St. Moses the Black: A Colorful Life

Image of the Week: The treatment of the complicated man in this medieval work reflects the era.

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Abba Moses swimming across the Nile. Vitae Patrum, fol. 54v. Italy, 14th century, parchment. Vatican.

(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.

The life course of Abba Moses (or St. Moses the Black) runs the gamut from the utter degradation of sin to the exemplary life of a saint. He lived in Egypt during the fourth century, first as a recalcitrant servant, then as a notorious brigand and murderer, and finally as a holy man who inspired his fellow monks with his hard-won sanctity. Here he is seen in the first phase of his life, swimming across the Nile River with stolen sheep.

Because he was black, his story illuminates both the actual situation of race and the symbolic concept of blackness in their uneasy state of co-existence during the medieval period.

According to one account, while he was attending a council in his religious community of Scetis, certain elders loudly asked, "Why does this black man come among us?" The account states that this rebuke was made as a test, since his proclivity for violence before his conversion was well-known among the monks. His response: "I was grieved, but I kept my silence."

In another incident, Moses is being ordained into the priesthood. According to the story, the presiding archbishop observed as Moses was vested, "See, Abba Moses, now you are entirely white." Moses replied, "It is true of the outside, but what about Him who sees the inside?" Both men thus engage with the common medieval trope of black-white polarity to express the absolute contrast of sin and virtue respectively.

This remarkable manuscript is attributed by many scholars to a scriptorium in Sicily during the 14th century. The cosmopolitan culture created there by Frederick the Great in the previous century was fragile and imperfect, but its aftermath may yet have permitted the sympathetic depiction of a black man as an example of Europe's most cherished spiritual ideals. Sociologically, the case of Abba Moses is also a revealing summation of the medieval period's abiding obsessions: the black, the Other, the sinner, the dangerous.

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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