The Yellow Turban:

Unraveling Andrea Mantegna’s Enigmatic Representation of the Jewish Woman.

Abstract: Between 1496 and 1505 Andrea Mantegna painted four remarkable representations of the Madonna in a yellow turban.  In a historic period where yellow markers in the form and badges and headdresses were imposed on Jews, the choice is an enigma. With this accessory, Mantegna curiously identifies Mary as a Jewish woman. Yet, any stigma aligned with legislated dress codes is manifestly absent.  According to color historians, yellow was considered a false gold; the color of treachery and excrement. This negative interpretation of yellow, however, ignores conspicuous contradictions in its application in both Christian and Jewish imagery. A painter’s costume choices and palette are chosen carefully, like those of a costume designer’s, help viewers recognize characters to support a narrative. This paper traces the misinterpreted use of yellow in Renaissance art to provide insight into commonly used styles of dress and their long forgotten application. Worn by Jews for centuries before it was imposed, the color was more likely adopted to self-identify with pride rather than self-deprecation. Both many examples of Hebraic manuscripts and Christian art, the color yellow is employed to facilitate the recognition of Jewish characters. As with Andrea Mantegna’s yellow-turbaned Madonnas or Haggada with illustrations of similarly clad Jewish characters, a maligned significance would have been inappropriate and confusing for patrons and viewers. Contrary to common thought, yellow, instead, provided a historic and cultural context in what the symbolism of the period. As in a theatrical production, the color was a recognizable motif to help audiences read the drama depicted. Andrea Mantegna’s choice to adorn his Madonnas in a yellow turbaned may seem paradoxical today, yet the visual trope was a masterful communication device in presenting Mary in her pivotal role as a Jewish woman in the Christian narrative.

From Dye to Identity: Linking Saffron to Stigmatizing Jewish Dress Codes and the Paradox of a Yellow-robed Moses in the Sistine Chapel

Abstract: For over a thousand years, Christian and Islamic dress codes have used the color yellow to identify Jews. Numerous scholars trace its use to negative perceptions of yellow established in the thirteenth century. Negative identifiers established in the Middle Ages and culminating in the yellow star of World War II would appear to support this interpretation. This reasoning does not, however, explain the application of yellow as a narrative device to help recognize noble Jewish figures like Moses in the Sistine Chapel. The degrading badges from the Middle Ages to the yellow star of WWII are consistent with a color known to symbolize disease, deceit, and excrement. Ancient Jewish iconography portrays Jews in yellow garments as a point of pride. I will argue that the use of the color yellow in connection to the Jewish people does not originate from a negative Christian interpretation, but rather from an ancient Jewish connection to saffron, the ancient medicinal ingredient, herb, perfume, and yellow dye. Imagery dating back to the third century of the Common Era evidences Jewish self-identification with saffron-yellow. I contend that this historic connection continued to resonate in the art of the Renaissance.

*The International Journal of Arts Theory and History, Volume 11, Issue 4, pp.19-31. Article: Print (Spiral Bound). Published Online: September 30, 2016 (Article: Electronic (PDF File; 1.167MB)).