The Black Wife of Moses

Image of the Week: The 1650 depiction of the biblical figure's spouse is among the first of its kind.

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Jacob Jordaens, Moses and his Ethiopian wife, circa 1650. Oil on canvas, 46 1/16 x 41 3/4 inches. Antwerp, Rubenshuis.

(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.

In an artistic period known for its overpowering assertion of religious orthodoxy, certain works stand out for their simplicity and frankness of presentation. Jacob Jordaens, an associate of the greatest Flemish master of the 17th century, Peter Paul Rubens, certainly created his share of complex dogmatic statements. Occasionally, however, he felt compelled to make a more personal rendering of these public assertions of divine authority. His modestly scaled painting of Moses and his Ethiopian Wife is a prime example of this other side of his work.

The stone tablet held by the patriarchal figure in the painting makes his identification as Moses clear enough, but the relationship between him and the black woman standing some distance behind has not been so easy to interpret. Modern scholarship has now convincingly identified her as the Ethiopian wife of Moses. Because the wife of Moses rarely appears in art, the long process of recovery of her identity is understandable. Jordaens had no clear iconographical tradition to draw from when he depicted the wife of Moses as black.

The conflation of remarkable qualities possessed by the Ethiopian wife: Her royal status, race and distant origins led to her association with other great women associated with blackness in the Bible -- notably the queen of Sheba and the bride in the Song of Songs. In Christian interpretation (particularly Origen), these women symbolized the establishment of Ecclesia, the Church of the Gentiles, fulfilling the prophecy in Psalm 67 (Latin Vulgate version): "Ethiopia shall soon stretch forth her hands to God." In Christian typology, Moses becomes Christ, his wife the church. Implicit in this representation as well is the notion of racial and social equality.

The noble race of Moses' wife was also being stressed by others when Jordaens was painting her image. Alonso de Sandoval, a Jesuit priest who sought not only the spiritual conversion of blacks to Christianity but also their freedom from slavery, included her in a compendium of pious Ethiopian Christians published in 1627.

The modest format and recondite theme of Moses and His Ethiopian Wife are ideally suited for private meditation. Jordaens most likely painted this picture as a personal spiritual exercise, either for himself or for someone with whose inner life he was well-acquainted. Race, religion and art thus come together in a way informed by the intimacy of individual contemplation. In this most personal of means, the image of the Ethiopian wife entered the European consciousness.

For further reading: Elizabeth McGrath, "Jacob Jordaens and Moses's Ethiopian Wife," in Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, vol. 70 (2007): 247-85.

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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