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)).

Judas’ Yellow Robes:

undressing the early origins and contradictions of the Jewish identifier in life and art.

Abstract: Yellow is historically the color most often used in depictions of Judas’ robes. For over a thousand years, yellow is also the color most often chosen for identifiers imposed on Jews. Unsurprisingly, scholars often speculate that there is a relationship between this shared application of the color as a distinguishing dress for these vilified figures. The fact that yellow is so commonly an identifier of both Judas and imposed Jewish markers is a tidy and persuasive proof of an intrinsically maligned significance of the color. However, to accept this proof of the color as a signifier of evil, one needs to deny the fact that yellow robes also consistently adorn St. Peter, St. Joseph, and Moses.

This book discusses the long history of yellow as a Jewish identifier and its origins. It disputes the argument that the adoption of color yellow for these markers came from its negative association with Judas. The color was associated with the Jewish people and their saffron trade of the middle ages. Saffron yellow garments were likely first worn with pride in many Jewish communities to self-identify. Only later were they adopted, out of convenience and easy recognition, when markers were imposed on them by Muslim and Christian communities. The negative association with the imposed markers subsequently reflected upon the color.

The infamous yellow badge exacted on Jews during the Nazi regime was not the aberrant practice many may suppose. The earliest known Jewish identifiers were required as early as the 8th century. The practice then spread throughout the Islamic and Christian worlds. The use of identifying garments became widespread only to disappear when abolished by Napoleon in 1799. The markers were so commonly imposed that for nearly a millennium, there may not be a time in which they were not legislated somewhere. Disturbingly, the century proceeding WWII, when the regulation of Jewish identifiers disappeared, was historically the exception rather than the rule. 

Over the extensive territories and timespan, the distinguishers varied in form. However, among the numerous markers, one color was without question the most common for them all, yellow. The laws were, furthermore, not casual. The simplified translation of the Latin laws often misses the critical precision of the dye used for these identifiers. Be they pants, hats, or badges – the distinguishing dress was to be dyed saffron yellow or color croco. Nevertheless, both Jewish and Christian artists adorned revered figures in the same color and often the same garments imposed, simultaneously, on their Jewish communities. 

This book presents an explanation for this riddle. It transforms the way we look at Jewish history and many artistic masterpieces of the Italian Renaissance to modern-day in which positive and negative Jewish figures are purposefully distinguished in yellow robes as a narrative device and lost to modern audiences.