Black Moors: A Complicated Portrayal

Image of the Week: A painting mirrors the religious struggles that transformed Spain in the Middle Ages.

Altarpiece panel, scenes from life of St. Dominic. Tempera, 102 by 188 cm, ca. 1400 (Museo de Bellas Artes, Bilbao, 69/257)
Altarpiece panel, scenes from life of St. Dominic. Tempera, 102 by 188 cm, ca. 1400 (Museo de Bellas Artes, Bilbao, 69/257)

(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 history of black people in Spain forms a unique part of the diasporic experience of sub-Saharan Africa. Long before the advent of the transatlantic slave trade in the Iberian Peninsula, blacks had crossed the narrow strait between North Africa and Spain. No doubt present to some extent during Roman and Visigothic times, they arrived in much greater numbers as part of the Muslim conquest of Spain in the early eighth century. There they entered into an especially checkered relationship with the remaining Christian powers, being perceived as a threatening foreign presence because of their race as well as their Islamic faith. It is perhaps in Spain that the personification of the black as demonic threat first entered the consciousness of medieval Christian Europe.

In this image the black Moor takes center stage in a drama that epitomizes his position during the turbulent events of the Christian reconquest of Spain. The episode represents one of four scenes from the life of St. Dominic of Silos that flank his enthroned image on an altarpiece painted around 1400.

A reforming abbot and miracle worker, Dominic lived during the 11th century, at a time when relations between Christians and Muslims were becoming more adversarial. His life coincided both geographically and temporally with the Christian recovery of Muslim Spain. The movement was centered in the kingdom of Castile, where Silos is located, and began in earnest when Dominic was still a young man.

This scene relates one of Dominic’s posthumous interventions on behalf of Christian prisoners. Only recently has the nature of the story been clarified. According to the account, Dominic heard the pleas for help directed to him by a man taken captive in North Africa. The man had been chained and placed in a stone chest by his owner, a black Moor. For the sake of narrative clarity and emphasis, the artist has shown not one but two bound men behind the chest.

To guard the chest, the Moor placed on its top a hen and rooster and a dog, and finally lay down himself on it to keep vigil, falling asleep as night came on. Instead of immediately freeing the prisoner, Dominic miraculously took the chest and all of its occupants across the Mediterranean to his monastery, placing it down in front of the church. When the bells for the first prayer of the day sounded, the Moor awoke and the man was freed.

From the point of view of the promoters of the Spanish reconquest, the situation turns out well for all. Not only does the captive Christian regain his freedom, but the Moor is also converted to Christianity. Even the chickens undergo a conversion — in this case with racial overtones — producing an enduring progeny with white feathers and yellow legs.

After his death in 1073, Dominic became known as a great advocate for the not uncommon plight of Christians captured by the Moors and was adopted as a national saint by the kings of his native Castile. More than 300 rescues of captured Christians are attributed to Dominic, many supposedly based on statements made by the redeemed themselves when they visited the saint’s tomb at his monastery in Silos.

In these redemption stories, the Moor was regarded as the ultimate enemy, whose hold on Spanish territory was to be broken at all costs. Although Moors were not considered black per se, in the case of the present image they could certainly be represented as such. The black Moor in this story occupies a compromised position within the political and religious struggles that were transforming Spain during the Middle Ages. Initially seen as a figure of evil, he gains some degree of acceptance through his conversion to Christianity. His recumbent pose here is a convenient metaphor for the suspended state of agency faced by blacks as the situation in Spain moved from tolerance under Muslim rule to a much more tentative inclusion in societies governed by Christian monarchs.

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.