(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 Deposition of Christ is a theme often commissioned for altars, and one that is especially appropriate for Easter Week. In this example, Deposition From the Cross, a triptych rendered in oil on wood, we see the interaction of religious devotion, commerce and national ambition to define a moment in history. The artist was Ambrosius Benson, a resident of the Flemish city of Bruges. A great deal — perhaps most — of his production was destined for Spain because of the close commercial ties between the cloth-producing centers of Segovia and Bruges.
The subject represents Jesus Christ’s supreme sacrifice on the cross for the redemption of mankind. A sense of profound grief unites his followers as witnesses to the public spectacle of his execution. His mother, Mary, swoons with grief; his beloved apostle John supports her; and the repentant Mary Magdalene cries in anguish as the pious Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea gently lower him from the cross.
Two figures at the right, however, are not to be found in the biblical narrative. A sumptuously dressed Muslim man and a black man gaze up at the cross and make gestures of devotion. They represent the Gentiles, those outside the original covenant between God and his chosen people. Already, in the third century, the theologian Origen had stressed that the image of God resided in blackness, brought out by penitence and faith.
The Deposition marks a crucial juncture in Spanish history and culture. Several decades earlier, the famed Catholic monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella had joined their kingdoms to form the nucleus of modern Spain. The transformation brought with it a consolidation of religious orthodoxy fundamental to the national character. The presence of a black and a Muslim in the painting suggests the ardent desire of the Spanish monarchs to enforce their beliefs both at home and on the new populations of their rapidly expanding empire.
Blacks and Muslims had already experienced long and checkered fortunes in Spain, as is so vividly clear in medieval Spanish art. Their harmonious appearance within the new world order of the Deposition shows a degree of acquiescence far simpler than what would actually transpire. The sinister side of this idealism manifested in the politics of noninclusion, levied most clearly in the brutal practice of slavery and of religious intolerance, which led to the expulsion of Jews and Muslims from Spain.
A world of unimaginable complexity lay ahead for those who first stood before this painting, one that only now is coming into focus.
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.