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Title: Figuring the mosaic image prohibition in early modern Italy
Author: Price, N. D. I.
ISNI:       0000 0004 7225 8289
Awarding Body: UCL (University College London)
Current Institution: University College London (University of London)
Date of Award: 2017
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In his description of Michelangelo’s statue of Moses (c.1513-1545), Giorgio Vasari alleges that Roman Jews would abandon their religious observances to “adore” the image of the iconoclastic Hebrew lawgiver on the tomb of Pope Julius II. The Mosaic prohibition of “graven images” is recognised in Judaism as the original antithesis to pagan image-worship, but its authority has been undermined in Christianity by the idea of God incarnate. As Vasari’s tale helps to illustrate, Michelangelo’s Moses embodies an enduring conflict of religious and cultural ideals, originally encapsulated by the biblical prohibition. This thesis examines how aspects of that conflict – especially the perceived opposition between Christian and Jewish attitudes to figural representation – were visualised in Italy during the Reformation and Counter-Reformation. Vasari’s allegation of Jewish apostasy – wherein the Jews establish their own image-cult of Moses – seems to epitomise the Freudian concept of the return of the repressed; the “inexorable” rule by which repressed psychic or cultural material (in this case idolatrous worship) re-emerges through the agent of repression; here, the forbidding figure of Moses, destroyer of the Golden Calf. The central idea of this thesis is that Freud’s psycho-cultural rule has unexploited potential as a tool for understanding not only Michelangelo’s Moses (which is horned, like a species of pagan idol), but Renaissance art and culture in more general terms. While developing this idea, the thesis also explores Jewish cultural reactions through visual media, including printed books, ritual objects and portrait medals, to the oppressive anti-Judaism of Counter-Reformation popes. The isolation of Jews in Italian ghettos was expected to induce mass conversion to Roman Catholicism, but Jews remained largely resistant to assimilation, and visual evidence of Jewish acculturation often involves symbolic reassertions of religious integrity. This thesis examines the complex interactions between Christian and Jewish (visual) cultures in early modern Italy, and challenges received ideas about a lack of agency in the latter.
Supervisor: Wright, A. Sponsor: Not available
Qualification Name: Thesis (Ph.D.) Qualification Level: Doctoral
EThOS ID:  DOI: Not available