(The Root) — This image is part of a weekly series that The Root is presenting in conjunction with the Image of the Black in Western Art Archive at Harvard University’s W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research.
According to tradition, Maurice was a Roman soldier who was martyred for the Christian faith in the late third century. By the early 10th century, he had become the patron saint of the Holy Roman Empire. His military prowess and stalwart faith exemplified the twin goals of territorial conquest and religious conversion fired by imperial ambition. The personification of the empire by a black man reveals a relative lack of racial prejudice in Europe before the onset of the slave trade. Just as significantly, it relates to the multifaceted ethnicity of the empire, with its face set toward far-off lands.
The work represented here depicts the saint as a life-size reliquary made from a real suit of armor and holding an actual flag, sword and ostrich-plumed hat. It was commissioned by Albert of Brandenburg, archbishop of Magdeburg, the center of the cult of St. Maurice in Germany. After an existence of less than 20 years, this marvelous object was melted down to relieve the massive debt incurred by the archbishop in his crusade against the rising tide of Protestantism.
The Image of the Black in Western Art Archive resides at Harvard University’s W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research. The director of the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute is Henry Louis Gates Jr., who is also The Root’s editor-in-chief. The archive and Harvard University Press collaborated to create The Image of the Black in Western Art book series, eight volumes of which were edited by Gates and David Bindman and published by Harvard University Press. Text for each Image of the Week is written by Sheldon Cheek.