07/15/2022 _Perspective

Negotiating Sculptures through In_Visibilities

The Case of Anti-Semitic Reliefs in German Churches

1_Setting the Scene


stone pillar with destroyed sculpture and commemorial plaque
Fig. 1: City Church of the Holy Trinity in Bayreuth. The sculpture of the Judensau on the outer wall of the church, removed in November 2004, and the memorial plaque (2005). [1]
This conversation takes place in Cologne, the city where we both live. Its landmark is the Cologne Cathedral. Like many other churches throughout Germany, the Cathedral is considered an important landmark and tourist spot, and the Cologne one is certainly among the most famous German monuments. Perhaps you have been to one? If you have, you might have been confronted with an anti-Semitic sculpture depicting people, marked as Jews by caricature, lifting a sow’s tail and suckling on its teats. There were a total of 48 so-called Judensäue in Western Europe and there are still 30 in Germany. [2] They can be found on churches’ facades (the most prominent instances include Roman Catholic as well as Protestant churches), at different heights, as well as in their interior, and some in areas closed to the public. A few of these sculptures have been removed. Next to some of those that remain, commemorative plaques or explanatory signs have been put up. Some remain uncommented upon. Others have decayed, while others yet have been renovated in recent decades. The best-known case is the relief at the Stadtkirche in Wittenberg, a UNESCO world-heritage site and the church where the German priest and theologian Martin Luther (1483–1546) preached, referring to the relief in his anti-Semitic writings. [3]

Charlotte remembers first becoming aware of these kinds of invective sculptures on churches during a visit to Magdeburg. In the Magdeburg Cathedral, a leaflet referred to the sculpture, located it historically, and explained that the church congregation critically distanced itself from the sculpture. During her visit at the time, there was no plaque or a similar informative sign, or a critical commentary directly next to the sculpture. Sarah-Lea learned about these sculptures through her work for the German Commission for UNESCO, and found processes of dealing with this difficult heritage to be hesitant at the time. Given that we also both live in Cologne, where such anti-Semitic sculptures can also be found at the landmark of the city, Cologne Cathedral, we wondered what allowed us—or how we allowed ourselves—to remain ignorant of them for so long.

Taking diverse routes, from the legal to the activist-artistic, Jewish citizens have demanded an end to this ignorance and the removal of these sculptures. [4] In 2017, Jewish citizen Michael Düllmann filed a lawsuit against the church in Wittenberg to have the relief removed. His claim was dismissed by two courts on the grounds that the depiction, in its current context, with an explanatory sign and commemorative plaque put up in its proximity, needs to be seen as an ensemble of commemorative culture; hence, legally, it no longer constitutes an offence. [5] Roundtables have been established throughout Germany bringing together members of Jewish and Christian communities, local politicians and state representatives, including commissioners against anti-Semitism, and other experts in a deliberative capacity, that is, to debate what should be done with these reliefs. Proposals included placing them in museums (e.g. by the plaintiff in the Wittenberg case [6]), putting them away in a closet (e.g. by Rabbi Brukner in Cologne [7]), covering them with a plaque or other artwork (e.g. by theologian Alexander Deeg [8]), leaving them in place but erecting or expanding on the existing commemorative plaques and explanatory signs (e.g. by Josef Schuster, president of the Central Council of Jews in Germany [9]). The different viewpoints did not correspond to different groups, with Christian, Jewish, and secular support for and opposition to any given proposal. The issues and questions related to these reliefs are numerous and complex, they can be and have been approached from different angles, including monument protection, anti-discrimination law and policy, political and cultural heritage, and religious conflict and dialogue. What we find important though is that all the claims we want to pay attention to here take the same starting point in acknowledging what is beyond doubt: These depictions are anti-Semitic and appalling, they were meant to hurt and denigrate, and they are part of, and have shaped, a continuity of German anti-Semitism that culminated in the Shoa and has been present until this day. [10]

Taking this acknowledgement as a common point of departure, the claims and demands lead in very different directions. With our contribution, we aim to sketch a framework of analysis of some of the most prominent claims made regarding these anti-Semitic sculptures. We aim to do so by following the invitation of this issue of On_Culture in using the lens of in_visibilities to engage with the variety of claims made. It is noteworthy to us how the language of in_visibilities shapes the debate on anti-Semitic sculptures, ranging from claims regarding how we should see these sculptures, to whether they ought to become, or remain in_visible, and to whom, where, and why. It is our hope that critically reflecting on the underlying claims and assumptions associated with this language might invite further discussion and engagement.

What follows is a personal exchange of perspectives informed by Sarah-Lea’s work in political philosophy and Charlotte’s research in visual culture studies, two disciplines that have been heavily involved in debates surrounding the de_construction of monuments, statues, and sculptures. In political philosophy, the debate is anchored in research on historical injustice, often revolving around the central question of whether we should concern ourselves with historical injustice mainly from a backward- or forward-looking perspective. Backward-looking approaches typically argue that historical injustice matters in and of itself, that we owe something to past victims of injustice, and reparative justice should aim at—as best as is possible—restoring a moral balance. Future-oriented approaches treat historical injustice more instrumentally, in terms of its significance for the present, and future, and direct efforts toward reconciliation and the need to live together. This is a schematic distinction, where many nuanced positions are possible. As we shall see, the debate around these anti-Semitic sculptures features elements of both perspectives, yet appears to be mostly forward-looking. [11] Art history and visual cultural studies continue to address questions about memory culture in relation to sculptures and monuments as well as their removal. Recently, for example, there have been many similar debates about colonial monuments against the backdrop of the Black Lives Matter movement. On the one hand, the points of discussion range from the preservation of cultural artifacts to concerns about history being forgotten to accusations of iconoclasm. On the other hand, arguments focus on political participation and expression of protest. They also claim the sight of these sculptures can be hurtful and retraumatizing. [12]

This contribution has grown out of our regular conversations as colleagues in an interdisciplinary research training group, which, following a citizen science and community-based research approach, places particular emphasis on engaging citizens as researchers, and researchers as citizens. We believe this particular debate deserves more attention both within our academic disciplines and within the Cologne and German public, where wider discussion has yet to keep up with the in-depth debate at local roundtables and the activism and reflection from engaged citizens and organizations. By entering this discussion, we also talk about ourselves, that is, about our roles as non-Jewish citizens of the country responsible for the Holocaust. Furthermore, we speak from our roles as researchers with interests in processes of visualization and images of the social, as well as civic virtue, historical injustice, and affective dimensions of (in)justice. We are convinced we are not the ones who should or could decide, or even judge, what is to happen to these sculptures. Yet we hope to offer perspectives on how we might think and talk through these questions and confront these sculptures from an angle of negotiating in_visibilities. Our chosen format of a mutual exchange reflects our commitment to dialogue, as well as the open and explorative nature of our perspectives.

2_In_Visible Sculptures

Charlotte: While some have argued that hardly anyone noticed the sculptures before artists and activists demanded their removal, [13] others argue that they have a visual force [14] commemorative plaques cannot neutralize. [15] Let us start with the argument that these anti-Semitic images should be retained because the sculptures are rarely noticed at all. The first question that comes to mind is: by whom are they (not) noticed? As the court case, protests, and the many debates we referred to above show, there are many affected persons who do perceive these sculptures. From an art historical perspective, it can also be said that most Catholic churches are full of pictorial programs depicting, for example, scenes from the Bible, such as saints’ lives, passages from the life of Christ and much more, which surely do not only attract the attention of researchers. Such pictorial programs can be found on the walls, windows, or sculptures in the church interior. Church representatives in particular should be aware of the visual impact of these symbolic architectures, precisely because they work so much with images and visualizations. In the Protestant church, too, there is an intense debate about images and their influence. And behind a prohibition of images lie certain assumptions about their power. [16] Perhaps the image programs are not comprehensible to all, but this makes explanation and contextualization more, and not less, necessary.

Sarah-Lea: The questioning of the visual force of such sculptures reminds me of the perhaps more general claim that so-called ‘symbolic politics’ distracts from ‘real’ issues, or worse, indicates the people concerned with it are privileged enough not to face any. While the latter accusation cannot be made in good faith against people who experience anti-Semitism and racism, the former is often made from an at least alleged position of allyship with discriminated groups. The argument suggests we must set priorities in our struggles for overcoming domination, and our priorities should lie elsewhere, say in redistributing resources or ending violence. Few activists fighting discriminatory statues or monuments would dispute these priorities. Yet it is important to also acknowledge that, if the aim is to secure relations of equal status, we cannot simply ignore expressions of degradation or alienation, including through monuments and sculptures.

I know you have more to say about the power of images, and we will be able to cover that point in more detail a bit later. For now, I suggest we follow philosopher Johannes Schulz who judges hasty criticism of “symbolic politics” as “unfounded,” because “it underestimates the social and political significance of public symbolism.” [17] In fact, it seems to me a virtue of the debate, as far as I can observe it, that most participants engaged in it acknowledge this political significance, and seem to take the issue seriously, making it neither larger, nor smaller than it is.

3_How Should These Sculptures Be Seen?

Charlotte: One argument that is often put forward is that of the historical context of the image. Let me quote monument conservator Ulrike Wendland here:

However, depictions such as the Judensau relief should not be interpreted with our current knowledge, the history of National Socialism in the 20th century and our sense of justice. Instead, the meaning of such depictions on churches and also in museums should be related to the knowledge of the time of origin, which often originated in the Middle Ages. [18]

Why should we not interpret the sculpture from our present perspective? Even if we contextualize the sculpture historically, it becomes clearer that it was always meant to be derogatory and anti-Semitic, as the pig is considered impure in Judaism and stands for the devil in the medieval pictorial tradition. What is more, when Josef Schuster urges us to account for the phenomena of anti-Semitism that persist in our treatment of these sculptures, I understand this to mean that they must be seen against the background of the long tradition of anti-Semitism, which found its worst expression in National Socialism, and especially in view of current acts of violence against Jews. [19]

Are there not too many attempts to ascribe anti-Semitism to the Nazi era and the Nazi era to the past and to conjure up a new beginning? I am thinking here for example of Martin Walser’s speech. On October 11, 1998, the writer Martin Walser gave an acceptance speech at the award ceremony for the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade in Frankfurt’s Paulskirche. He referred in his speech to the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin as “concreting the center of the capital with a nightmare the size of a soccer field. The monumentalization of shame.” [20] The speech is seen as a turning point in the debate about the confrontation with National Socialism and its significance for German post-war society in that Walser wanted to move away from a supposed permanent representation of and confrontation with the Holocaust toward—or perhaps even back to—‘normality.’ Walser himself did not speak explicitly of a line to be drawn under the confrontation with National Socialism, and yet it sparked public debates on this point. [21] That there was neither a break, nor did all Germans feel liberated from the Nazi regime at that time, but rather felt defeated, is shown in detail, for example, by publicist Max Czollek in his book Desintegriert Euch! [22] [‘De-integrate‘ Yourselves!]. In it, Czollek analyzes the extent to which Jews are actually given the role of the reconciled. They are supposed to tell the descendants of the perpetrators that ‘now everything is good again’ so that a line can finally be drawn under the past.

So why, I ask again, should we not interpret these sculptures with our present knowledge and sense of justice? It would also be worth asking to what extent the sense of justice today differs from that back then. Perhaps I misunderstand Wendland here, but, of course, the denigration and dehumanization of Jews was morally wrong in the past too.

Sarah-Lea: The idea that we must not judge history by contemporary moral or political standards is an oft-made claim. I am sympathetic to this idea insofar as it asks of us to refrain from taking a moral high ground, and to consider the structure and context within which people were acting, thereby preventing moralization of historical and political analysis. I also find it helpful to acknowledge the challenges in trying to read or translate symbolism from different, temporal and spatial, contexts. Yet, this idea comes with assumptions I believe we should reject, including an idea of automatic progress. Most importantly, it neglects that however common anti-Semitism, racism, and other systems of oppression have been and continue to be there have always been people calling these systems out as wrong, resisting. It is because of them that these systems have been confronted and challenged. Asking for time-relative judgment of moral and political wrongs ignores the resistance and opposition courageous people have shown in the past and the present. Clearly, it was possible not only to maintain, but to fight for moral and political standards rejecting anti-Semitism or racism at any time. Calling these standards ‘ours’ then seems not only wrong, but also belittling to their efforts.

As we were exchanging our perspectives, in January 2022, in Regensburg, where we also found an anti-Semitic sculpture at the Cathedral, representatives of the Federal State of Bavaria along with the respective Jewish and Catholic communities decided to replace the previously established explanatory sign with a new one, developed in cooperation with a professor of Medieval Jewish History and Art. [23] Whereas the previous sign stated that the sculpture was a stone testimony of a past epoch that had to be seen in the context of its time, the new sign rejects this relativization and finds clear language: The depictions are anti-Semitism turned into stone and constitute inhumane propaganda. It adds that today they should remind everyone to act against any form of propaganda, hate, exclusion, and anti-Semitism. [24] Putting aside for a moment the question of whether any explanatory sign could ever be enough, this appears to me to be a much more truthful and productive way to respond to hate and domination, past, present, and future.

4_Why Should These Sculptures Be Made, or Remain, In_Visible?

Sarah-Lea: In welcoming the decision to update the sign next to, yet retain the sculpture in Regensburg, Isle Danziger, chairwoman of the Jewish community in Regensburg, made an argument I find especially noteworthy within the general debate around these sculptures. She has argued that the sculpture was part of Regensburg’s history and ought to be displayed, visibly and clearly, with adequate commentary. [25] In a similar vein, Josef Schuster worries that a removal would fail to account for the phenomena of anti-Semitism that persist: Naming and disclosing anti-Semitic motives is important for sharpening the eye for omnipresent forms of anti-Semitism. [26] Journalist and theologian Matthias Dobrinski argues similarly that the sculptures should neither be museumized nor made invisible, but should rather remain visible and continue to admonish. He asks: “Should only those who pay for a visit and come during visiting hours be allowed to see with their own eyes how Christians reviled Jews?” [27]

Let me take a closer look at this type of claim. I believe it relies on the following premises: First, seeing the relief in its materiality has different effects than simply knowing about it. Otherwise, removing the relief and leaving the explanatory or commemorative plaques should be enough. This premise is shared with those who advocate for its removal, precisely on the grounds of its visual force. Second, these effects—and we might differentiate here between the phenomena of bearing witness to and provoking feelings, such as shame for the anti-Semitic past and present or a sense of responsibility—are crucial for standing up against anti-Semitism in its contemporary forms. Those making this argument claim visitors of the churches must endure the view, and must not be spared the confrontation with the church’s anti-Semitism, in order not only to stay true to the past, but to also demonstrate commitment to the present. This premise, I believe, must not be seen as self-evident. It might also be that seeing this image with its visual force, in fact cements, manifests, and contributes to the prevalence of anti-Semitic stereotypes and patterns. Yet I won’t pursue this line of thought further here, assuming for a moment that seeing the images could in fact contribute to greater awareness and even resistance to anti-Semitism, given in particular that this is what many Jewish representatives urge us to take into account.

I want to ask though, who has to endure this view as a means of a more peaceful and just future? It seems to me that the claim addresses the perpetrators and their descendants, those not degraded and despised by the relief. In this sense, it privileges their—and, acknowledging our own positionality as non-Jewish Germans, I want to say ‘our’—sentiments. Even granted that it could indeed be a way to move toward a less anti-Semitic future, it comes at the cost of those who feel degraded, humiliated, and offended by the relief, and for reasons that almost all participants in the debate acknowledge. Reflecting on this cost made me think of the term of affective injustice from political theory: “[T]he injustice of having to negotiate between one’s apt emotional response to the injustice of one’s situation and one’s desire to better one’s situation.” [28] In the case of the relief, those degraded by the image need to endure it along with those for whom it must apparently remain visible in order for them to recognize and stand against anti-Semitism in its past and current forms.

Charlotte: Thinking about this point makes me want to return to the power of images. I think the aspect of the power of images was, and still is, often underestimated. But the fact that images in social media are increasingly preceded by trigger warnings shows the injury and re-traumatization that can be caused by images. At the same time, I think it is important to differentiate this power. If history runs the risk of being forgotten (and here again we might ask the question of who can ‘afford’ to forget this history at all) by the removal of an image, then we have outsourced too much responsibility to this image. The theorist Marie-José Mondzain, in her essay L’image peut-elle tuer?, [29] shows that it is not images that act, even though they can certainly be provocative and thus motivate action. However, it is not they who are responsible for the action, but the actors themselves. It cannot only be images that remember and images cannot only remember. Images can also represent and visualize. What I want to say is that it cannot be the sole task of an image to remind and warn and to prevent anti-Semitic, right-wing positions from gaining strength. A church does not deal critically with its anti-Semitic history by simply leaving an anti-Semitic sculpture on its façade and (as has only happened in a few cases so far) by placing an explanatory plaque next to it.

New images, such as the void created after the removal of the sculpture, or images of the act of removal can become a visual anchor for a critical debate by representing that controversy rather than reproducing its subject. Could removing them be a visible sign against anti-Semitism, as Felix Klein, Federal Government Commissioner for Jewish Life in Germany and the Fight against Antisemitism, once claimed? [30] When sculptures are removed, smeared, covered, or destroyed, new images emerge, for example images of protest or, additionally images of a plural society. From the perspective of visual culture studies, I therefore wonder why the sculpture as an image is preferable to the image of its removal? This becomes even more difficult for me to understand when the sight of such a defamatory, anti-Semitic sculpture hurts and retraumatizes, while its removal could become an image of a critical confrontation with the past. Political scientist and publicist Michael Groys, for example, is in favor of removing the sculpture, because “every day that this sculpture hangs on the town church is one day too many. The Judensau is an unspeakable manifestation of age-old Christian anti-Semitism.” [31] Wittenberg’s city pastor Johannes Block sees it differently: “History cannot be disposed of. The invective sculpture will remain the thorn in the flesh that provokes and ignites remembrance and commemoration again and again.” [32] At this point, I would like to quote Max Czollek, who reproduces in his book the following statement of a former chairman of the Council of the Protestant Church in Germany: “We need your Jewish perspective to criticize our Luther!” He then places it in a broader context: “[…] By functionalizing the Jewish position, which ultimately aims at incorporation into the German discourse of exoneration, everything special and particular about a Jewish perspective is made invisible.” [33] I also ask myself, in whose flesh is this thorn and who has to bear the pain for whom?


An empty wooden picture frame on a white wall
Fig. 2: In_Visibility [34]

4_Concluding Reflections

This issue of On_Culture has inspired us to approach the debate about monuments and their remembering, specifically the so-called Judensau, from the viewpoint of In_Visibility. We consider it a relevant viewpoint since most of the arguments mentioned revolve around who should see the sculpture, who no longer wants to see it, and how it can perhaps be made visible and invisible at the same time: hence, in_visible. As we explained at the beginning, our aim is not to take a definitive position on the debate, but rather to overview individual arguments from our disciplines and public discourse, and try to situate them. To conclude our reflections, we would therefore like to once again bundle the arguments under the parameters of visibility and invisibility and pass on our proposal to include In_Visibility as a productive concept in the debate.


There was a plea for the preservation of the anti-Semitic sculpture because: a) it is only noticed by a few people; b) it should not be viewed with today’s knowledge, but against the historical background; c) it can remain visible if an explanatory plaque is placed alongside it. It must remain visible because d) it names and reveals anti-Semitic motives; and e) it is meant to admonish and thereby promote responsibility for anti-Semitism, past, present, and future.


A case was made for the removal of the anti-Semitic sculpture because: a) it has a visual power that cannot be neutralized; b) it presents hurtful content in that it deliberately dehumanizes and devalues Jews, and can thus c) re-traumatize; d) cement, manifest, and contribute to the spread of anti-Semitic stereotypes and patterns; and e) be better contextualized or confronted in a museum.


But are we really dealing with a choice between making visible and making invisible? We believe it has become clear that this debate is not about either the visible or the invisible, despite how often these terms are evoked in the debate. Rather, processes of making something invisible can at the same time make something visible and vice versa. In the debate, the sculpture—when rightly contextualized, and here of course what that means remains questionable—has often been treated as a tool to remember and to remind us of the ever-present threat of anti-Semitism. From a philosophical perspective, Sarah-Lea has used the concept of affective injustice to ask if this comes at a cost and, if so, who has to pay it. This gave rise to Charlotte’s question, posed from the perspective of art studies, of whether a newly emerging image of the removal of this sculpture could also be a visualization of history and be recognized as a call to resist anti-Semitism.

_How to Cite

Sarah-Lea Effert, Charlotte Püttmann. “Negotiating Sculptures through In_Visibilities: The Case of Anti-Semitic Reliefs in German Churches.” On_Culture: The Open Journal for the Study of Culture 13 (2022). <https://doi.org/10.22029/oc.2022.1278>.

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