Institute for Jewish-Catholic Relations

The Medieval Motif of Synagoga and Ecclesia

And Its Transformation in a Post-Nostra Aetate Church


In the Middle Ages, the feminine figures of Ecclesia (Church) and Synagoga (Synagogue) were a familiar motif in Christian art. It was a visual presentation of the understanding of the relationship between Christianity and Judaism that prevailed in that era. Mary C. Boys has described it as follows:

We can see a [particular] pattern in the Christian iconography of the dual figures Synagoga and Ecclesia. For many Christians of the Middle Ages, the status of Judaism evoked images from Lamentations (1:1; 5:16-17):

How lonely sits the city
that once was full of people!
How like a widow she has become,
she that was great among the nations!
She that was a princess among the provinces
has become a vassal.

The crown has fallen from our head;
woe to us, for we have sinned!
Because of this our hearts are sick,
because of these things our eyes have grown dim.

Like Leah of the weak eyes (see Genesis 29:17), Synagoga was blind to Christ. As second-century apologist Justin Martyr said to the Jew Trypho, "Leah is your people and the synagogue, while Rachel is our church ...; Leah has weak eyes, and the eyes of your spirit are also weak." Synagoga symbolizes an obsolete Judaism.

In some depictions of this allegorical pair, we see a triumphant Ecclesia standing erect next to the bowed, blindfolded figure of the defeated yet dignified Synagoga (e.g., the thirteenth-century stone figures in the cathedrals of Strasbourg, Freiburg, Bamberg, Magdeburg, Reims, and Notre Dame [Paris]). Though the church has triumphed over synagogue, the latter is a tragic rather than sinister figure--a woman conquered, with her crown fallen, staff broken, and Torah dropping to the ground. ...

Other representations of Synagoga, particularly in the Late Middle Ages, present a more contemptible figure. For example, in a fifteenth-century portrayal of the crucifixion, Ecclesia holds a chalice to receive the blood from the pierced heart of Jesus, whereas Synagoga turns away from him, in the clasp of a devil who rides atop her neck and blinds her to the Christ by covering her eyes. The association with the devil evokes a malevolent Synagoga. ... Many [Medieval Christians] would have viewed the figures of Synagoga and Ecclesia, and thereby absorbed a dangerous lesson: Judaism no longer has reason to exist.

- Mary C. Boys, Has God Only One Blessing?
Judaism as a Source of Christian Self-Understanding

(Paulist Press, 2000), 31-35.

Contrast this long-lived derogatory Christian attitude toward Judaism with these recent words of Pope Francis:

We hold the Jewish people in special regard because their covenant with God has never been revoked, for “the gifts and the call of God are irrevocable” (Rom 11:29). ... Dialogue and friendship with the children of Israel are part of the life of Jesus’ disciples. The friendship which has grown between us makes us bitterly and sincerely regret the terrible persecutions which they have endured, and continue to endure, especially those that have involved Christians. God continues to work among the people of the Old Covenant and to bring forth treasures of wisdom which flow from their encounter with his word. For this reason, the Church also is enriched when she receives the values of Judaism.

- Pope Francis, Evangelii Gaudium (2014), 247-249.

Clearly Catholic attitudes have changed. A new relationship of respect has replaced the previous one of disdain. The turning point was the Second Vatican Council declaration, Nostra Aetate, issued on October 28, 1965.

The statue commissioned by Saint Joseph's University to mark the declaration's 50th anniversary reinterprets the medieval motif of Synagoga and Ecclesia to reflect the teaching of the Catholic Church today. "Synagoga and Ecclesia in Our Time" depicts Synaogue and Church as both proud crowned women, living in covenant with God side by side, and learning from one another’s sacred texts and traditions about their distinctive experiences of the Holy One. Meet the sculptor, Joshua Koffman, HERE.

Follow the creation of the Nostra Aetate anniversary sculpture, "Synagoga and Ecclesia in Our Time," HERE.



The figures of Church and Synagogue at Notre Dame de Paris

These images from Notre Dame de Paris, similar to dozens of other portrayals of Church and Synagogue in the Middle Ages, are on either side of the main portal of the Cathedral's western facade. On the left, Church is a crowned, triumphant woman bearing the chalice of the Eucharist and a staff of authority. On the right, Synagogue is a defeated woman, whose crown has fallen, whose staff is broken, with the tablets of the Law slipping from her limp hand, and her eyes blindfolded by a serpent.



For a 20th-century American version of the same motif by the famous artist John Singer Sargent, visit the Boston Public Library site for his images of desolated Synagogue and majestic Church.

John Singer Sargent















Synagoga and Ecclesia in Our Time detail

Detail of
"Synagoga and Ecclesia in Our Time"