Monthly Archives: February 2011

God’s Ape: A bit of fun trivia

Curious George

“For where God built a church, there the Devil would also build a chapel…Thus is the Devil ever God’s ape.”

Although this is a quotation attributed to Martin Luther, I tried to incorporate it into a recent homily but it didn’t work. So rather than stuff this interesting note into a folder “For Future Use,” I thought I’d share it here.

There’s a much older tradition of monkeys that finds a curious ancestry in Jewish lore. Monkeys and apes are generally symbols of base passion, particularly lust, in Western art.

Fall of Man (Foggini)

Giovanni Battista Foggini’s 17th century bronze sculpture “The Fall of Man” shows not only the serpent dangling from the Tree of Knowledge tempting Adam and Eve, but also a monkey seated behind the tree eating an apple (circle). Foggini may have gotten the idea from Jan Brueghel the Elder, whose 1612 painting “Garden of Eden” features a monkey prominently, or from a c. 1410 “The Garden of Eden” by an unknown artist in Frankfurt. A century earlier, Martin Luther had famously referred to Satan as “God’s ape,” building upon the then-popular view of monkeys as unintelligent animals that simply mimicked primitive human behavior, similar to how Satan tries in vain to mimic the Creator.

A monkey dressed as a court jester sits with a ball-and-chain shackling its legs in David Teniers the Younger’s “Prodigal Son” (1640), representing the son’s immorality and infidelity. In Eastern art, monkeys often torment the Buddha (as they do Christian saints), and several Frida Kahlo self portraits feature monkeys, no doubt referencing the artist’s passion. The title alone of El Greco’s 1577-9 work, “An Allegory with a Boy Lighting a Candle in the Company of an Ape and a Fool,” identifies the tradition of identifying monkeys with loose morals.

Like many other symbols from different faiths, monkeys found their way into Jewish art. According to some scholars, notably Rachel Hachlili in “Ancient Jewish Art and Archaeology in The Diaspora,” monkeys may appear on some of the walls at the synagogue at Dura Europos. In his seminal “Dreams of Subversion in Medieval Jewish Art and Literature,” Marc Michael Epstein, professor of religion and Jewish studies at Vassar College, notes that monkeys were among the animal depictions adorning the walls of the 17th century synagogue in Hodorov (modern day Ukraine).

In “The Oxford Handbook of Jewish Studies,” Martin Goodman, Jeremy Cohen and David Sorkin add that monkeys are among the animals depicted on seals found “at Israelite sites dating primarily from the eighth and seventh centuries B.C.E.” A 1309 edition of the


Pentateuch with Rashi’s commentary from Brussels by Joshua b. Elijah (cited in Norman Roth’s “Medieval Jewish Civilization: An Encyclopedia”) features an illustration, which covers nearly the entire page, of a seated scribe holding a dog on his lap facing a monkey.

In another illustration, a monkey’s motion of pouring porridge also parodies the angel causing rain to fall, and “speaks to the medieval idea, found in the bestiary, that the ape (a simian) is ‘simia humanis,’ the semblance of a human.”

Fr Curious

It is against this larger tradition of monkeys that Margret and H.A. Rey created Curious George, the inquisitive monkey many will know from the Reys’ children’s book series, which was begun in the 1940’s. Since there is no literal Jewish content in the work of the Reys, many readers might be surprised to learn there is any Jewish significance to Curious George. But the playful monkey has been the subject of recent shows at the Illinois Holocaust Museum & Education Center and The Jewish Museum, owing to the Jewish identity of his two creators.

Share with us any trivia you might have on animal symbols in religious art or literature. Leave a comment if you liked this post.

Imitating God
God of all names and all love, give us hearts to include all that you are willing to include, to forgive all that you so easily forgive, and to join you in doing something truly “new” on this earth.


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