If This Wall Could Talk: The Judensau in Wittenberg (EN)

In October 2022, a long-ongoing controversy came to an end, about whether the medieval relief known as the “Wittenberg Sau” on the southern exterior wall of St. Mary’s Church in Wittenberg should be preserved or removed, or so the town council and the parish thought. Relying on the recommendation of the Bundesgerichtshof given five months earlier, the town council decided against the removal of the relief. The decision was based on the fact that, since 1988, the relief had been part of a memorial installed beneath the Sau, dedicated to the memory of the six million Jews murdered by the Nazis. The council also acknowledged that the text on the explanatory panel next to the memorial needed to be revised to offer in-depth information on the iconography of the relief, including aspects of anti-Judaism and anti-Semitism in the Church. I was told that a petition sent to the council by more than fifty Israeli scholars and students – most of them art historians, in favour of leaving the medieval relief in situ, influenced the decision. In response, the plaintiff Michael Düllman, announced that he would bring the case before the European Court of Human Rights. More recently, Felix Klein, the Federal Government Commissioner for Jewish Life in Germany and the Fight against Antisemitism, followed suit: “A city in which anti-Semitism is so openly exhibited with the ‘Judensau’ at the town church cannot be a place of welcome for Jewish Israelis…the anti-Semitic ‘Judensau’ must be removed.”

Similar disputes concerning other representations of the Judensau, for instance in the cathedrals in Brandenburg an der Havel and Regensburg, show that the discussion is by no means over. In my lecture, I will question whose this heritage belongs to. The German Jews? The citizens of Wittenberg? The Protestant Church? Moreover, who has the right to decide about the future of the relief, and should this decision be dependent upon their local, religious, or professional identity? I will argue that the heritage of art history in general, and the identity of German art in particular, is confronted by a significant challenge. The iconoclasts who wish to remove the medieval representations fail to recognize the timeless commemorative power and pedagogical efficacy intrinsic to an artwork placed in situ. From the point of view of art- and cultural historians, the Judensau on the wall of Luther’s church speaks loud and clear. It provides information far more reliable and authentic than art exhibited in museums. To expunge this emblem would eliminate and manipulate the atrocities of antisemitism, consequently leading to a negation of the past.