New research demonstrates that a sculpture is associated with a harrowing episode of anti-Semitic violence in late-1400s Italy.
By Anne-Lise Desmas
Curator and Department Head of Sculpture and Decorative Arts
J. Paul Getty Museum
March 21 marks the anniversary of the horrific murder of a two-year-old toddler that took place in 1475 in Trent, a city in North Italy—an event that led to one of the most brutal and infamous anti-Semitic blood libels of the Italian Renaissance. Until recently, we did not know that a marble bust of a young child in the Getty Museum’s collection was directly connected to this remarkable and shocking story.
Attributed to Francesco Laurana, the sculpture depicts a half-length image of a small boy holding a palm and a laurel branch, symbols of martyrdom and victory over death. After it was purchased by the Getty in 1996, the bust was tentatively identified as a portrait of Saint Cyricus, since it appeared to reflect some of the events of his martyrdom around 304 B.C. In particular, the fact that the torso is set inside, rather than on top of, the oval base was interpreted as a reference to the martyr’s immersion in a boiling cauldron, while the half-length representation was read as an allusion to his having been sawn in half.
Thanks to new research conducted by art historian Jeanette Kohl, professor for Italian Renaissance art at the University of California, Riverside, the boy has now been given his true name and identity: Simon of Trent. To accompany the recent publication of this scholarship in the Getty Research Journal, what follows is a conversation between Jeanette Kohl and the Getty Museum’s senior curator of sculpture and decorative arts, Anne-Lise Demas, about Simon’s story, the violence it occasioned, and the art-historical detective work involved in uncovering his identity.
Anne-Lise: I remember our conversations when you were a scholar at the Getty Research Institute in the fall of 2014. A couple of unusual aspects of this marble bust, when compared to others of the same period, caught your attention, correct?
Jeanette: Indeed. It is a pretty unique object, and hard to categorize. First, the bust’s body is much longer than most of those made during the Renaissance. This one is cut off very low, below the belly; the majority of busts show the head, shoulders, and only the upper part of the chest. Second, the child’s face differs considerably from other children’s portraits of the period. Rather than looking cheerful, chubby, and cute, this little boy looks grave and sickly, more like a portrait of a dead child with his eyes open.
Anne-Lise: You really surprised me when you told me that you would consult a friend of yours in Germany, a leading expert in pediatric cranial surgery. Your friend had never before examined such a patient.
Jeanette: Yes—this was Dr. Joerg-Elard Otten’s first remote examination of a marble body, but he took my request seriously and appreciated the challenge. He examined the boy through high-resolution images and then shared his medical opinion. To him, the bust looked like an image of a very sick child, or a dead child who was then made to look alive; the toddler was probably between 20 to 28 months old.
Otten noticed a discrepancy between the sunken temple and eye region and the full cheeks; the body of the bust was also not as chubby and childlike as the face. His medical assessment formed the last piece of the puzzle. It confirmed my suspicions that the child depicted in the bust cannot be Saint Cyricus, who died in the fourth century. It must be a particular boy from the time of the bust’s making in the 1400s. The artist must have known his features quite well.
Anne-Lise: When you came to the Sculpture and Decorative Arts Department to look at the documentation on the bust in the object file, you found further clues to the correct identification of the sculpture.
Jeanette: There was a great deal of archival sleuthing involved. The Getty has plenty of materials: photos from when the bust was bought, photos after the bust had been cleaned, curators’ notes, and conservators’ analyses. What caught my attention right away was a detailed condition report dated October 5, 1995. It stated that the bust was in good overall condition but that it had been repaired at the neck, and had had other areas of damage covered with fill and overpaint, including the proper left cheek. The report also pointed out that there are approximately thirty small, dark pit marks across the chest and scattered across the top of the head. In looking at the photos of the object before its cleaning, all these marks and traces were evident.
Anne-Lise: And with these clues in mind, you connected the dots when you happened to read about the story of Simon of Trent.
Jeanette: As is often the case in both academic research and detective work, a coincidence helped me link the visual evidence with the reconstruction of the events—and in our case, we are dealing with an actual historical crime. I had a publication by my German colleague Urte Krass sitting on my desk at the Getty to prepare for a lecture I was to give in Germany. I opened the book to learn more about the role of corpses and their images in Renaissance Italy, and there is was, the story of the child-martyr Simon of Trent.
Simon, a two-year-old Christian boy, son of a local tanner in the city of Trent, disappeared on March 21, 1475. A few days later, on Easter Sunday, his lifeless body was found floating in a sewer that ran underneath the houses of the city’s small Jewish community. An autopsy concluded that the boy had been tortured. His body was ravaged: strangulation marks on his neck, needle holes nearly all over, one cheek torn apart, and cuts on his penis. In the end, the boy had been bled to death.
To the townspeople, these were signs of the blood libel—false claims dating back centuries of ritual murder by Jews, allegedly to use victims’ blood to bake Passover matzo. Between June 1475 and January 1476 all the male members of the Jewish community of Trent were executed, and all the women and children were expelled. Soon after its discovery, Simon’s corpse was said to perform miracles, and became the object of a religious cult.
The filled cavity in the marble bust’s check, the break along the neck, the pit marks across chest and forehead, which look like they were inflicted with a nail in a targeted way—they all match Simon’s characteristic signs of torture, what art historians call his iconography.
Anne-Lise: The format of the bust and its oval base, which were earlier thought to evoke the immersion of Saint Cyricus in a boiling cauldron, now took on new meaning.
Jeanette: The unusual half-length form of the bust and the high, basin-like pedestal could have been understood by the Renaissance viewer familiar with the boy’s martyrdom as a representation of the bloodbath of Simon’s death. As the autopsy states, Simon was bled to death. In the bust he rises from his own death in triumph, with the martyr’s palm in hands. This would also explain the unusual upward gaze, the erect posture, and the fact that the fingers of his proper left hand rest on the pedestal as if it were an actual object.
There is a physical dimension here, too. The surface on the top of the plinth is very rough, and contrasts with the rest of the marble. One thinks of liquid. The curator who bought the object in 1996 looked for vestiges of red on the marble, but there were very few traces of color, and none on the pedestal. There is, of course, the possibility that the object was cleaned and the polychromy taken off at some point in history.
Anne-Lise: During your research, you also became aware of the widespread distribution of images and texts based on the story of Simon.
Jeanette: The story of Simon spread like wildfire in 1475. There was one person in particular who promoted the cult around Simon: Johannes Hinderbach, Trent’s influential and powerful prince-bishop. Hinderbach, who had been the driving force behind the incarceration, murder, and expulsion of the city’s Jewish community, was very well connected and had many powerful friends. Spurred by the “miracles” Simon’s body was said to be working, he set in motion an unprecedented propaganda campaign to promote the boy’s canonization as a saint. A Christian child tortured and killed by Jews on Easter—the parallels to Jesus and his martyrdom and death were evident to Christians of the time, which made the story a very powerful one.
Hinderbach’s aggressive promotion of the canonization of Simon can be compared to modern political campaigns. The prince-bishop encouraged his influential friends in Rome, Northern Italy, and Germany to write poems, hymns, and treatises on Simon based on the gruesome details of the confessions extorted from the Jews under torture. The confessions were made public in an attempt to prove the Jewish townspeople’s guilt. Text and words amplified one another, but the visual propaganda was even more widespread and powerful than the written propaganda, as can be seen from a multitude of prints, frescoes, and altar paintings throughout Italy.
Anne-Lise: And among the overwhelming number of visual representations of this story, the Getty bust stands out as the only known marble portrait.
Jeanette: The Getty sculpture is unique, and it is particularly striking. The artist who carved the bust must have known the boy’s looks rather well, given the strong individuality of his face with the swollen eyes, the saggy cheeks, and the pronounced shape of the head. This would have been a problem in the case of Saint Cyricus, who died more than a thousand years before the bust was made, yet it was not a problem with Simon. People knew how he looked. His body had been on display in the church of Saint Peter’s in Trent since the day after its discovery, and flocks of pilgrims from north and south of the Alps came to see and touch his body in the hope of a miracle.
Anne-Lise: Although we still don’t know who commissioned the sculpture and where it was originally displayed, the bust must have played a significant role in Simon’s rapidly spreading cult in the late 1400s in Europe. It is chilling to think of the fervent wave of anti-Semitism that was at the heart of this cult.
Jeanette: It is chilling, and sad. Word of Simon’s death, supposedly at the hands of Jews, got around quickly and far, not least because Trent was on a major trade route between Italy and the North, and the story fed into an already existing climate of anti-Semitism in Italy and Germany. The treatment of the accused Jews in Trent was beyond words—their torture and sham trial is documented in the Yeshiva Manuscript, a detailed account of the proceedings. Things became so violent in Trent that Rome had to intervene. In August of 1475, Pope Sixtus IV prohibited the continuation of the trial and started an investigation. But the cult had already gained traction, so the trial went on.
Anne-Lise: Why did the circulation of images play such a critical role in the fast-increasing popularity of Simon of Trent?
Jeanette: Printed images were a fairly new medium in 1475, and the first prints ever made in Trent were those showing the martyrdom of little Simon. They were easy to distribute and reached all social strata—an early form of mass media. They were quite effective, and the anti-Semitic atmosphere was kindled to such an extent that in November of 1475, in an attempt to protect the Jewish community of Venice, Doge Pietro Mocenigo issued a decree that prohibited depicting Simon or preaching about him. But the cult was too strong and the official interdictions had no effect, either in Trent or in the cities and towns of Northern Italy. Even the Papal Court in Rome had to yield in the face of the cult’s established popularity.
The situation was complicated by the fact that Trent belonged to the Holy Roman Empire, and the Empire’s Archduke Sigismund approved of the trial against the Jews and the cult of Simon. Simon was never canonized, never became a proper “saint.” Yet in 1588, more than one hundred years after Simon’s death, Pope Sixtus V beatified him, which meant that the local cult and liturgical observance within the Diocese of Trent were officially approved.
Anne-Lise: It took centuries before the Jews of Trent could be exonerated. But today, the name of Simon of Trent does not appear in any modern Catholic calendar.
Jeanette: Correct. It is a long and complicated story, but in the end, it was Pope Clement XIV who, in 1758, cleared the Jews of Trent of the murder of Simon. Eventually, in 1965, Pope Paul VI removed Simon from the Roman Martyrology and prohibited his veneration. The cult was still very popular in the 1960s in Trent, with annual processions carrying Simon’s embalmed body in a glass coffin through the city streets. His body, which looked like a blackened mummy by then, was still the city’s main relic, and his story was a defining part of town history. On papal orders, Simon’s blackened remains were buried in an unknown place. There was no more body to venerate, and the cult disappeared, at least officially.
Anne-Lise: We’re so pleased, now that your research has been published, that our visitors can benefit from this new understanding of the work.
Jeanette: It is good to see that Simon has had his identity restored. It is such an important story, and such a unique artwork. I hope it will motivate visitors to learn more about the tragic history of Simon of Trent, and the violence that followed.
For anyone who wishes to see the updates, they can now be found online and in the text next to the bust. Prior to this new research, the label read:
According to legend, Saint Cyricus was a child martyr who was tortured before being killed for refusing to pray to false idols. In Laurana’s depiction, the child holds a palm branch signifying his victory over death. The artist combined these symbols of sainthood with authentic clothing and anatomy, such as the accurate shape of Cyricus’s skull, which must have been based on careful observation of a real infant.
The corrected label now reads:
Bust of Simon of Trent
His eyes turned heavenward, this boy holds branches of palm and laurel in the manner of a Christian martyr. The sag in his chubby cheeks and the deep circles beneath his eyes are the features of a dead child. Such details help identify the figure as Simon of Trent, a two-year-old whose body was discovered on Easter 1475 in Trent, Italy. His corpse, which bore evidence of torture, was soon rumored to perform miracles. The town’s Jewish population was wrongfully accused of ritual murder, inflaming anti-Semitism and inspiring a cult of worship to which this sculpture may have belonged.