumph of the Church over the Synagogue [...], on the bottom, are a group identified as Jews, who, with unkempt clothing and in distress, are contrasted with the well-dressed, calm assembly of the Church on the opposite side. Among the Jews is one man--Synagoga--shown bent over, blindfolded, and wearing a large pointed hat. The cluster of "defeated Jews" resembles those in other such renditions. See Josua Bruyn, "A Puzzling Picture at Oberlin: The Fountain of Life," Allen Memorial Art Museum Bulletin 5, 1958, 7.

Judith Resnik and Dennis Edward Curtis, [http://documents.law.yale.edu/representing-justice">Representing Justice: Invention, Controversy, and Rights in City-States and Democratic Courtrooms], New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010, [https://books.google.com.ar/books?id=yzD1z7i8Md4C&lpg=PA429&ots=ppgTjrNfOe&dq=fountain%20grace&pg=PA429#v=onepage&q&f=true p. 429, n. 54].

PDFs - RESNICK, Judith; CURTIS, Dennis. “From Fool’s Blindfold to the Veil of Ignorance”, Yale Law Report, 58:1 (2011), pp. 14-16 : PDF1 + PDF2

4. Ecclesia and Synagoga were the names given to the symbolic personification in medieval Christian art of Christianity's triumph over Judaism. This early type of anti-Jewish propaganda, which first appeared in the 11th century, was common decoration in the sculptures, paintings and stained-glass windows of churches and cathedrals, and in the decorations and bindings of Bibles and prayer books.
A pair of female statues decorated many Gothic cathedrals and churches (usually outside the building) in Europe, especially in France, England and Germany. Ecclesia, representing the victorious, triumphant Church, takes the form of a proud, erect maiden, crowned and holding the cross. Synagoga, symbolizing the defeated Synagogue, is blindfolded (symbolizing the blindfold her blindness to the truth of the New Testament) and dejected, and her characteristic appurtenances are a broken staff, broken tablets of the Law (symbolizing the Old Testament), and a fallen crown.
The best known statues of this type are on the exterior of the cathedrals of Strasbourg and Bamberg. They are also found in Rheims, Paris and Bordeaux. In England, they figure (generally in mutilated condition) in churches in Rochester, Lincoln, Salisbury and Winchester.
Ill. Synagoga statue which stood in front of the Liebrauen Church, Trier, Germany (built c.1250); it presently stands in the Bischoefliches Museum in Trier. Synagoga is blindfolded, holds a broken staff and overturned tablets, and her crown is fallen. Statues at the church of St. Severin, Bordeaux, 1264. While Ecclesia stands erect and crowned, Synagoga is blindfolded (a serpent covering her eyes), and the fallen crown lies at her feet (Jewish Heritage Online Magazine: Ecclesia, Synagoga and the Fallen Crown).

5. Jonathan Durrant, Shifting Perspectives, University of South Wales, July 2011.

6. The two female figures on the south portal of the Strasbourg Cathedral allegorically represent Christianity and Judaism. In Medieval iconography they were usually shown as engaged in a dispute in which Synagoga, the personification of Judaism, was the inferior and was shown vanquished. Most unusually, however, the figures at Strasbourg turn toward each other and toward the central figure of the double portal, Solomon. Thus the conflict is reinterpreted and given a conciliatory outcome.
The figure of Ecclesia, standing almost stiffly upright, wears a crown. The cross and chalice are replacements, but these attributes seem insignificant compared with the figure's majestic appearance. She turns to speak her final words to Synagoga, while the latter, already turning toward her opponent, will maintain her attitude of rejection only for a few moments more. She still holds the broken staff and the Tablets of the Law, and turns away, blindfolded, because she has not yet recognized the revelation of Jesus Christ (Emil Krén and Daniel Marx: Web Gallery of Art).


Greg Killian remarks on the term Synagogue.

Ms. Typ 120, four of six leaves known to be extant,

Missal, Noyon, c. 1240-1250. Harvard University, Houghton Library, Ms. Typ 120. A folio illustrates the Canon (the prayer of consecration said at every Mass and usually the most elaborately decorated portion of an illuminated Missal). In addition to a large ornamental initial for the Preface, a second historiated initial shows the paired figures of Ecclesia and Synagoga flanking the Agnus dei, the Lamb of God. Synagogue, representing the Jews, is blindfolded, unable to see the "truth" of Christian revelation. Ecclesia captures the blood of the sacrificial lamb in her chalice, both mirroring and modeling the activity of the priest at the altar (Books in Books).

• Bute Master, Initial N: God Removing Synagoga's Blindfold, Bute Psalter, Northeastern France, 1270-80. Tempera colors, gold, and iron gall ink on parchment. Getty, Ms 46, fol 104v. Ref. Bute Psalter. Probably made for a noblewoman in the late 1200s, the Bute Psalter is a small prayer book containing all 150 psalms. A number of other additional texts illuminated by an anonymous Parisian painter were added in the mid-1300s. The manuscript's name derives from that of a previous owner, the Marquess of Bute.
A talented and important artist, known as the Bute Master for his work in this book, created the illuminations for the portion of the manuscript dating from the 1200s. He painted 190 historiated initials and numerous marginal drolleries. Instead of giving precedence to the eight major divisions of the psalms as was customary, he devoted a figural scene to every psalm. Furthermore, the illuminations display distinctive, original iconography that may reflect the patron's wishes.

• Judith Resnik and Dennis Curtis, Representing Justice: Invention, Controversy, and Rights in City-States and Democratic Courtrooms, New Haven: Yale University Press, 2011.


Yale Law School, Lillian Goldman Law Library, Rare Book Exhibition Gallery, The Remarkable Run of a Political Icon: Justice as a Sign of the Law, September-December 2011.

The shifting attributes of Justice reflect the complex relationships between judgment, sight, knowledge, and wisdom. In the 1400s and 1500s, a blindfold on Justice signified her disability; today the blindfold is commonly understood as a sign of justice’s impartiality (i.e., a sign of law’s particular obligation to reason within confined parameters and of justice’s impartiality and disinterest).

The Fool Blindfolding Justice is a woodcut from Sebastian Brant’s Stultifera navis mortalium (Ship of Fools, Basel, 1497), sometimes attributed to Albrecht Dürer. The 1509 London edition offers a scene known to be one of the earliest known to show a Justice with covered eyes. The deployment is derisive, evident not only from the fool but from the chapter that the illustration accompanied, which was entitled “Quarreling and Going to Court.” Brant, a noted lawyer and law professor, prefaced the book with a warning against “folly, blindness, error, and stupidity of all stations and kinds of men.” The 1572 version is all the more insistently negative; in this rendition, the fool has pushed Justice off her throne as he covers her eyes.

Addendum 1. De litigantibus in iudicio (Of conflicts in trial), woodcut, c. 1568-72. A fool blindfolding a seated figure of Justice; illustration to a Latin edition of Sebastian Brant's 'Ship of Fools', probably that printed by Petri in Basel in 1572. London, British Museum, E,7.332

The Tribunal of Fools. “The Fool Blindfolding Justice” was not the only image of that era deploying a blindfold as a warning against judicial error, as can be seen from the 1508 edition of an illustrated volume, Die Bambergische Halsgerichtsordnung. The volume, setting forth the criminal law and municipal ordinances of the city of Bamberg, included some twenty woodcuts.
In the woodcut called “The Tribunal of Fools,” a presiding judge (marked by his rod of office, the collar of his robe, and his place of honor on the throne) sits with his four colleagues. All are blindfolded and wear jesters’ caps. The legend on the scroll above their heads reads: “Out of bad habit these blind fools spend their lives passing judgments contrary to what is right.” Once again blindness is equated with error. Blindfolds could also be found on other readily recognized Renaissance icons — Synagoga, representing the Old Testament, was bent and blindfolded (blind to the “light” of Christianity), while Ecclesia, standing ramrod straight and clear-eyed, embodied the New Testament. Similarly, Fortuna, and Eros were also shown blindfolded, exemplifying that the loss of sight leads one astray.

Ripa’s Iconologia. Two codifiers of Renaissance iconography, Cesare Ripa and Andrea Alciati, generated compendia of icons and emblems, replayed by didactic invocations in art and literature, in politics and theology, and in popular pastimes from tarot cards to the satirical press. Through these multiple forms, a host of Virtues and Vices became part of the common visual vocabulary in Europe.
Cesare Ripa’s Iconologia marks the beginning of a shift in the meaning attributed to the blindfold. First published, without any pictures, in Rome in 1593, it was printed with images in 1603 and regularly thereafter, appearing in more than forty editions in eight languages.
Ripa detailed various kinds of Justice, each with her own set of attributes. One was Divine Justice (“Giustitia Divina”) and the other six were variations on “Worldly” Justice. All were clear-sighted but one, and sight itself was specifically admired in the descriptions of various Justices. For example, Ripa’s “Justice According to Aulus Gellius” — from the Padua Ripa of 1625 — is said to have “piercing eyes”.
The sole version Ripa described as blindfolded was called Justice (or sometimes Earthly Justice). As a 1611 edition explained: "This is the type of Justice that is exercised in the Tribunal of judges and secular executors. She is wearing white because judges should be without the stain of personal interest or of any other passion that might pervert Justice, and this is also why her eyes are bandaged — and thus she cannot see anything that might cause her to judge in a manner that is against reason." Thus, the blindfold is a marker of the obligation that Justice not be tempted away from using reason.
Where might Ripa have gotten the blindfold? One possible source is Andrea Alciati’s 1531 treatise, Emblemata, an anthology of moralizing epigrams to which his publisher added illustrations, was reproduced in some 150 editions. One of the “emblems” (a term he coined) is titled “The good Prince in his Council.” The central figure is wearing a bandage obscuring his eyes, and his colleagues lack hands. Both Ripa and Alciati likely knew the “Egyptian” allegory “transmitted by Plutarch and Diodorus Sicilus in which the chief justice was shown eyeless in order to illustrate his impartiality, while his colleagues had no hands with which to take bribes.”

Addendum 2. Karl Ferdinand Hommel, De iure arlequinizante : Oratijo in Academia Lipsiensi cvm ivris vtrivsqve doctorem inavgvraret habita, Lübeck, 1761.

Representing Justice. By mapping the remarkable run of the icon of Justice, a woman with scales and sword, and by tracing the development of public spaces dedicated to justice—courthouses—the authors explore the evolution of adjudication into its modern form as well as the intimate relationship between the courts and democracy.

Chapter Four: Of Eyes and Ostriches

"Although the blindfold has come to be valorized, it was once seen—as cartoonists often use it today — to denote a disabled Justice, blind to or hiding from the truth."

Blind to the Light and Blindfolded by the Fool
The Blindfolded Justice in the Amsterdam Tribunal
"Open the eyes that are blind"
Synagoga: Blind to the "Light" of Christianity
Justice and Judges as Fools
Alciatus's Theban Judges and Ripa's Injunctions: "A Steely Gaze," the Eye of the God, and Bandaged Eyes.

Additional Resources
• Michael J. Vlach, Has the Church replaced Israel?, B&H Publishing Group, 2010.
• Nina Rowe, The Jew, The Cathedral, and Medieval City, Cambridge UP, Apr 4, 2011.
• Pamela Ann Patton, Art of Estrangement: Redefining Jews in Reconquest Spain, Penn State Press, 2012, chap. 3: "Shaping the Jewish Body in Medieval Iberia".
• Sara Lipton, Dark Mirror: The Medieval Origins of Anti-Semitic Iconography, New York: Metropolitan Books, 2014 (AM).
• Sara Lipton, The Invention of the Jewish Nose, The New York Review of Books, 14 November 2014.