publisher colophon

23. Seal of Dulcie of the Portali

+ S : DVLCIE : DE PORTALI

Dimensions: 27 mm. Matrix.

Location: Municipal Archives, Narbonne.

Bibliography: Longpérier, 1872a, 1873; Emery, 1959, p. 18; Goodenough, 1954, 4:127; Goldman, 1966.

This seal is related in iconography and name to Nos. 21 and 22. The letters are engraved around a portal to a castle, with what seems a portcullis above.* Within the doorway can be seen the front part of a bull, which somewhat resembles the man-headed bull shown on the famous tetradrachm (an ancient silver coin worth four drachms) from Gela, Sicily, dated in the fifth century B.C. Since the name, in armes parlantes fashion, seems to refer to the portal, and not to a place name, I have translated, as in the two earlier seals, “of the Portali” rather than “of Portali.”

Given the cross which begins the inscription and the lack of Hebrew letters, one cannot be certain (even though the authority is Adrien de Longpérier) that this seal belonged to a Jewess. As Henri Gross and Gustave Saige have pointed out, variant spellings of Portal were common among both Christians and Jews. Yet Richard Emery, as mentioned in No. 22, refers to a Salamon Sullam de Porta, an important Jew of Perpignan, and states that he “married (probably not long before 1273, for his wife’s brothers were still minors in 1278) Dulcia, daughter of Jucef de Elna, a Perpignan Jew.” If this woman, as a widow, took a seal—and there are several known cases where Jewesses did so in order to continue the family business—her name would be inscribed “Dulcia de Porta.” Furthermore, since her father’s name was Joseph, the use of the bull as part of the image makes sense and adds credence to the assumption that this is a Jewish seal because it is difficult to believe that anyone not versed in Old Testament Jewish tradition would know that the bull is Joseph’s symbol.

The non-use of Hebrew and the use of the cross symbol are both unusual for Jewish seals from the Midi. However, there is one French seal from Saintonge and three from Burgundy, all owned by Jews, which also are in Latin, not Hebrew, and two of the three Burgundy seals also show crosses. Jews did use crosses occasionally on their seals, apparently as a decorative feature without religious significance, and to make them look more like those of their Christian neighbors.

It should be emphasized that the Jewries of southern France were small. In 1305, on the eve of the expulsion, the Jewish community of Narbonne, traditionally the largest in the area, numbered less than a thousand persons, or about 4 percent of the population, though it had been larger in the previous century before the crusade to destroy the Albigenses began. The Jewish community of Perpignan, second largest, is estimated by Emery to have numbered somewhat less than four hundred persons in the latter part of the thirteenth century, while those of Montpellier and Lunel were still smaller. As a result, marriages among closely knit families in these communities must have been very common. Names such as Porta, Portal, Portes, Portella, and Portalli might have had a common ancestral root or may even have been the same name spelled differently in different documents or varied to differentiate persons for business reasons. As stated before, they may possibly originate in the names of places where Jews lived. When we only have the seal matrices and no sealed documents to correlate the names with actual events, it is difficult to trace these seal owners.

This generic group of names could also derive from the arched portal so common to the entrance of the medieval synagogue, which was often built below ground level, with a series of steps leading beneath the portal to the place of worship. The recently excavated Academy of Rouen, in Normandy, was constructed in this manner. Perhaps these names were taken, in the vernacular, to indicate a religious person, a person who often frequented the synagogue. This piety in turn became associated with wisdom, and the tide pages of many of the first printed Jewish books show an arched doorway or portal inside which the tide of the book appears. Erwin R. Goodenough specifically relates the arched doorway on the seal of David son of Samuel/Mielet of the Portal to Torah shrines shown on ancient Jewish glass. Bernard Goldman goes farther in his interpretation of the arched doorway: his book The Sacred Portal, whose subject is the art and symbolism of the Beth Alpha mosaics, carries the revealing subtitle, “A Primary Symbol in Ancient Judaic Art.”* If Goldman’s interpretation is correct, these seals with the name and representation of a portal indicate the persistence of this symbol from ancient Near Eastern art continuing to illuminated manuscripts and the frontispieces of early Jewish printed books; it also manifests itself in the arch still used on Sephardic ketubot, or wedding contracts, and ritual objects.

Lead coffin from Bet She’kalim. Photo courtesy of N. A. Avigad, Dept. of Archaeology, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

Sarajevo Haggadah, 14th century. National Museum of Bosnia, Sarajevo.

Brass cast Hanukkah lamp, Italy, 17th century. The Jewish Museum, New York, F 2125.


*The loops above the arched portal of the seal of Mielet of the Portal may also be the fanciful top of a portcullis. The only other explanation would be an attempt to represent crenelles.

*This interpretation is supported by many references in the Bible. An excellent example is the last group of lines of Psalm 24: “Lift high your lintels, O you gates; open wide, you ancient doors! Welcome the glorious King. Who is the glorious King? The Lord of hosts, he is the King of glory.” As Goldman writes: “These doors are more than metaphors … they stand for the palace-shrine of the deity. Throughout ancient art the portal is stressed above that of any other architectural feature, for it is through the portal that divine, and by analogy, royal figures emerge. . . . When the doors of the palace-shrine are thrown open at the appropriate moment, the theophany is made manifest” (p. 73). Indeed, there are synagogues in our time named “Gates of Heaven.”

*The loops above the arched portal of the seal of Mielet of the Portal may also be the fanciful top of a portcullis. The only other explanation would be an attempt to represent crenelles.

*This interpretation is supported by many references in the Bible. An excellent example is the last group of lines of Psalm 24: “Lift high your lintels, O you gates; open wide, you ancient doors! Welcome the glorious King. Who is the glorious King? The Lord of hosts, he is the King of glory.” As Goldman writes: “These doors are more than metaphors … they stand for the palace-shrine of the deity. Throughout ancient art the portal is stressed above that of any other architectural feature, for it is through the portal that divine, and by analogy, royal figures emerge. . . . When the doors of the palace-shrine are thrown open at the appropriate moment, the theophany is made manifest” (p. 73). Indeed, there are synagogues in our time named “Gates of Heaven.”

This seal is related in iconography and name to Nos. 21 and 22. The letters are engraved around a portal to a castle, with what seems a portcullis above.* Within the doorway can be seen the front part of a bull, which somewhat resembles the man-headed bull shown on the famous tetradrachm (an ancient silver coin worth four drachms) from Gela, Sicily, dated in the fifth century B.C. Since the name, in armes parlantes fashion, seems to refer to the portal, and not to a place name, I have translated, as in the two earlier seals, “of the Portali” rather than “of Portali.”

This generic group of names could also derive from the arched portal so common to the entrance of the medieval synagogue, which was often built below ground level, with a series of steps leading beneath the portal to the place of worship. The recently excavated Academy of Rouen, in Normandy, was constructed in this manner. Perhaps these names were taken, in the vernacular, to indicate a religious person, a person who often frequented the synagogue. This piety in turn became associated with wisdom, and the tide pages of many of the first printed Jewish books show an arched doorway or portal inside which the tide of the book appears. Erwin R. Goodenough specifically relates the arched doorway on the seal of David son of Samuel/Mielet of the Portal to Torah shrines shown on ancient Jewish glass. Bernard Goldman goes farther in his interpretation of the arched doorway: his book The Sacred Portal, whose subject is the art and symbolism of the Beth Alpha mosaics, carries the revealing subtitle, “A Primary Symbol in Ancient Judaic Art.”* If Goldman’s interpretation is correct, these seals with the name and representation of a portal indicate the persistence of this symbol from ancient Near Eastern art continuing to illuminated manuscripts and the frontispieces of early Jewish printed books; it also manifests itself in the arch still used on Sephardic ketubot, or wedding contracts, and ritual objects.

Additional Information

ISBN
9780814344859
MARC Record
OCLC
1055142843
Pages
80-82
Launched on MUSE
2018-10-02
Open Access
Yes
Creative Commons
CC-BY-NC-SA
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