A German appeals court on Tuesday rejected a Jewish man’s bid to force the removal of a 700-year-old anti-Semitic statue from a church where Martin Luther once preached.
The “Judensau,” or “Jew pig,” sculpture on the Town Church in Wittenberg is one of more than 20 such relics from the Middle Ages that still adorn churches across Germany and elsewhere in Europe.
Plaintiff Michael Duellmann had argued that the sculpture was “a defamation of and insult to the Jewish people” that has “a terrible effect up to this day.”
Duellmann, who has suggested removing the relief from the church and putting it in the nearby Luther House museum, said he would appeal Tuesday’s decision to the Federal Court of Justice and is prepared to take the case outside Germany to the European Court of Human Rights, if necessary.
Placed on the church about four meters (13 feet) above ground level, the sculpture depicts people identifiable as Jews suckling the teats of a sow while a rabbi lifts the animal’s tail, peering into its anus. In 1570, after the Protestant Reformation, an inscription referring to an anti-Jewish tract by Luther was added.
The hateful symbolism is that Jews obtain their sustenance and scripture from an unclean animal.
In 1988, a memorial was set into the ground below, referring to the persecution of Jews and the six million people who died during the Holocaust. In addition, a sign gives information about the sculpture in German and English.
After a court in Dessau rejected Duellmann’s case in May, he took it a higher state court in Naumburg. That court said in its ruling Tuesday that he failed to prove the Town House sculpture must be taken down because “in its current context” it is not of “slanderous character” and didn’t violate the plaintiff’s rights.
The appeals court said that with the addition of the memorial and information sign, the statue was now “part of an ensemble which speaks for another objective” on the part of the parish.
“The presentation of a part of the building in its original condition that was originally meant to be insulting is not necessarily insulting,” the court said. “Rather, you can neutralize the original intent with commentary as to the historical context. This is the case with the Wittenberg sculpture.”
Duellmann said that while he was disappointed by Tuesday’s ruling, he was glad the case had sparked debate within Germany’s Protestant Church. He said he thinks the same discourse is needed in the Catholic Church and Jewish communities in Germany and Israel.
“This whole discussion process has been moving ahead with this legal case, and that’s a good thing,” he told The Associated Press.
Johannes Block, the pastor at the Wittenberg Stadtkirche (City Church), told Munich-based daily Sueddeutsche Zeitung on Monday that the image was a “repulsive and tasteless” attack on Jews that “fills me with shame and pain.”
“We did not ask for this sculpture, but are trying to handle this difficult inheritance responsibly,” he added, saying he was in talks with Germany’s Central Jewish Council on how to update the memorial.
Many churches in the Middle Ages had similar “Judensau” carvings, which were also aimed at sending the stark message that Jews were not welcome in their communities.
Another example can be seen at the world-famous Cologne cathedral.
But the importance of the Wittenberg relief is tied to Luther, himself a notorious anti-Semite, who preached there two centuries later.
It was in Wittenberg that Luther is said to have nailed his 95 theses to another church’s door in 1517, leading to a split with the Roman Catholic Church and the birth of Protestantism.
The theologian argued that Christians could not buy or earn their way into heaven but only entered by the grace of God, marking a turning point in Christian thinking.
But Luther also came to be linked to Germany’s darkest history, as his later sermons and writings were marked by anti-Semitism — something that the Nazis would later use to justify their brutal persecution of the Jews.
The superior court’s decision not to order the relief removed can still be appealed to Germany’s highest court, the Federal Court of Justice.