aish.com > History > Middle Ages

Denigration: A Tragic Story of Jews in Art from the Late Renaissance

September 4, 2022 | by Dr. Henry Abramson

Italian-Jewish businessman Daniele da Norsa removed the outdoor painting of Madonna and Child, triggering a terrible series of consequences.

When the successful Italian-Jewish businessman Daniele da Norsa purchased a handsome new home in Mantua, Italy, he knew it would need at least one delicate upgrade: the painting of Madonna and Child would have to be removed before they could move into the house on the corner of the Piazzetta di San Simone.

He respectfully asked the Bishop of the northern Italian city for permission to paint over the fresco, and only when he received written approval did he efface the Christian painting from the facade of his new home. The year was 1493, only months after the catastrophic expulsion of the Jews from Spain and the renewed assertion of Church hegemony with the Catholic Reformation, and the da Norsa family would come to learn that the renovations to their new home would ultimately cost far more than their original purchase price.

#Despite official permission from the Bishop, the notion that a Jew would remove a public outdoor painting of Mary offended the local population.

The notion that a Jew would remove a public outdoor painting of Mary offended the local population, regardless of the official permission granted by the Bishop. In the place where the Madonna once looked out onto the square, graffiti denouncing the da Norsa family soon appeared. Antisemitic agitation escalated dramatically in May of 1495, when participants in a Christian religious procession claimed to have seen blasphemous counter-graffiti on the same wall, and a minor riot ensued with locals hurling rocks at the da Norsa home.

Daniele once again wrote for official protection, this time to Francesco Gonzaga, the Marquis of Mantua, and by June da Norsa was in receipt of an official note confirming that he was authorized to remove the original image, and that stoning his house constituted a forbidden violation of public order.

Unfortunately, that latter note was signed by Isabelle d’Este, the consort of the Marquis, as Gonzaga himself was out of Mantua involved in a military conflict. When the Marquis heard of the incident two weeks later, he reversed her decision, and instead ordered da Norsa to pay 110 gold ducats to commission a new portrait of the Madonna to replace the original fresco. Furthermore, the replacement painting would include a depiction of the Marquis himself as a holy warrior, smiling beatifically at Mary while wearing his full battle armor.

Francesco Gonzaga, detail of Andrea Mantegna, Madonna della Vittoria, c. 1499. Source: Wikimedia commons.

The resultant image by Andrea Mantegna, despite the obvious propagandistic elements, is considered a masterpiece. After Napoleon invaded Mantua in the late eighteenth century, the image was seized and taken to the Louvre Museum in Paris, where it hangs today.

But Gonazaga was not yet done with the da Norsa family. Stinging from his own military reversals and sensitive to negative public opinion, he recognized the benefit of deflecting popular anger onto the wealthy Jewish family. He therefore declared that Daniele would have to forfeit his home, which would be completely destroyed and a church built in its place. Today the plot of land once owned by the da Norsas is occupied by the Church of Santa Maria della Vittoria, built in 1496.

Santa Maria della Vittoria church, Mantua. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Professor Dana Katz, an art historian at Reed College, notes that the final element in the entire saga of the persecution of the da Norsa family is completed with yet another less well-known image, also painted by a member of the Mantegna school. Sometimes titled The Madonna of the Jews, it was also hung in the Santa Maria della Vittoria church, creating a thematic pair: one image shamelessly lionizing the Marquis, and the other humiliating the Jewish family that was forced to pay for the privilege. Rare for Christian art of the period, several members of the Da Norsa family are depicted at the bottom of the painting.

At the bottom of the painting, Isaac da Norsa, his mother, his father Daniele and Isaac’s wife. La Madonna degli Ebrei. Source: Amici di Palazzo Te e Dei Musei Mantovani.

The expressions are realistic, and they are likely accurate: contemporaries would have recognized the da Norsas and understood their humiliating portrayal. Daniele and his son Isaac look directly at the viewer, while Daniele’s wife and Isaac’s wife demurely turn their gaze downwards. They seem resigned to their fate, inwardly seething at the punishment they have received but unable to respond otherwise.

Detail of La Madonna degli Ebrei. Isaac da Norsa, his mother and his father Daniele.

Both men prominently wear the ruota, or “wheel,” the Jewish badge imposed on many European Jews after the Fourth Lateran Council of 1215 (ironically, this is not a realistic detail: as with many wealthy Jewish families, the da Norsas had arranged for personal exemptions from the humiliating badge). Their hats are yellow and red, two colors frequently required for Jewish male headgear. The women, interestingly, are not shown wearing the ruota.

The denigration of the da Norsas is obvious to the casual viewer, but to ensure that the message is not lost, a tablet titles the image with the Latin phrase, Debilatta Haebraeorum Temeritate– “The Temerity of the Jews is Debilitated,” or in more colloquial terms, “the Jewish chutzpah is ended.”

What chutzpah? Evidently, the chutzpah to expect that the da Norsas might expect fair treatment from their local government in the charged atmosphere of late 15th century Europe.

Sources for further reading:

  • The best article-length treatment of this history is Dana Katz, “Painting and the Politics of Persecution: Representing the Jew in Fifteenth-Century Mantua,” Art History 23:4 (2000), pp. 475-495. Black and white reproduction of the images discussed are included. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/1467-8365.00224 
  • See also Tamara Morsel-Eisenberg and Joseph Leo Koerner, “Iconoclash in Northern Italy circa 1500,” Critical Inquiry 48:1 (2001), 94-125.

    On the Da Norsa image, see also Don Harrán, “The Jewish nose in early modern art and music,” Renaissance Studies 28:1 (2013) https://www.academia.edu/5624336/Jewish_Nose




🤯 ⇐ That's you after reading our weekly email.

Our weekly email is chock full of interesting and relevant insights into Jewish history, food, philosophy, current events, holidays and more.
Sign up now. Impress your friends with how much you know.
We will never share your email address and you can unsubscribe in a single click.
linkedin facebook pinterest youtube rss twitter instagram facebook-blank rss-blank linkedin-blank pinterest youtube twitter instagram