Queen of Sheba: Black and Beautiful

Image of the Week: But it seems her rich brown skin color was added after the illustration was drawn.

Anonymous (Bohemia), Queen of Sheba.
Illustration in Bellifortis by Conrad of Kyeser; before 1405.

(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.

This manuscript was made for the court of Emperor Wenceslaus IV of Bohemia, where Conrad of Kyeser served as a physician. The Queen of Sheba appears here as a conflation of two passages in the Old Testament of the Bible, one quasi-historical, the other metaphorical. The account of her voyage from Sheba to Jerusalem to visit King Solomon is found in 1 Kings. She has also been identified as the ideal bride in the Song of Songs, traditionally attributed to Solomon. There she describes herself: "I am black, but beautiful, O ye daughters of Jerusalem."

Her depiction as a black woman in art derives from the political and religious ideals of the Holy Roman Empire during the Middle Ages. Among her many attributes was that of the guide to Christ for the Gentiles (non-Christians, in this case). Here the queen is dressed in the height of late-Gothic fashion, wearing an elegant, ermine-trimmed gown with long, flowing sleeves. Her long, blond hair forms a striking contrast with her extremely dark skin. On technical grounds it appears that this color was added later, covering a much lighter complexion. In the Latin inscription below her, she is not explicitly described as black but, rather, more obliquely, as a shrouded countenance suddenly revealed by bright light. In this example, the medieval typology of the Queen of Sheba as a black woman has been emphatically retained just as it was otherwise declining in European art.

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.

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