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Medieval Carving Continues to Spark Debate

Updated: Jan 20

A request to remove a medieval anti-Semitic carving from a church in Germany has set off a global controversy over the value of maintaining racially insulting sculptures.

UPDATE! A 13th-century sculpture on the façade of the Stadkirche—the Town Church of St. Mary's in Wittenberg, Germany—shows a Jew looking at the asshole of a pig while others suckle on her teats. One of the most well-known examples of a Judensau (Jew’s sow), most of such carvings from the time have been removed. Still, over 30 such sculptures still remain to this day on churches throughout Germany, Austria, France, and Switzerland.

These sculptures, most of which were carved in the inside of churches and other buildings, were meant to encourage Christians to not follow the examples of Judaism by showing Jews as less than human. The sculptures were also meant to be insulting, as Jews consider pigs unclean.

The Wittenberg church is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, as it is where the 16th-century theologian Martin Luther held his first mass in German instead of Latin. As such, the church is visited by thousands of tourists every year.

The courts ruled that the carving could remain because its insulting depiction was neutralized, they said, by the WWII Holocaust memorial and information board that had been installed at the foot of the church in the 1980s (see above). German-Jewish historian Michael Wolffsohn even suggested that if the memorial was removed, it would make the church appear as if it was hiding Martin Luther’s (and the Lutheran Church’s) history of anti-Semitism, as Martin Luther actually approved of the sculpture.

The lawsuit was drawn up in 2018, was rejected by the courts in 2019, and then again upon appeal in February 2020. Then in December 2020, a panel of church and Jewish community leaders agreed that these medieval carvings shouldn’t be removed from churches, as they ruled that if the statues were removed from their context (i.e., from a church wall and into a nearby museum) it would make it more difficult to explain them.

Finally, in June 2022, Germany's Federal Court of Justice, the country’s top appeals court, upheld rulings from lower courts, saying there was no breach of the law. The Central Council of Jews said it understood the court’s decision but that, in its view, the floor plate and explanatory display did not go far enough to condemn its centuries-long anti-Judaism stance.

Instead, the panel recommended that explanations written by experts on anti-Semitism should be installed nearby. Moreover, they advised that the explanation should be clearly marked and visually strong.

Currently, the text on display at the church describes the Judensau carving as a mockery from a “bygone era," commenting only that the sculpture’s “anti-Jewish content is strange to today’s observer.”

The gentleman who submitted the original complaint now plans to appeal to the German constitutional court.


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