Feminae: Medieval Women and Gender Index

  • Title: Scenes of Host Desecration
  • Creator: Workshop of Jaume Serra (?)
  • Description:

    These scenes are part of a larger altarpiece dedicated to the Virgin Mary. The painting represents scenes from the lives of Mary and of Christ. Originally located in the monastery of Sigena, Catalonia, a female Hospitaller house founded by Queen Sancha of León-Castilla (d. 1208), the altarpiece is preserved in the Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya. The painting was offered to the monastery and its nuns by a religious superior, friar Fortaner de Glera, who is portrayed kneeling in the central panel. The paintings of Arnau Bassa, a 14th century Catalan artist who introduced a Sienese style to the area, are similar and perhaps inspired this work. The artist is thought to be Jaume Serra whose brothers, Pere and Francesc Serra, were also painters. Scholars have hypothesized that Francesc Serra, the eldest brother and documented as a painter in Barcelona from 1350 to 1362, may have worked on the painting.

    The scenes of host desecration appear on the bottom right corner of the predella and include a depiction of the alleged first recorded host desecration which occurred in Paris in 1290. The street in Paris where this desecration is supposed to have occurred became known as the “street where God was boiled.” An account from this accusation claims, There was a Jew, a resident of Paris, who bought the host and cut it with a knife until it bled and then put it to boil and it bled over as a crucifix became present within it. This section flanks a depiction of the Last Supper which is located at the center of the predella. The Virgin and Child are located above in the large central scene, and, further above, is a representation of the Crucifixion.

    Theft often figured in the stories in which Jews were accused of desecrating the host. This was thought to be done either by a Jew approaching a Christian and tempting her or him to steal the host from the church or by a thief offering the host to a Jew for sale. In the latter half of the 14th century in Catalonia-Aragon, there were a rash of host desecration accusations. There were cases, when thieves were found guilty, in which they would turn around and accuse a Jew of encouraging them to steal in order to redirect the blame for the crime. In one such case, in Barcelona in 1367, a Christian thief with an accomplice was found in France and resorted to recriminations against Jews. During another case in Huesca in 1377, a Christian thief again attempted to claim Jews were involved. The thief retracted the accusation when he faced his confessor before execution. In another case in Lerida in 1383, the King’s nephew provided an account in support of the accusation.

    The Huesca case and others were brought by the Infant, the crown prince Juan. The Infant’s accusations created tension with his father, King Pere III, because it complicated the King’s customary inclusion of the Jews in his kingdom. Infant Juan used these accusations in an attempt to establish autonomy as the king’s heir. According to treasury notes, it is evident that, as a result of these accusations, the accused Jews lost their property to the crown. However, there is no documented evidence of physical punishment of the Jews as a result of these accusations.

    On the left, in this close-up image, is a portion of the painting that depicts the payment of fabric for the host. The Christian woman who comes to the door and provides the host wears a cap decorated with Hebrew-like symbols, connecting her to the Jewish crime though she is not a Jew. Once the host is acquired, the father cuts into the Eucharist with a long knife on a wooden board. The father wears a hooded, dark cloak and performs the violent act while the mother and child are represented in brighter clothing, looking similar to Jesus and his shining face as it appears from the boiling cauldron. It is miraculous that the Infant Christ is unharmed, proving the resilience and sanctity of Christ. The father concentrates his gaze on the Eucharist while blood leaks out onto the board, demonstrating the real, living presence of Christ. The mother, on the other hand, watches the baby Jesus in awe as she raises her hand to her chest in surprise. The child, too, recognizes the presence of the host in the cauldron as he points two fingers in its direction. This gendered representation of the Jewish family suggests the father is dark and villainous while the woman occupies a more innocent, sympathetic space which suggests conversion for the mother and child as a part of the happy ending.

    The young child’s gaze and the mother and son’s body positioning point us to the next frame in which a woman whispers to a black man. Blackness was associated with the devil and sin. When a nun was represented as sinful, she was, at times, accompanied by a demon in the guise of a black Ethiopian. The scene relates to a Catalan poem called Lo Spill (1460) by Jaume Roig. It is clear the panel scene is not based on the poem since the poem postdates the altarpiece, but, because of their similar narratives, it is likely they are drawing from a common story or legend.

    Roig writes that a woman, unhappy in her marriage, decides to visit and take advice from a Muslim cleric. He promises that her husband will love her again if she takes part in a magic ceremony. He demands a Eucharist in order to perform the magic. After taking communion, the woman saves the host in a small box. As the Muslim man prepares to leave with the illicit Eucharist, we see that it has already taken on the form of the infant Christ at their feet. In the final frame, the woman kneels and takes communion. A priest stands before the altar accompanied by an acolyte. When the woman goes to receive communion, she is in a state of sin because she provided the Muslim cleric with the body of Christ. As a result the host rips her throat open in order to exit her body and avoid sacrilege.

  • Source: The history section of the City of Barcelona website, http://www.bcn.cat/historia/
  • Rights: Available for non-commercial use under a Creative Commons License.
  • Subject (See Also): Antisemitism Blacks Eucharist, Sacrament Jews Magic Miracles Muslims
  • Geographic Area: Iberia
  • Century: 14
  • Date: 1363-1375
  • Related Work: Profanation of the Eucharist of Paris, Altarpiece of Villahermosa del Rio from the Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya:
    Selected works by Jaume Serra:
    Altarpiece of Saint Stephen: http://www.museunacional.cat/en/colleccio/altarpiece-saint-stephen/jaume-serra/003947-cjt
    Virgin of Tobed with Donors: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Virgen_de_Tobed.jpg
  • Current Location: Barcelona, Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya, 015916-CJT
  • Original Location: Sigena, Monastery of Santa María de Sigena
  • Artistic Type (Category): Digital Images; Painting
  • Artistic Type (Material/Technique): Tempera; Gold leaf; Metal plate; Altarpiece panel;
  • Donor: Male religious; Fortaner de Glera, Procurator General of the Hospitaller monastery of Sigena
  • Height/Width/Length(cm): 346.3/321/26 [entire altarpiece]
  • Inscription:
  • Related Resources: Barral, Paulino Rodríguez. “Eucaristía y antisemitismo en la plástica gótica hispánica.” Boletín: Museo E Instituto “Camón Aznar” de Ibercaja 97 (2006): 279-349. See especially pages 305-307;
    González, Eileen Patricia McKiernan. Monastery and Monarchy: The Foundation and Patronage of Santa María la Real de Las Huelgas and Santa María la Real de Sigena. Ph.D. dissertation. University of Texas at Austin, 2005;
    Gudiol, Josep and Santiago Alcolea I Blanch. Pintura Gotica Catalan. Ediciones Polígrafa, 1986;
    Lipton, Sara. Dark Mirror: the Medieval Origins of Anti-Jewish Iconography. Henry Holt, 2014;
    Rubin, Miri. Gentile Tales: The Narrative Assault on Late Medieval Jews. University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004.