Black Saints, Martyrs -- and a Wise Man

Over the centuries, European artists depicted a variety of religious figures as African. The most famous examples: Christmas art of the Three Kings, or Magi. Many of these treasures can be found in "The Image of the Black in Western Art," co-edited by David Bindam and Henry Louis Gates Jr., editor-in-chief of The Root.

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It is something of a shock to discover that since classical antiquity, men and women of African descent have been a constant presence in European works of art. Just as startling, black people have often been depicted much more sympathetically than the historical relationship between sub-Saharan Africa and Europe would suggest.

While Africans were systematically enslaved in the Middle East and Europe from time immemorial, and in the New World from 1502 onward, in art they have often been presented as noble figures, even as gods and other mythic figures, and as saints and kings. The master-slave relation between Europeans and black Africans, it turns out, was just one theme among many others in Western art.

In the 1240s, St. Maurice, a third-century martyr, appears for the first time as a black saint in a magnificent marble figure in Magdeburg Cathedral in Germany. Over the next two centuries, the best artists in the region will continue to depict St. Maurice as a black saint. In the early 15th century, beginning also in Germany, artists began depicting one of the three Magi bearing gifts for the baby Jesus as a dignified and splendidly dressed black monarch. He presents myrrh to the Christ Child, representing the hoped-for conversion of the whole of black Africa by the Christian religion.

There are also other biblical subjects, like the Baptism of the Ethiopian, that are treated by artists dating back to the early 16th century and continuing with Rembrandt in the 17th century. The Queen of Sheba is also occasionally represented as black, as in an astonishing Bohemian miniature of circa 1400, which depicts her with black skin and blond hair, while Zipporah, Moses' Ethiopian wife, was the subject of a lovely painting by the 17th-century Antwerp artist Jacob Jordaens.

Of course, black people also appear in other, less elevated roles, such as slaves and personal servants to wealthy people whose social status their presence is meant to complement or enhance. Sometimes they were studied as subjects in paintings simply for their own sake. Canonical painters such as Memling, Bosch, Durer, Rembrandt and Rubens clearly found them fascinating, either as unusual subject matter or as exotic individuals. This enormous archive of visual evidence attests to the remarkable fluidity and complexity of relations between black people and white people through 4,000 years of world civilization.

"The Image of the Black in Western Art" archive, located at the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research at Harvard, has collected, incredibly, 26,000 images of black people in Western art from the times of the ancient Egyptians through the 20th century. Spectacular illustrations of black subjects are included in all four books that we have published so far, which take the story up to the end of the 17th century. The next four volumes, which are due out next year from Harvard University Press, will bring this fascinating story up to the present day.

David Bindman and Henry Louis Gates Jr., The Root's editor-in-chief, are co-general editors of The Image of the Black in Western Art. Four of 10 projected volumes are now available at Amazon.com and other booksellers. Selected Christmas images from the book can be seen here on The Root.

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