Arts & Culture

Where Does the “Jewish Nose” Come From?

In ‘The New York Review of Books,’ historian Sara Lipton explains the origins of the caricature. Read More

By / November 18, 2014

Historian Sara Lipton has penned a fascinating article for the New York Review of Books about the origins of the caricature of the hook-nosed Jew. In ‘The Invention of the Jewish Nose,‘ Lipton, author of Dark Mirror: The Medieval Origins of Anti-Semitic Iconography, explains that the image of the Jew with the massive schnoz—the one we know so well from Nazi propaganda, to name just one example—is “far from ‘eternal'” and in fact didn’t exist before 1000 AD. (Actually, she points out, there were no “distinguishable Jews of any kind in Western imagery, let alone the stereotypical swarthy, hook-nosed Jew” until about a thousand years ago.)

“When Christian artists did begin to single out Jews,” Lipton writes, “it was not through their bodies, features, or even ritual implements, but with hats. Around the year 1100… Hebrew prophets wearing distinctive-looking pointed caps began appearing in the pages of richly illuminated Bibles and on the carved facades of the Romanesque churches that were then rising across western Christendom.” In a farcical turn of events in 1267, two church councils ordered Jews to wear pointy hats in the style of their forebears, not understanding that the imagery was an invention of Christian art.

Anyway, noses! How did the huge proboscis come to represent the Jew, and later become associated with the anti-Semitic stereotype of the evil, conspiratorial Israelite? In the second half the twelfth century, Christian artists began to portray the suffering and death of Jesus Christ in art. This was quite controversial at the time, and a lot of people were uncomfortable seeing such explicit representations of Christ’s suffering. “Proponents of the new devotions criticized such resistance,” explains Lipton. “Failure to be properly moved by portrayals of Christ’s affliction was identified with ‘Jewish’ hard-hearted ways of looking.” So how did the artists portray non-believers, i.e. Jews? With their heads turned away from Christ’s suffering. And how would an artist emphasize the direction of said non-believer’s gaze? By giving them a large, distinctive nose, which would clearly show which way they were looking—away from Christ.

And so the caricature of the big-nosed Jew was born, though that nose wasn’t necessarily hook-shaped. (It may have been pointy or snouty, for example.) It took a few decades for the grotesque, hook-nosed Jewish stereotype to become an entrenched thing, and many more for it to take on the anti-Semitic connotations of greed, deception, and duplicitousness exemplified in Nazi propaganda. But ultimately, the “Jewish nose” has a lot more to do with Christian iconography and faith than it does with actual Jewish noses.

Read Lipton’s fascinating—and, yes, kind of depressing—article here.

(Image: Anti-semitic pamphlet from France, 1930s.)