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Thoughts on the Wittenberg Judensau

Thoughts on the Wittenberg Judensau

– An opinion from Dr Christopher Young, Heritage Consultant. London, United Kingdom 11 JUN 2019 —

Historic buildings have always changed through time according to the tastes of those who control them and how they are to be used. This is as true of churches as of any other building type; even though the basic purpose of divine worship has been maintained, the way in which that worship is carried out may have changed greatly. Heritage buildings will continue to change in the future. While the primary purpose of intervening in such places is their conservation and sustainable use, other change may sometimes be justified by the resulting public benefits.

Every time a change is proposed, the decision on whether or not to implement it is based implicitly or, increasingly, explicitly on the decision takers’ understanding of the values of the building, and on their judgement of the balance of harm to its significance against any public gain. The more important the heritage values, the higher the barrier should be to changes which adversely affect significance.

Understanding of heritage values depends both on the merits and historical significance of the building itself but also on the zeitgeist of society. Thus over the last half-century it has been increasingly realised that industrial buildings from the 19th and 20th centuries have historical and cultural value which should be conserved. An increasing trend also has been the recognition that heritage places have intangible meanings for different people and communities. We now know that heritage buildings and places are not important just for their architectural or historic merits, but because of what they mean to people. The reaction to the recent fire at Notre Dame in Paris is a clear example of the meanings that buildings can hold for people. Alongside this, there is increasing recognition that rights-based approaches should apply as much to heritage as to any other aspect of human existence, leading to proposals that particular heritage items should be removed or modified because they are offensive to individuals or to whole communities.

Two recent examples of this phenomenon are the ‘Rhodes Must Fall’ campaign in Oxford, and the Judensau carving on the Town Church of St Mary in Wittenberg. The writer’s instinctive reactions were against the removal of the Rhodes links in Oxford, and in favour of the removal of the Judensau from its present prominent location. This note proposes a logical basis for these differing reactions.

Cecil Rhodes was a late 19th century English colonialist who became Prime Minister of the Cape Colony in South Africa and was responsible for the British annexation of the Central African territories which now form Zambia and Zimbabwe. Along the way he made a great fortune. He left a part of this to create the Rhodes Scholarships to Oxford with Rhodes House as the base of the Rhodes Trust to manage the scholarship programme, and also a bequest to Oriel College, Oxford, which was used for a building named after him, and with a statue of him on the street frontage.

In 2015, a campaign to remove memorials to Rhodes spread from South Africa to Oxford, leading to demands, among others, to remove the Rhodes stature from Oriel College’s Rhodes Building. This was a highly controversial proposal and was eventually rejected by the college who undertook instead to provide appropriate interpretation explaining the background of the statue and Cecil Rhodes’ involvement with the college.

This was a specific act of memorialisation of the generosity of a donor. It therefore commemorates a historical event rather than a particular attitude to a community or group of people. Memorialisation of such events is appropriate and there are many other examples in Oxford (and elsewhere) of the memorialisation of benefactions whose donors acquired the necessary wealth to make them through methods, such as sugar cultivation by slave labour, which would now be totally unacceptable. In fact, such memorialisation, if appropriately contextualised, is actually positive in the sense that it makes the host community more aware of wrongs perpetrated by its predecessors.

The Judensau is a large carving of a sow in obscene contact with Jews including a rabbi, high up on the Town Church in Wittenberg facing the street which, at the time the carving was placed there, was a centre of Jewish population in the town.

Its purpose, presumably, was to offend the Jewish population and to terrorise them into moving elsewhere. It was offensive in the early 14th century when it was created. It is offensive now. It is different in kind to memorialising a particular individual or his/her generosity. In such cases, memorialisation relates to a specific actual event or life and was not considered to be offensive when erected.

The Judensau here and elsewhere in Europe were intended to be offensive so the basic intention behind them was presumably hostile and malicious. They still cause great offence.

Such offensive and intentional expressions of opinion should no longer be publicly displayed in this way, any more than a modern anti-Semitic poster would be allowed to be displayed on the church. In deciding what to do, it is still necessary to balance the public gain from the removal of an offensive message against any damage to the significance of the church, which is part of a World Heritage property and therefore has Outstanding Universal Value. The Outstanding Universal Value is defined in a Statement of Outstanding Universal Value agreed by the World Heritage Committee (

This is focused on the church’s association with Luther and the Protestant Reformation as a faith movement of world importance, to which they bear unique testimony. The Judensau is therefore not recognised as an element of the property’s Outstanding Universal Value and could be removed without significantly affecting it.

Removal of this public display is highly desirable because of its offensive nature and intent. This does not mean that the Judensau should be s destroyed since it represents an important historical phenomenon which should not be forgotten. It should therefore be moved to a museum where it could be properly interpreted in its historical context.

Christopher Young -

Heritage Consultant

destroyed since it represents an important historical phenomenon which should not be forgotten. It should therefore be moved to a museum where it could be properly interpreted in its historical context.

Christopher Young Heritage Consultant

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