Ecclesia and Synagoga, from the south transept portal of Strasbourg Cathedral by Unknown artist

Unknown artist

Ecclesia and Synagoga, from the south transept portal of Strasbourg Cathedral, c.1230s, Stone, Musée de l’Oeuvre Notre-Dame, Strasbourg, Photo: Musées de Strasbourg, M. Bertola, Courtesy Musée de l’œuvre Notre Dame de Strasbourg

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Ecclesia and Synagoga

Commentary by

Medieval statues of Ecclesia and Synagoga (the Church and the Synagogue) tell the reception history of texts like Luke 18:9–14 which were interpreted as contrasting the penitent Christian with the proud Jew.

This pair was carved for the exterior of Strasbourg Cathedral, c.1235. Another pair is over the portico of Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, c.1240. Comparably supersessionist imagery in many other artistic media has also functioned historically to convey the triumph of the Church over the Synagogue. Some of it is grotesque, as when Jews were depicted as demons. They tell us something of where Luke’s story about a supposedly self-righteous man—and others like it (Matthew 6:1–6, 16–7; 23)—led a self-righteous Church.

In these sculptures, Church and Synagogue are personified as attractive women. At Strasbourg, the Ecclesia is beautiful in her crown, her long flowing locks cascading over her shoulders, her cloak clasped by a fine brooch. Her right hand holds the stanchion of the church whose cross reaches above her head. Her left hand cradles a chalice to her body. She seems confident, looking slightly inquiringly down her nose at the Synagoga to her left.

This other woman, by contrast, is bareheaded, blindfolded, her head lowered and looking toward her left—away from the Church’s gaze. Her left arm extends downwards, its fingers—also extended downwards—barely retaining their hold on her Torah book. Her right hand holds the bottom half of a lance broken into four parts, its top leaning against her shoulder.

The two figures seem well aware of one another, one confidently watching, the other shamed as she is watched. Triumphant Christian pride and defeated Jewish shame teach those in the cathedral’s precincts what they need to know about Christianity and Judaism.

The text of Luke 18:9–14 intends to teach the reverse of the message in the sculptures, however. Humility is morally superior to self-confidence, and contempt is to be chastised. Yet the Church came to pride itself on this point. The tax collector and the pharisee came to represent the Church and the Synagogue as depicted by the sculptures rather than as the text would have it. Humility became a foundation of pride and shaming was prided.

It’s a catch-22. The Church is hoisted by its own petard as it proudly preaches about humility. This may not have been Luke’s intention, but it was the result.

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