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Rabbi Yonah


  • Let’s take a closer look at the pic, because this is really interesting. Note the time of it was created was well into the Renaissance, two years before the official beginning of the Reformation by Luther’s Theses becoming public. Switzerland was in a time of religious turmoil; extremely novelty, so to speak, religious groups were widely spread, some were officially labelled heretics yet gained popular acceptance e.g. Zwingli.

    Let’s look at the people we see in the picture:
    In the front, on the right-hand side, we see a group of people dressed mostly in regal red (most other people then were usually forbidden to wear red). They’re wearing the hats of magistrates / city council officials.

    Among the group of people being burnt, chained together by the waists and throats, we see people wearing various headgear, including a crown on the person at the centre of the group and a winged hat on a person at the back of the group. To the left of that group, also partly covered by flames and smoke, stands the pope; you can tell him by the tiara, the three-layered crown (recent popes have declined wearing / getting one), curiously enough tied into the group not only by the fire but also by the chain around his waist but not his throat; note he also doesn’t stand on the pile of wood.

    In the background we see a group of four people. Look at the sticks they carry; one appears to be a cane, one looks straight, the third one has got a ball mounted to the top. The person in the blue robe on the left is wearing a winged hat. It’s the same blue as the pope wears; again, a regal colour common people were not permitted to wear. The fourth person in that group sticks out because of their different attire; a closer look tells you there’s a wing on the back of that person. It’s supposed to be an angel possibly “supervising” the whole scene. The different proportions reflect different distances; it’s an early work using perspective as you can also see on the city wall and city buildings.

    Now, what does this picture display? What are its intentions? No Jews had lived in Lucerne since their expulsion in 1401:

    City of Switzerland, in the canton of the same name. Jews were living there as early as the middle of the thirteenth century. The earliest records of the town contain regulations for the sale of the flesh of animals slaughtered according to ritual: “When a Jew slaughters an animal, the meat shall be sold ‘hinten an in der Schall,’ and it shall also be stated that it belongs to the Jew.” The regulations further say that the Jews who have obtained rights of sojourn or citizenship “shall offend no one, either by words or by deeds, either in the city or without it. And no one shall offend or injure the Jews ‘von deheines Kindes wegen on des Rates wissende,’ on pain of paying a fine of five pounds, without remission; and if the offender be so poor that he can not pay this fine, he shall nevermore set foot in the city.” As elsewhere in Switzerland, the Jews in Lucerne were engaged in money-lending, they alone being privileged to charge interest on loans. In 1401 they were expelled from the city.

    It was not until about 1864 that a Jew (from Endingen) again settled in Lucerne. The city has now (1904) a Jewish community numbering forty-two members. In 1900 there were 336 Jews in the entire canton.

    Bibliography: Ulrich, Jüdische Geschichten in der Schweiz, pp. 175 et seq.;
    Pfyffer, Gesch. der Stadt und des Kantons Luzern, p. 151;
    Kopp, Geschichtsbilder der Schweiz, i. 347 et seq.G. M. K.

    Part of the people getting burnt wear clothing Jews and other commons were not permitted to wear. Since such “colour codes” were widely understood back then, we must assume accuracy as far as the intention is concerned. The winged hats refer to an accusation that typically occurred in witch trials, namely the ability to fly. The chains also indicate we’re dealing with a group of people convicted during a witch or heresy trial; that technique was commonly used not only to ensure the convicts wouldn’t flee from the stake but also to keep those standing up that already died during torture. The pope is tied in with the chain and covered by the flames to emphasis that the pope, even though at far distance, is also a part of the group, which makes the group more likely to be made out as heretics than as “witches”. Now for the angel on top of it all, it could have two meanings: the easiest would be approval, the other could be the, not uncommon, association of angels with the OT and the heresy and cultism radical early Protestants believed to be therein. Heresy trials are documented for Lucerne around that time.

    So, who authored the picture? It appears that the people who painted the picture or had it painted were anti-papal, anti-empire (burning of the person with the crown), anti-Jewish (at the centre of the group getting burnt, there’s a bearded person with a plain, flat & round hat; this might depict a Jew in reference to Jewish clothing regulations from a century prior to the incident) as can be assumed from linking the angel to group of heretics / whizzards. The authors of this picture were secular radical reformed Christians, which apparently were city officials of Lucerne. This picture does not necessarily portray an actual incident but rather deliver a strong religious and political message.

  • Terrific analysis, froylein.

    (Our popes have been victimized for centuries….)

  • I love you, Froylein. I’d bake you a cake for that analysis, but I have a cake disability.

    • Thanks, Tom. Apparently, it’s a tough call to not think of every pope as Sixtus V.

      Vicki, awwwwwww… Cake disability? Start with flat stirred cakes. If you’ve got problems getting it evenly baked, which can depend a lot on the oven, go for an EZ-foil pan and put a double-layered cookie tray underneath. This saves you from burnt cake bottoms and distributes the heat more evenly.

      Jorge, you’re welcome.

  • Thanks for the picture to Rabbi Yonah and to froylein for the detailed illustration

  • Interesting analysis, but the group in the upper right-hand corner of the picture with the angel are obviously Jewish, as you can tell from the badges on their clothes. So why are they looking on at the burning with such obvious relish? Some version of the-Jews-are-behind-everything-including-burning-Jews-at-the-stake?

    To say nothing of the richness of their dress.

  • The badges aren’t obviously Jewish (when analyzing historical sources, never take later events for granted in understanding prior events); the obviously Jewish attire in this pic is the low, flat, narrow-brimmed hat. Those badges were put on offenders of all kinds; just consider the Quaker marks or the notorious “scarlet letter” for adulterers.

    They might be delighted because they are at safe distance or obtained freedom by witnessing against the others. Such trials are documented for Lucerne around that time.

  • Thanks Froylein,

    You might have a point, and I appreciate the insights.

    • I gave a lecture on that a few months ago, so I’m naturally interested in it.

  • Well, it’s the same circular badge, which you identified as a Jewish badge, that the people who are being burned are wearing so…..

  • I didn’t identify it as a Jewish badge; I clearly said the only thing that could be considered typically Jewish was the low, flat, narrow-brimed hat probably in reference to clothing regulations dating back to the prior century.

  • First thought that came to me after reading the commentary – which of the poor souls had the best burn rate and who was the most efficient fuel type?

    • Mike, depends on what era you’re referring to. If you talk about the witchhunts and heresy trials, those took place in the Renaissance and following eras. They were put forward by the secular forces, which also reflects in the numbers with a death toll of four (!) in Catholic Spain and more than 50,000 north of the European Alps. The victims were people from all walks of life. More recent research suggests that not all got accused by some “envious neighbour”, but that a large chunk at the breakdown of social structures and worldviews found solace in old heathen rites, which had prevailed for centuries / millennia but re-gained popularity. Ecstasy, in large part under the influence of drug-like substances, apparently made a lot of people believe they actually possessed super powers. Those beliefs and customs pre-date the biblical age, made its way from Siberia across the Caucasus Mountains both into Europe via nowaday Switzerland (where “witchcraft” customs still are part of folklore) and through Persia into the Middle East. I was going to do a post on that for last Purim but was asked whether I wanted to ruin people’s celebratory mood.