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Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Yarmo Presents New Findings on Depiction of 15th-Century Jewish Dress Codes, Colors

SALISBURY, MD---What if the Montagues and Capulets in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet disliked each other not due to family differences, but because of religious beliefs?

That was the question Dr. T. Paul Pfeiffer, chair of Salisbury University’s Theatre and Dance Department, postured when considering the staging of the Bobbi Biron Theatre Program’s production of the play in 2012. He noted the conflict would have resonated with Shakespeare’s original audience due to the Spanish Armada’s attempted invasion of England and the anti-Catholic sentiment that followed.

“That was not necessarily what Shakespeare had in mind when he wrote it,” said Leslie Yarmo, the program’s costume designer, “but knowing what we know about Shakespeare, he might have enjoyed that twist.”

Pfeiffer imagined the Capulets as Catholic (within the play, they confer with Friar Lawrence, go to confession and are touted as regular attendees of Mass) and the Montagues as Jewish. With the premise set, Yarmo began researching 15th-century iconography for ways to convey Pfeiffer’s vision.

“As a costume designer, you need to communicate character relationships and groups visually,” she said. “You need to help the audience understand who is aligned with whom. It’s very similar to what an artist does. The garments carry a lot of weight.”

Much more than she initially realized, in fact. During her research, she discovered a previously unknown image of Jewish women wearing the yellow headscarves imposed upon them throughout much of Europe in the 1400s and 1500s, when religious dress codes were enforced to prevent interfaith unions. The more she delved into the topic, the more she came to a single conclusion: “We’ve been misunderstanding the color yellow for hundreds of years.”

For centuries, historians have interpreted the use of yellow clothing in Renaissance artwork as meaning its wearer had negative connotations, she said. In two presentations last year — in Rome and, more recently, at a conference on Jewish women in 15th- to 20th-century Italy at the Italian National Museum of Judaism and the Shoah in Ferrara, where she was the only American invited to present — she argued that yellow clothing in those paintings may simply be visually communicating its wearers’ Jewish faith. Her findings have been accepted for publication by the journal The Arts Collection.

For hundreds of years prior to the dress code enforcement, Jews wore yellow in connection with a relationship to the saffron industry, she said. In fact, the literal translation of most laws specified that Jews must wear saffron-colored — not simply yellow — clothing, according to Yarmo.

“I believe yellow was something that originally was worn with pride by Jews,” she said, adding that the color likely was chosen to represent the religion because non-Jews already associated yellow clothing with Judaism. “It was a something everyone already was familiar with, so it was an easy identifier.”

She hypothesized that the color’s negative connotation began when the law made not wearing it a punishable offense. Judas didn’t help things.

The disciple who betrayed Jesus, according to the New Testament, is almost always depicted wearing yellow in Renaissance artwork, Yarmo said. But then, so are figures more commonly seen as positive, including Moses, Joseph and St. Peter. In fact, Michelangelo and other artists, including Botticelli, Perugino and Ghirlandaio painted Moses in several scenes in the Sistine Chapel wearing yellow.

Another well-known artist of the era, Andrea Mantegna, painted Mary in a yellow turban similar to the yellow headscarves mandated for Jewish women at the time, Yarmo said.

“He was not a casual artist,” she said. “He was extremely intellectual and well known for giving layers of meaning in the subjects he painted. He was well aware of the dress code. Mary was the bridge between the Old Testament and the New Testament, Judaism and Christianity. If he was willing to depict Mary in yellow, yellow was not a negative color.

“Somehow, when yellow appears on Judas, it becomes about the fact that he’s deceitful, not about the fact that he’s Jewish. But there’s a disconnect when it’s also used on the Madonna.”

Yarmo hopes to further her research to find out just how far back the connection between Jews and yellow clothing goes.

“I’m not an art historian,” she said. “I’m not a Jewish scholar. I’m a costume designer. I believe this has allowed me to see things [in clothing] that other scholars may have not looked at as closely. It’s very exciting.”

For more information call 410-543-6030 or visit the SU website at

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