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Carpet’s Story Reveals Hidden Double Life

Whether it is the nearly 2000-year-old mat discovered by Yigael Yadin in the Cave of Letters or the 70-year-old carpet woven in the Lodz Ghetto and now in Yad Vashem or the 500-year-old secret Jewish carpet discussed here, Jewish carpets are significant cultural chronicles of the Jewish people, giving insights and understanding which might not otherwise be available.

This Converso carpet, now in the Vizcaya Museum in Florida, had been commissioned by Spanish nobles in the 50 years prior to the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492. Spanish Jewry had been powerful and productive; for many it had been a golden age of convivencia, producing generation after generation of gifted philosophers, poets, politicians and financiers. However, from the 1380s onwards increasing pressure from the church had forced many of the 800,000 and more Jews to save their livelihoods and their lives by converting (hence their description as 'conversos') to Christianity. Maimonides had advised that to save life by converting to another faith was permissible so long as one remained faithful in one's heart and, as soon as possible, returned to the full life of a Jew.

The effect on these converso Jews was that they led parallel lives – parallel because they lived double lives; one being the false public life of a Christian and the other the true private life of a Jew.

This secret life is to be seen in the literature of the time because many, perhaps most, of the great Spanish writers were conversos, using techniques of subtle concealment to present one position to their fellow conversos and another to the Church authorities. Their secret catch-phrases, poetry and artefacts all had double meanings. So, for example a well-known 15th century Spanish lamp has survived. With a crucifix at its head, it was to a Christian, just an everyday lamp – but to a secret Jew its eight cups indicated a precious Chanukiah with its message of hope and redemption.

Today in Spain you can still eat chorizo de Marrano. Looking just like a standard pork sausage, it proclaimed one's Christian credentials, but in fact contained no tref.

And that is the fascination of our Vizcaya carpet. Its colors are brilliant but it is the rich and varied symbols that make it such a vital expression of the double lives of the conversos. Symbols sort us out into cohesive groups with shared non-verbal understandings, for words often fail to articulate the deep truths of consciousness and distort and corrupt what we struggle to convey.

The carpet's imagery appears to be typical of Christian Spain with its traditional Moorish influences, but to a Jew each image instantly sparks off that sense of unique and intimate relationship with the Almighty.

The Stars of David peppering the carpet symbolize the protection given by the Almighty to the Jews; the five branched Menorot are reflections of God's light on earth; the Hamsas are an expression of the Divine Power; the sheep signify the people of Israel; the doves represent purity, and roosters are symbols of much needed courage and foresight. We see, too, kabbalist Demon Birds and praying figures. All these images are either very similar or identical to well known icons to be seen in ancient Israelite and Sephardic art. That these symbols had other meanings for other peoples mattered not.What mattered in those increasingly dark times was what they meant to the Jews.

The Enriquez family, the noble family whose coats of arms adorn it, were almost certainly conversos. The grandfather, a twin brother of the King of Castile, had married a noble Jewish lady who converted to Christianity. Their son had married a converso, as in turn had their grandson who had commissioned the carpet. This was the standard practise among the crypto-Jewish conversos, for by not marrying out they could maintain the privacy of their practises and faith.

But death is a time of truth, and in her will, Dona Juana Mendoza Enriquez banned all imagery, apart from her coat of arms, from her tomb. In the ferocious beliefs of Christian medieval Spain, by refusing to have any Christian iconography, including the sculpted and painted image of the crucified Jesus, she was voluntarily sending herself to burn in hell for eternity. Her refusal to have Christian graven images on her tomb indicates her true faith. The political policy of the Enriques was also significant, for, as they were governors of the Murcia region (in the southeast of Spain where the carpet was woven) it became a haven for Jews fleeing persecution from other parts of Spain. Once in Murcia, those who had been forced to convert to save their lives would be able to go to the synagogue and, casting off the cloak of Christianity, would declare their true faith. It is also significant that Enriquez allowed the remaining Jews of Murcia to send money and agents to other parts of Spain to ransom and rescue Jews held against threats of torture and death.

As to the weavers of the carpet, there is little doubt that they, too, were conversos. The Church stationed a grossly disproportional number of investigators, along with their military and clerical supporters, in the tiny remote villages where the carpet was woven. In their reports back to Madrid, the inquisitors confirmed that there was hardly an inhabitant who was not a converso – and so a possible heretic. Money talks, and the bribe you needed to pay for a fully notarized certificate attesting to the fact that you did not have a single drop of Jewish blood in your veins cost a small fortune – and your life and that of your children might depend on your ability to pay it.

Significantly, genetic studies show that 19.8% of the population of Spain and Portugal have the Y chromosome, coming via the male line, indicating Jewish ancestry.

What happened to these weavers? Many fled to the Ottoman Empire, changing its small carpet and textile activity into a vast and internationally famous industry. As to the Enriquez family, by the sixth generation they had probably become as devout Christians as any other Christian nobles. They continued to hide their Jewish ancestry, and their forbears, their benefactors and their tombs disappeared from history. The carpet was given to the Church which eventually sold it.

This carpet, this 500 year-old cultural chronicle, like the nearly 2000 year-old mat from the Bar-Kochba revolt and the 70 year-old carpet woven in the Lodz Ghetto, are moving testaments to Jewish endurance. 

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Tuesday, 05 July 2022

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