The 18th World Congress of Jewish Studies

Elijah’s Chair: A Jewish Custom and Late Gothic Christian Imagery

Two panels depicting Сircumcision of Christ made in Southern Tyrol and Salzburg regions in the end of XVth century (now at the Belvedere Museum, Vienna, inv.4959 and 4961) feature an unusual iconographic element: the empty chair near the chair there the Archpriest is sitting with little Jesus on his lap. I suppose that this is the Elijah’s chair, well-known element of Brit-Milah ceremony, first mentioned in Mahzor Vitry (1242). Although the custom to prepare the chair for the prophet Elijah at the Brit-Milah was known to medieval Christians and even was used as an argument in the debate about Transsubstantiation, it is very rare that we see it as a part of depiction of Circumcision of Christ.

In my paper I would like to support my idea with iconographical analysis of two panels and offer the interpretation as to the meaning of this element in Christian iconography for the better understanding of Jewish-Christian relationships in Late Middle Ages. In my opinion it is the evidence of the shift from fantastic depictions of Jewish customs and liturgical settings to the more realistic ones, based on observation and, at the same time, the breakaway from the more usual iconography of Circumcision of Christ (which was centered around altar). Elijah’s chair made the ceremony look more exotic for the Christian viewers. As the panels which I discuss, were parts of the polyptichs, initially located in the churches, where both clerics and laypeople could see them, they could have had a big impact, helping to construct the image of the Jew as the “Other”.