Why Crucify Haman?

Artistic representations of the Purim villain shed light on medieval Jewish and Christian interpretations of the holiday.

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A Tale of Two Trees

Michelangelo and the Azor master are examples of Christian artists who appropriated an image from the Hebrew Bible and made it appear Christian, and in so doing subverted the Purim story, turning the Jews into the adversaries and making Haman the martyred hero. Interestingly, historian Katrin Kogman-Appel has identified two instances where Jewish artists or patrons drew upon Christian motifs in their illustrations of Haman.

In a 1272 mahzor by the artist Shemaya Hatsarfati (Shemaya the French), Haman and his 10 sons are depicted hanging from a tree, and the tree branches encircle each man and place him in a compartment. This motif resembles the Tree of Jesse, a Christian symbol intended to trace Jesus' lineage back to the House of David and thus establish him as the messiah. The motif is like a family tree, demonstrating the generations between Jesse and Jesus. In Shemaya's mahzor, the illustration of the Purim story appears on a page containing piyyutim, holiday-based poetic prayers, recited on Purim.

In the Dresden-Wroclav mahzor (pre-1293), Haman and his sons hang on a tree that more closely resembles the Christian motif of the Tree of Life, which places Jesus in the branches, flanked below by musicians, angels, and clerics.

According to Kogman-Appel, Jewish artists consciously appropriated Christian symbols, and assigned them new and "daring" Jewish meanings. In their rendering of the Christian symbols, the Jewish manuscript artists made the case that the cross was the symbol of Jewish persecution--not salvation, as Christian artists viewed it. For these artists, Haman's death represented the Jewish triumph over the anti-Semitism of the cross-tree.

Haman and Amalek

In the figure of Haman swinging from the gallows or nailed to the cross, Jewish and Christian artists advanced their own religious agendas.
Jewish artists' appropriation of the Christian motifs of the Tree of Life and the Tree of Jesse, and the alleged Jewish abuse of crucified effigies of Haman during Purim celebrations, suggests that Jews might have seen Haman as a sort of voodoo doll upon which they could take out their frustrations against contemporary Christians. Jews could also simultaneously project Haman's Amalekite ancestry--and the eternal command to blot out Amalek--onto their Christian neighbors.

Christians seem to have been aware of the fact that for Jews Haman was a stand-in for Jesus, and this led Christian rulers to ban the practice of vandalizing Haman. Christian artists might have launched a more nuanced artistic program of defending Haman in the hopes of breaking the Jewish comparison between Haman and Jesus.

The Christian artists also might have had a more sinister aim. If they could convince the public who viewed their illustrations that Haman was crucified by the Jews, they would have found a historical and biblical precedent, before the birth of Christ, for crucifixion as a Jewish method of execution. In so doing, they would have lent much more credibility to the New Testament claim, which became the source of so much anti-Semitism in future generations, that the Jews pressured Pilate into crucifying Jesus.

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Menachem Wecker

Menachem Wecker, who blogs on faith and art for the Houston Chronicle at http://blogs.chron.com/iconia, welcomes comments at mwecker@gmail.com. He lives in Washington, D.C.