(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.
A scene of suffering answered by charity takes place in a crude dwelling, engendering a moving tableau between the humble and the exalted in the city of Boston. This work in plaster served as the model for a bronze panel on the base of a monument to the Catholic priest Jean-Louis Lefebvre de Cheverus (1768-1836), erected in his hometown of Mayenne, France.
Cheverus’ emerging clerical career in France was cut short by the French Revolution. In 1796, while in exile in Great Britain, he was appointed to undertake missionary work in New England. He became the first Catholic bishop of Boston in 1810 and was later elevated to the rank of cardinal.
Four reliefs on the base of the monument celebrate the popular clergyman’s renowned piety and devotion to the poor. The scenes depict his mission to the Native Americans, his benevolence toward the ailing wife of an absent sailor, his prayer for the rescue of his ship at sea and, as seen here, his solicitude for a poor, bedridden man. The striking examples of Cheverus’ charity depicted on the monument are taken from a popular biography published by a colleague shortly after his death.
According to this source, Cheverus heard of a black man lying ill and neglected in a shack along one of Boston’s main thoroughfares. He hastened to the man’s side and then faithfully came early every morning to light a fire, dress his sores and make sure he was comfortable for the rest of the day. Overcome by curiosity, his servant followed him one day and is seen here peeking through the door at the right.
The bishop holds the black man in an act exemplary of Jesus’ parable to his disciples regarding compassion for the unfortunate (Matthew 25:35-36): “I was naked and you clothed me, ill and you cared for me … ” The Christian content of the benevolent act is made explicit by the interaction of the two men.
As Cheverus wraps the black man’s arm, the afflicted man gazes upward into the eyes of his benefactor, his lips nearly touching the cross suspended before him. The motive of salvation, defined by its air of intense devotion, may be seen simply as a demonstration of Cheverus’ universal charity but also recalls the passive depiction of blacks in contemporary anti-slavery imagery.
Cheverus was active in Boston amid a growing climate of abolitionism and black self-agency. Most of the notable advances in the social and legal status of blacks resulted from the resolute self-determination of the African-American citizenry.
The African Meeting House was founded in 1806 by several prominent blacks who were dissatisfied with their religious experience in white congregations. During the latter half of the 1820s, David Walker, a pioneering abolitionist, rejected all affronts to his race, taking Thomas Jefferson to task for his racist views of blacks and urging fellow blacks into action against slavery and discrimination.