From Dye to Identity: Linking Saffron to Stigmatizing Jewish Dress Codes and the Paradox of a Yellow-robed Moses in the Sistine Chapel

By Leslie Tamarra Yarmo.

Published by The International Journal of Arts Theory and History

Format Price
Article: Print $US10.00
Published Online: September 30, 2016 $US5.00

For over a thousand years, Christian and Islamic dress codes have used the color yellow to identify Jews. Numerous scholars trace its use to negative perceptions of yellow established in the thirteenth century. Negative identifiers established in the Middle Ages and culminating in the yellow star of World War II would appear to support this interpretation. This reasoning does not, however, explain the application of yellow as a narrative device to help recognize noble Jewish figures like Moses in the Sistine Chapel. The degrading badges from the Middle Ages to the yellow star of WWII are consistent with a color known to symbolize disease, deceit, and excrement. Jewish iconography portrays Jews in yellow garments as a point of pride. I will argue that the use of the color yellow in connection to the Jewish people does not originate from a negative Christian interpretation, but rather from an ancient Jewish connection to saffron, the ancient medicinal ingredient, herb, perfume, and yellow dye. Imagery dating back to the third century of the Common Era evidences Jewish self-identification with saffron-yellow. I contend that this historic connection continued to resonate in the art of the Renaissance.

Keywords: Yellow, Art History, Jewish History, Sistine Chapel, Saffron, Sumptuary Law

The International Journal of Arts Theory and History, Volume 11, Issue 4, pp.19-31. Article: Print (Spiral Bound). Published Online: September 30, 2016 (Article: Electronic (PDF File; 1.167MB)).

Associate Prof. Leslie Tamarra Yarmo

Assistant Professor and Costume Designer, Department of Music, Theatre and Dance, Fulton School of Liberal Arts, Salisbury University, Salisbury, Maryland, USA