The Clash over Synagogue Decorations in Medieval Cologne

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Abstract

A controversy erupted in eleventh-century Cologne with the appearance of lion and serpent decorations on the windows of the local synagogue. This imagery aroused the ire of Rabbi Elyakim ben Joseph of Mainz (d. 1152), who penned a letter in protest. This essay analyzes what the letter teaches about the Cologne synagogue decorations as well as about the dispute between R. Elyakim and the community lay leaders (parnasim) in Cologne who most probably commissioned the synagogue decorations and against whom the rabbi’s letter seems to have been directed. Through comparison with other texts, and with the aid of recent archaeological discoveries in Cologne, the identity of the historical figure who may have been the very lay leader at whose behest the lion and serpent decorations were made is tentatively suggested. This incident offers a rare view of Jewish life and leadership during this early period in Cologne, probably prior to the First Crusade, and reveals the tension between the leadership of the Cologne community and the rabbinic leadership in Mainz. This study demonstrates how a multidisciplinary approach opens up new venues for research into the society and leadership of the early Ashkenazi Jewish community.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)129-164
Number of pages36
JournalJewish History
Volume30
Issue number3-4
DOIs
StatePublished - 1 Dec 2016

Keywords

  • Cologne medieval community
  • Figurative art
  • Parnas
  • Rabbi Elyakim ben Joseph of Mainz
  • Synagogue

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