Aesthetic Theology and Its Enemies

Judaism in Christian Painting, Poetry, and Politics

David Nirenberg

Through most of Western European history, Jews have been a numerically tiny or entirely absent minority, but across that history Europeans have nonetheless worried a great deal about Judaism. Why should that be so? This short but powerfully argued book suggests that Christian anxieties about their own transcendent ideals made Judaism an important tool for Christianity, as an apocalyptic religion—characterized by prizing soul over flesh, the spiritual over the literal, the heavenly over the physical world—came to terms with the inescapable importance of body, language, and material things in this world. Nirenberg shows how turning the Jew into a personification of worldly over spiritual concerns, surface over inner meaning, allowed cultures inclined toward transcendence to understand even their most materialistic practices as spiritual. Focusing on art, poetry, and politics—three activities especially condemned as worldly in early Christian culture—he reveals how, over the past two thousand years, these activities nevertheless expanded the potential for their own existence within Christian culture because they were used to represent Judaism. Nirenberg draws on an astonishingly diverse collection of poets, painters, preachers, philosophers, and politicians to reconstruct the roles played by representations of Jewish “enemies” in the creation of Western art, culture, and politics, from the ancient world to the present day. This erudite and tightly argued survey of the ways in which Christian cultures have created themselves by thinking about Judaism will appeal to the broadest range of scholars of religion, art, literature, political theory, media theory, and the history of Western civilization more generally.

Paper: $29.95 | Cloth: $65 | E-book: $25.99
ISBN-13: 9781611687781
Pages: 248 | Size: 6 in. x 9 in.
Date Published: June 22, 2015

Aesthetic Theology and Its Enemies is a book of great intellectual subtlety and scope.

Sara Lipton

SUNY Stony Brook


  • The book will be a delight to teach with, and to pique students' curiosity, because Nirenberg's emphasis is on provocative and succinct argument. It is also a book which puts medieval ways of seeing and reading at the centre of a long history of Christianity and, in doing so, demonstrates the importance of a subtle and supple understanding of medieval history for our understanding of post-medieval culture.

    The Journal of Religious History, Literature and Culture
  • In "Aesthetic Theology and Its Enemies," historian David Nirenberg argues that many of our Western notions of Jewishness were created by Christians as a result of 'aesthetic anxiety.

    Rain Taxi
  • In a historic panorama that moves deftly from Plato and St. Paul to the Cantigas de Santa Maria to Emile Nolde, what stands out most vividly are Nirenberg’s masterly analyses of individual works. Through the Madrid Throne of Grace, Chaucer’s Prioress’ Tale, and Ernst Kantorowicz’s The King’s Two Bodies, among others, these demonstrate his astounding thesis that the gap between actual things and transcendent truth has perpetually been bridged in Christian culture by evoking Judaism as an aesthetic category.

    Herbert L. Kessler
    Professor Emeritus, Johns Hopkins University
  • Aesthetic Theology and Its Enemies is a book of great intellectual subtlety and scope. In elegant prose, Nirenberg explores how, over many centuries and in manifold ways, Christian poets, artists, and political theorists used Judaism and Jews to think about and express the vexed relationship between visible and invisible, material and spiritual realms.

    Sara Lipton
    SUNY Stony Brook

About the Author

David Nirenberg

David Nirenberg has been writing about the intertwined histories of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam for many years. He is a professor at the University of Chicago, teaching in the history department and the Committee on Social Thought. His numerous publications include his groundbreaking monograph Communities of Violence: Persecution of Minorities in the Middle Ages and his recent and much acclaimed Anti-Judaism: The Western Tradition.

Table Of Contents