“Smitten by Catherine”: A book review by Ron Jontof-Hutter
Henry Lew has written a colourful book about Catherine da Costa bringing to life the times in which she lived and describing her world in interesting and compelling detail.
Catherine’s family originally came from Trancoso in Portugal, which had a Jewish community that tried to survive as crypto-Jews. Subjected to the Inquisition, public burning at the stake and autos da fe, many fled. Under these circumstances, Catherine’s family eventually came to England after Cromwell allowed Jews to be readmitted in 1656, following their expulsion by Edward l in 1290.
Catherine was born in 1679—the same year that political philosopher and liberal thinker, Thomas Hobbes died She is remembered as the first English Jewish artist and certainly the first Jewish woman artist whose paintings have survived.
Catherine was a pupil of the famous Bernard Lens and her copy of Lens’ painting “The Victorious Hero Takes Occasion to Conclude Peace,” adorns the front cover of Lew’s book. Her father was Dr Fernando Mendes, physician to King Charles ll and Queen Catherine de Braganza, which suggests she lived a privileged lifestyle.
Lew describes in considerable detail, Catherine’s complex world. He delves into her family tree, which, as her name suggests is Sephardic. She married her cousin, Anthony Moses da Costa, a wealthy merchant.
That Jews were permitted to return to England, was in no small measure due to the tireless efforts of Madeira born Manasseh Ben Israel whose family had fled to Amsterdam. Being very prominent in the Jewish community, Rembrandt etched his portrait in 1636.
Manasseh’s book, “The Hope of Israel,” was widely read by educated people in England. In the book, he observed that countries tolerant of Jews also flourished economically. As Herzl would do some 260 years later, Manasseh had tried to find a solution to counteract the Augustinian concept of the oppressed homeless Jew and had reminded the Council of State in Whitehall that Jews always displayed civic loyalty. Like Herzl, Manasseh was a man of grandiose vision, but at the time had to accept less favourable terms for Jews to be accepted, such as being allowed to pray according to Jewish rites in the privacy of their own homes.
It was in this England that Catherine was raised. She would have experienced many contradictions in English society. On the one hand she would have been exposed to the operas and Old Testament themed oratorios of contemporary George Frederick Handel. On the other hand she would have been aware of the deist movement and the belief that it was part of a Jewish anti-Christian conspiracy. Catherine would have read about the Enlightenment philosophers Locke and Hume. She would also have been aware that Jews tended to hide their Jewish identities and that intermarriage and conversion were common, allowing access to British institutions. Moreover, Catherine would have witnessed impoverished Sephardic Jews fleeing persecution from the Iberian Peninsula and Ashkenazi Jews fleeing Central and Eastern Europe, come to England, where they tried to make a living as street vendors. These poor Jews would often become the subject of antisemitic stereotypes. It was from this community that Dickens a century later, would maliciously create Fagin in his Oliver Twist while Esther Abrahams would be transported to Australia as a convict.
Catherine paintings therefore provide fascinating testimony that she lived a very different life to the average Jew in England. Her self-portrait of 1720 shows a confident and attractive well-dressed woman at the easel, while the portrait of her father, Dr Fernando Mendes in 1721, depicts a lavishly dressed gentleman in a wig, standing beside a well-stocked bookcase and elegant furniture. Similarly, her portraits of her son Abraham da Costa 1714 and of London merchant Francis Jacob Salvador, as well as her Double Portrait of Two Children point to Catherine’s social circle, and opulent lifestyle.
Catherine’s paintings are not only delightful to behold, but her story is indispensable to an understanding of the complex times as a Jew, in which she lived. In this respect, the diary of Gluckel of Hamelin can be seen as complementary to an understanding of that era.
Having myself visited Catherine’s original family village of Trancoso, and seen its charm, narrow lanes and medieval beauty, made the book especially interesting. A new Jewish cultural centre has been established there. Near the entrance to the new Beit Mayim Hayim Synagogue, the names of those punished by the Inquisition and burned at the nearby stake , are listed on a memorial wall. Many of these Anusim ( a term I prefer to Marranos) were young teenagers making it all the more poignant and emotive.
Catherine’s family story is therefore all the more vivid and remarkable.
Lew’s warm account of Catherine and beautifully reproduced paintings make for a notable book.
Ron Jontof-Hutter is a Fellow at the Berlin International Center for the Study of Antisemitism and the author of the satire,”The trombone man: tales of a misogynist.”