309 Pseudo-Semitism

As a reader of Hebrew, Schwartz has long been intrigued by the occurrence of lettering in that language in works of art. He examines a sample of works from the 15th century, now on view in Bruges, to find out how much Hebrew they contain and whether it means anything, either as text or as a symptom of Jewish-Christian relations. His conclusion: it means neither.

Dedicated in friendship and admiration to Ruth Mellinkoff and Avraham Ronen.

The gaze of any museumgoer with a knowledge of Hebrew will inevitably be drawn to the Hebrew letters and inscriptions in Christian works of art. The first time you notice them, they seem like a promising affirmation of what is more and more frequently called the Judeo-Christian European tradition. Surely they must reflect acknowledgment of the Jewish background of Christianity. The artists or their Christian advisers must have consulted Jews for the form and meaning of their inscriptions. In the centuries when they are most common, from the mid-15th to the late 17th century, a knowledge of Hebrew and Jewish subjects was being cultivated throughout Europe; surely this is nothing other than a manifestation in art of that phenomenon.

That is what one thinks at first glance. A measure of doubt arose in the second instance in my own mind, when it emerged that most of the inscriptions are either faux-Hebrew, convey no discernible meaning or go no further than a few standard pieces of Hebrew like the four-letter name of Jehovah or the Hebrew on the board atop the Cross.

These thoughts crossed my mind on a visit in early November to the very rewarding exhibition in the Groeninge Museum in Bruges, From van Eyck to Dürer: early Netherlandish painting and Central Europe, 1430-1530. By the time the second or third instance caught my attention, I decided to treat this exhibition of 300 displays of art from the 15th century as a large-enough random sample to examine the frequency of Hebrew or pseudo-Hebrew in art of that period in the territories covered. How much of it is genuine Hebrew? What varieties of this phenomenon can we distinguish? What might it say about relations in that century between Christians and Jews?

By my count, the 283 numbers in the catalogue include 53 drawings, 43 engravings and woodcuts, 12 pieces of sculpture, 5 of metalwork, 12 miniatures and some 218 painted panels in 158 objects, some of which are polyptychs or have painted obverses. The counting was complicated by the fact that some of the compound objects are given one catalogue number and some more than one. It may not be correct down to the last digit.

Hebrew or pseudo-Hebrew is found on 12 paintings (7.5%), two drawings (4%) and one miniature in the exhibition. The number of miniatures, sculptures and metalwork is too small to allow for conclusions, but it came as a surprise that there was no Hebrew in the 43 prints. To check whether this is a general rule, I looked at all 682 illustrations in the standard catalogue of German, Netherlandish and French engravings of the 15th century by Max Lehrs. Indeed, there I discovered only one single instance of pseudo-Hebrew lettering, in the Marriage of the Virgin by Israhel van Meckenem after a lost painting by Hans Holbein the Elder. It occurs on the tablets of the law in the background, on an altar to which the artist prominently added his own name.

One provisional conclusion awaiting falsification is therefore that 15th-century prints from the Netherlands and Central Europe, in contrast to paintings and drawings, lack Hebrew lettering in all but an insignificant number of exceptions. One excellent example from 1501 is Albrecht Dürer’s bookplate for his friend Willibald Pirckheimer, which contains a nearly perfect Hebrew inscription translating as “The beginning of wisdom is the fear of the Lord.”

That references to Hebrew occur on five percent or more of drawings and paintings from this time and place is also a finding of some interest. At the least, it means that Hebrew belonged to the repertoire of motifs on which artists drew.

And now, one of the key questions: what was that Hebrew like? Was it real language, conveying intelligible text, or was it not? The 15 examples contain no fewer than 57 discernible inscriptions. Only in two cases from one painting do we find sequences of letters that make any kind of sense. In a Circumcision by the Master of the Tucher Altarpiece, two of the fragments are consecutive letters of the Hebrew alphabet: aleph to chet in one fragment, saf to final peh in another. This is a giveaway that the artist was not consulting a knowledgable source but merely copying letters from a manuscript primer. (The painting is from the 1440s, predating Hebrew printing.)

This does not leave much room for the supposition that the Hebrew in works of art is an extension of Renaissance humanism or a sign of respect for Jews. Hebraic writing is found in most of the areas covered in the exhibition. In all these countries Jews were to be found, albeit in small and persecuted communities. There were also Christian sources for knowledge of Hebrew, in universities, churches and monasteries. Yet the artists who created the works in question either felt no inclination to consult these sources or else suppressed that inclination. In an era when artists exerted themselves to the utmost to improve their command of space, texture, anatomy, botany, classical learning and other matters they encountered in their work, Hebrew was treated as a negligible quantity.

Fortunately there are exceptions. Among the 302 examples of Hebrew lettering in art collected by the late linguist Gad Ben Ami Sarfatti, a few examples from the period and place of the Bruges exhibition reveal that, in addition to Albrecht Dürer, Jan van Eyck, Rogier van der Weyden and Hans Holbein the Elder sometimes produced good, intelligible Hebrew inscriptions that are relevant to the subject of the compositions in which they occur. Yet, even in their works most of the Hebrew is fake. Sarfatti’s compendium expands the terms of the Bruges sample in another way as well. It also includes instances of Hebrew letters that spell words in Latin or Greek, a phenomenon missing from the list below.

Among the possible explanations for the generally lackadaisical treatment of Hebrew by artists of the period, two stand out in my mind, one relating to Jewish-Christian relations and the other to the practice of art. If indifference to the language of the Jews was a conscious choice on the part of artists, one can say that it fit into the pattern of highly strained relations between the Abrahamic religions of Europe in a century that ended with the expulsion of the Jews from Christian Spain. However, it does not seem likely to me that the letters have an anti-Semitic any more than a philo-Semitic connotation. Antagonism to Judaism was a fact of life; nothing could be added to it by drawing or painting bad Hebrew. In addition, it may be remarked that some of the works in question contain pseudo-Arabic, pseudo-Greek and even pseudo Latin.

That observation fits in with a hypothesis that appeals more to me. This is, that the desultory treatment of Hebrew letters in Christian art simply marks one of the borders of realism in art. At the end of the day, an artist’s power of concentration is not limitless. There is a point at which optical observation and the cultivation of knowledge have to stop and the brush has to be taken to hand. In a period when most of the audience for the visual arts was illiterate in their own vernacular, let alone in Hebrew and Latin, a condition that was probably true of most artists as well, the effort to learn how to make correct Hebrew inscriptions – and often Latin or Greek inscriptions as well, let alone Arabic – would have taken an artist well beyond the point of diminishing returns. The interesting thing about this hypothesis is that it invites us to reconnoiter the rest of the border between what artists of any particular time and place show conscientiously and what they brush under the carpet. The forms of letters are an easy case to judge; there are surely many other, more interesting distinctions to be drawn in the history of looking, learning and depicting.

What follows is an illustrated list of the 15 paintings, drawings and miniatures in the Bruges exhibition with Hebrew writing. Only two are included in Sarfatti’s list, which incorporates the pioneering findings of Ruth Mellinkoff and Avraham Ronen. We are dancing on the tip of an iceberg.

The subjects and origins of the works in which Hebrew is rendered break down in this way:

Annunciation (2): 1 altarpiece panel from the Upper Rhine, 1 drawing from Austria
Presentation in the Temple (4): 1 altarpiece panel from Flanders, 1 from Bavaria, 2 from Franconia
The circumcision of Christ (1): 1 altarpiece panel from Franconia
Christ before Caiaphas (1): 1 miniature from Bavaria
Calvary (2): 1 altarpiece panel from the Upper Rhine, 1 drawing from Franconia
Descent from the Cross (1): 1 altarpiece panel from Flanders
The veil of Veronica (1): 1 painting from Silesia
The resurrection of Christ (1): 1 altarpiece panel from Austria
The martyrdom of St. Barbara (1): 1 altarpiece panel from Silesia

The division of types is related to that established in 1992 by Avraham Ronen, but tailored to the Bruges sample. The captions are modeled on those in Sarfatti’s article. The inscriptions are turned to show the lettering upright. Examples from one and the same work are grouped in the same category, according to the most dominant feature.

1. Non-Hebrew signs that from the context can be considered pseudo-Hebrew (3 inscriptions on 3 paintings)

Master of the Darmstadt Passion (active ca. 1435/40-1455/60)
The carrying of the Cross, ca. 1450
Altarpiece wing on pinewood panel, 155.6 x 109.4 cm., from an altarpiece
that originally measured about 1.6 x 5 meters, to which the entry below also belonged
Darmstadt, Hessisches Landesmuseum, inv. nr. GK8A, 8A
Inscription above city gate of Jerusalem
Bruges 2010, cat. nr. 117


Master of the Darmstadt Passion (active ca. 1435/40-1455/60)
Calvary, ca. 1450
Altarpiece wing on pinewood panel, 160.3 x 113.4 cm., from an altarpiece
that originally measured about 1.6 x 5 meters, to which the entry above also belonged
Darmstadt, Hessisches Landesmuseum, inv. nr. GK8A, 8B
Four three-sign words on cross that bear no resemblance to the well-known text Jesus the Nazarene, king of the Jews
Bruges 2010, cat. nr. 118
Friedrich Herlin (ca. 1425/30-1500)
Presentation of Christ in the Temple, 1462
Altarpiece wing on pinewood panel, 131.8 x 67.6 cm., from altarpiece that must have been about 6.5 meters wide
Nordlingen, Stadtmuseum, inv. nr. 5b
Tablets of the law, held by Moses in Temple statue, barely visible
Bruges 2010, cat. nr. 210

2. Mixture of Hebrew letters and non-letter signs or characters from other alphabets, such as pseudo-Kufic Arabic (16 inscriptions on 3 paintings, 1 miniature and 1 drawing)

Master of the Polling Panels (active ca. 1439-52)
The presentation of Christ in the Temple, 1439
Panel from a dismantled altarpiece, pinewood, 114 x 74 cm.
Kremsmünster, Stiftssammlungen, inv. nr. 575
Headdress of high priest, with signs resembling shin (left), mem and resh (right)
Bruges 2010, cat. nr. 186, with three other panels from the same altarpiece



Master of the St. Barbara Altarpiece (Wilhelm Kalteysen von Aachen; ca. 1420-96) and assistants
The veil of St. Veronica, ca. 1450
Pinewood panel, 57 x 47.5 cm.
Wrocław, National Museum, inv. nr. XI 228
The lower edge of the cloth bears a string of letters including, beside some Latin and some non-alphabetical signs, letters resembling shin, ayin, aleph, peh, nun and samech. Interestingly, in a painting of the same subject dated to the same year, the same artist provided the veil with letters none of which look like Hebrew.
Bruges 2010, cat. nrs. 262, 263


Studio of Hans Pleydenwurff (ca. 1420-1496)
Calvary, ca. 1460
Pen and brown ink on paper, 37.1 x 28.3 cm.
Budapest, Szépmüvészeti Múzeum, print room, inv. nr. 4
The helmet of the soldier beneath the cross starts with the letters aleph, peh, shin and aleph, followed by non-alphabetical signs
Bruges 2010, cat. nr. 218



Master of the St. Barbara Altarpiece (Wilhelm Kalteysen von Aachen; ca. 1420-96)
St. Barbara dragged on the ground behind a horse
Panel from the Altarpiece of St. Barbara, 1477
Canvas on pinewood panel, from an altarpiece measuring 203 x 260 cm.
Warsaw, National Museum, inv. nr. Sr. 35
At 6 places on the uniform of the soldier torturing the saint are a mixture of Hebrew (aleph and shin) and mainly non-Hebrew
Bruges 2010, cat. nr. 261

3. Hebrew lettering showing insufficient understanding of writing in that alphabet (7 inscriptions in 2 paintings)

Jacques Daret (ca. 1400/05-ca. 1462)
Presentation in the Temple, 1435
Panel from a dismantled altarpiece, oak, 57.7 x 52.5 cm.
Paris, Musée du Petit Palais, inv. nr. P. Tuck 2
Hebraic letters on the altar cloth, some illegible, one string reading shin, gimel, shin, ayin, zayin, zayin, vav, another on Hannah’s collar (shin, chet, ayin, aleph, among non-Hebrew signs)
Bruges 2010, cat. nr. 13. Sarfatti 2001, nr. 101


Upper Rhine master?
Annunciation, ca. 1440
Limewood panel, 16 x 10.5 cm.
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art
Paper pasted on wall above angel has four or five signs, of which the second is a taf
Bruges 2010, cat. nr. 123

4. Inscriptions displaying a good or reasonable grasp of Hebrew letters but that do not form words (25 inscriptions from 3 paintings)

Vienna Master of 1456 and studio
The resurrection of Christ, 1456
Central panel of polyptych, 132 x 83.5 cm.
Klosterneuburg, Augustiner-Chorherrenstift, Stiftsmuseum, inv. nr. GM38
Broken lettering on tomb (aleph, yud, perhaps resh, zayin, lamed) and cover of tomb (aleph in one corner, kuf, aleph | lamed, aleph, yud, zayin or final nun in another).
Bruges 2010, cat. nr. 247



Master of the Tucher Altarpiece, active ca. 1430-50 in Nürnberg
Circumcision of Christ, ca. 1440-50
Limewood panel, 101 x 90 cm.
Aachen, Suermondt-Ludwig Museum, inv. nr. Gk 312
Inscriptions on sash of circumciser (? || aleph || taf | nun?, final mem? || aleph, bet, gimel, daled?, heh?, vav?, zayin, chet || tet, yud?, kaf, gimel, lamed, aleph), prayer shawl of man holding Christ child (heh, lamed, tet, mem, zayin, vav, taf) and cape (samech, ayin, peh, final peh || ayin, zayin, aleph || samech, mem, kush, shin || tet, kuf, zayin || lamed, tzadi || mem. Well-formed letters, meaning nothing except for two sequences from the Hebrew alphabet.
Bruges 2010, cat. nr. 205. Sarfatti 2004, nr. 184. Mellinkoff 1993, vol. 1, pp. 43, 106-07, vol. 2, plate II.23

Hans Pleydenwurff (ca. 1420-1496)
Presentation of Christ in the Temple, 1462
Warsaw, National Museum, inv. nr. Sr.79
Pinewood panel transferred to canvas, 91.5 x 75 cm.
The cloths draped over the balustrade show one good ayin in the lower left and other imaginative Hebrew-like forms that are not quite letters. On the hem of the Virgin’s cloak are five places with 75 Hebrew-like signs, about half of which are reasonably good letters.
Bruges 2010, cat. nr. 212

5. Possibly meaningful  inscriptions (1 inscription on 1 drawing; 1 miniature with 1 legible word and 11 meaningless inscriptions)

Unknown Austrian artist
Annunciation, ca. 1430
Pen and brush in dark gray ink, heightened in yellow, on paper, 40.2 x 27.6 cm.
Vienna, Albertina, inv. nr. 25447
The first line of the inscription on the balcony under which the angel appears reads: yud?, aleph, taf, shin, ayin. The following two lines are a mixture of reasonably good letters and non-letters, 13 or 14 in all
Bruges 2010, cat. nr. 243


Regensburg master?
Christ before Caiaphas, 1432
Tempera on parchment, ca. 9.7 x 7 cm. From a series of miniatures of the life of Christ
Berlin, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Kupferstichkabinett, inv. nr. Min. 4403
The altar cloth is covered with lettering. Most of the signs are gibberish, but the top, largest and most emphatically painted word can be read as shin, lamed, tet, aleph, lamed, Shaltel or Shaltiel, a name that occurs in the Bible and Kabbalistic writings as well as being a Jewish family name.
Bruges 2010, cat. nr. 181H

Avraham Ronen, “Iscrizioni ebraiche nell’arte italiana del Quattrocento,” in Studi di storia dell’arte sul medioevo e il rinascimento. Atti del Convegno internazionale Arezzo-Firenze 1989, 2 vols. Florence 1992, vol. 2, pp. 601-624. Ronen divides the material into five sorts (my condensed translation);
a. Pseudo-writing, completely fantasized
b. Inscriptions including random combinations of Hebrew letters
c. Transcriptions in Hebrew writing of texts in Latin or other languages
d. Inscriptions with very limited meanings, such as the Hebrew alphabet
e. Correct words, phrases or texts, frequently taken from obvious sources such as the Bible or the prayerbook

Ruth Mellinkoff, Outcasts: signs of otherness in Northern European art of the late Middle Ages, 2 vols., Berkeley 1993. In the chapter “Hebrew and pseudo-Hebrew lettering,” vol 1, pp. 97-108, Mellinkoff divides the inscriptions into three categories of another kind:
I. Neutral or ambiguous: the lettering as identification
II. Ambiguous or negative: the lettering on the Biblical tablets of the Law
III. Negative: evil connotations for the lettering

Gad B. Sarfatti, “Hebrew script in western visual arts,” Italia: studi e ricerche sulla storia, la cultura e la letteratura degli Ebrei d’Italia 13-15 (2001), pp. 451-547, and “Addenda,” Italia 16 (2004), pp. 135-56
Sarfatti adopts Ronen’s division with the addition of one category: Hebrew words in Latin or Greek script

Till-Holger Borchert, exhib. cat. Van Eyck to Durer: the influence of early Netherlandish painting on European art, 1430-1530, Tielt (Lannoo) 2010. The highly recommended exhibition runs until the end of January 2011

The inscriptions from the Bruges exhibition all fall into Ronen’s categories a, b and d, to which I have added “Mixture of Hebrew letters and non-letter signs or characters from other alphabets.”

© Gary Schwartz 2010. Published on the Schwartzlist on 28 November 2010 in provisional form, not announced until 18 December 2010. With kind thanks to the organizers of the exhibition in the Groeninge Museum for providing images of the works here reproduced, to Avraham Ronen and Shalom Sabar for their generous advice and to Anton van der Lem and Itamar Ronen for help in acquiring publications.

20 December 2010: Revisions to the text referring to pseudo-Arabic were added after receipt from reader Mark Weil of a reference to a lecture by Rudolf Wittkower of the 1960s on Non-European influence on European art and a blog entry at http://resobscura.blogspot.com/2010/08/pseudo-kufic-renaissance-imitations-of.html

13 March 2017: fixing the column up for the new website design, I am saddened to have to say that Ruth Mellinkoff died in 2011 and Avraham Ronen in 2014.

Responses to Gary.Schwartz@xs4all.nl.

Our week in Greece gave us a more powerful taste of the European financial crisis than we get in the Netherlands, whose citizens according to the OESO are the wealthiest in Europe after the Luxemburgers. Every time we crossed Syntagma Square there seemed to be student demonstrations going on; every block in the city had one or two boarded-up stores. On a more personal level, several of the people we met were talking about leaving the country. In addition to the extra strain of making ends meet with salary reductions and price increases, they were also worried about losing entire patches of Athens to dope addicts and desperate illegal immigrants and the effects of giving a Chinese firm a concession to the harbor of Piraeus for 35 years. Our best old friends were on edge; we felt with them.
Yet, my lecture on Rembrandt’s Orientals at the University of Athens was well attended, with a large contingent of students, which always pleases me. We ended our week in Delphi, where at the end of the day we had the magnificent site to ourselves.

The day after our return, some kvetchy Dutch cultural pessimist wrote a letter to the editor of NRC Handelsblad saying that he was probably the last one alive who had enjoyed solitude in Delphi, where in the 1970s he was able to sleep on the site. I consider it a distinct cultural improvement that that is no longer possible and that a large staff of guards politely escorted us off the premises, where until sunset we had as much solitude as we wanted.


In Munich last weekend we detected no signs of financial crisis. We did have another wonderful attraction to ourselves, an exhibition in the Haus der Kunst entitled Tronies – Faces. Basically it is a survey of  Marlene Dumas’s drawings and paintings of faces, to which the curator Léon Krempel added a choice selection of Dutch and Flemish face paintings from 1550 to 1750. This kind of thing does not always work, but this time the centuries were bridged breathtakingly. Dumas got to me by living up to her one-liner: “I use second-hand images and first-hand emotions.” Below is a painting by Michiel Sweerts dated 1654 and a Dumas head from I think the 1990s. The comparison makes you ask yourself the simple question “What do I see when I look at a face?”