An Image of Inclusion or Colonialism?

Image of the Week: The story of an Ethiopian's baptism is complicated by the era in which the illustration was created.

Baptism of the Ethiopian Eunuch. Book of Hours of Charles V,circa 1519. Vienna, Österreichische Nationalbibliothek.

(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.

Within the multitude of pages contained within an early modern prayer book is found a powerful image of inclusion, salvation and grace. This painted, or illuminated, page comes from a Book of Hours, a popular compilation of Catholic devotional prayers for the use of laymen. The book was illuminated by Flemish artists for Charles of Ghent, soon to be elected Holy Roman Emperor Charles V. This marvelous image functioned as a painted prayer, a visual invocation on the part of the emperor as he meditated on the accompanying text.

The fourth of the seven canonical hours of prayer, to be read at noon, focuses on the evangelization of the Christian message throughout the world by the agency of the Holy Spirit. The image chosen to illustrate this mission is the story of the baptism of the Ethiopian eunuch, related in Chapter 8 of the New Testament book Acts of the Apostles, verses 26-40.

In the account, the evangelist Philip has been instructed by the angel of the Lord to travel from Jerusalem south along a desert road to Gaza. There he encounters a high-ranking official, the treasurer of the ruler of Ethiopia, on his way home to Africa. As he rides in his chariot, he puzzles over the meaning of a passage from the book of the prophet Isaiah: “He was led as a sheep to the slaughter.”

In the background, Philip explains that this refers to the sacrifice of Christ on the cross for the sins of mankind. The crux of the story occurs in the foreground. After receiving instruction, the eunuch asks to stop at a pool of water, where he receives remission from sin through baptism.

The example of the Ethiopian eunuch resonates in multiple contexts, both ancient and modern, pagan and Christian. He came from Meroe, a great kingdom in Nubia, then known as Ethiopia. Located in present-day upper Egypt and lower Sudan, Meroe was ruled by the Candace, or queen mother of the royal line. If his story is to be taken as historical fact, the eunuch may well have been in the service of the powerful Candace Amanitare, the last of the great builders of Meroe.

Finally, there is the meaning that accrues to the representation of the black eunuch in the context of a work made for the Holy Roman Emperor. Since the time of Frederick the Great in the 13th century, black historical figures such as S. Maurice and Gregory the Moor had been adopted as symbols of imperial political ambition. The story of the eunuch of Meroe represents a similar concern for territorial expansion. In Christian theology he stands for the Gentiles — that is, the non-Israelite peoples of the Earth — who are to be converted to Christianity by evangelization.

The positive aspect of inclusion, however, is tinged with a horrible sense of irony in the case of the present image. The sinister practice of black African slavery was already well under way as Charles prayed from this book. When examined in its historical perspective, the illumination reveals the conflicted nature of early modern spiritual idealism as it collided with the harsh realities of European colonial interests.

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.