Notre Dame Cathedral, which was severely damaged in a fire on Monday, is a symbol of France, of Paris, and of course of Christianity.
But the church is also tied to Jewish history. As elsewhere in Europe, Jews in France suffered repeated persecution throughout the Middle Ages.
The Jewish people were both revered as the progenitors of the Christian faith and reviled as blind schemers who betrayed Jesus and fell from God’s grace.
Notre Dame’s structure depicts these conflicting attitudes toward the Jewish population in centuries past. Following is a look at the cathedral’s sometimes unhappy connections to Judaism.
The messiah’s bubbe
The cathedral’s most famous part is its West Facade, with its two great bell towers. Below these are three large portals, each adorned with carved figures from Christian lore. The right-side portal depicts the Jewish parents of the Virgin Mary, Anne and Joachim.
Several scenes are portrayed, including Anne and Joachim’s marriage; the rejection of the couple’s offering by the High Priest of the Temple, due to Anne’s barrenness (a bima and a Torah scroll can be seen behind him); Joachim’s visitation by an angel who tells him Anne will have a daughter; and Anne’s birth.
Jews are depicted in the carvings as wearing pointed hats, as this was royally mandated dress code for Jews in the 13th century, around the time the artwork was created — as a way to distinguish them from the Christian population.
The Judean People’s Front
Prominently placed above the portals is the Gallery of Kings, with its 28 sculptures of ancient Judean rulers believed to have been ancestors of Mary.
The kings on display are not actually the originals — these were torn down and beheaded during the French Revolution, as they were mistakenly seen as symbols of French royalty.
The gallery was rebuilt in the 19th century.
Trial of the (13th) century
The infamous Disputation of Paris, also known as the Trial of the Talmud, took place in 1240, after the Church charged that the Jewish text included numerous blasphemies against Jesus and Christianity.
Pope Gregory IX ordered all copies of the Talmud confiscated and burned. In Paris King Louis IX held a trial for the text, in which several rabbis attempted to defend it. They were unsuccessful, and subsequently thousands of manuscripts, all handwritten, were collected and destroyed in a great bonfire at Place de Greve, a square right by Notre Dame.
The gray lady
As in many cathedrals, Notre Dame displays the figures of Ecclesia and Synagoga.
The two female figures are a personification of the Church and
the Jewish religion: While Synagoga is regularly depicted as simple, downtrodden, defeated and blindfolded — to signify Judaism’s irrelevance — Ecclesia is majestic, confident, often depicted with a crown, chalice and other Christian symbols.
Notre Dame’s version of Synagoga has a snake as a blindfold. A fallen crown is at her feet. In one hand she holds a broken staff while in the other, almost slipping from her hand, are the stone tablets of the ten commandments.