Positive Treatment of Blacks in Medieval Art?

Image of the Week: The representation of blacks in scenes of the Last Judgment was quite uncommon in the Middle Ages. This might be the only example.

Resurrection of the Dead, fragment of a lintel from the Cathedral of Notre-Dame, circa 1220-1230. Musée de Cluny, Paris.
Resurrection of the Dead, fragment of a lintel from the Cathedral of Notre-Dame, circa 1220-1230. Musée de Cluny, Paris.

(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.

One of the chief treasures of the National Museum of the Middle Ages, or the Musée de Cluny, in Paris is a finely carved stone panel containing several figures in high relief. The forms are broadly conceived but with great invention of detail and characterization. The central figure at the top is a black man, clearly distinguished by his African features. As is true with most sculpture of the medieval period, his figure would once have been painted, and so he would have stood out all the more from those around him.

Still impressive in its now-fragmentary state, the relief once adorned one of the greatest examples of French medieval architecture. It was a key element of a vast monumental sculptural ensemble surrounding the central portal of the west façade, or entrance, of Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris. The figures seen here are from the upper-left area of a lintel — that is, a horizontal structural element — set above the massive double doors of the portal. In an act of willful destruction that seems incomprehensible today, the central part of the lintel was cut out in the 18th century to allow a large shrine containing the Holy Sacrament to pass into the cathedral. A rather inexpressive 19th-century restoration now takes its place.

According to medieval scholastic thought, the church represented a vision of heaven on earth. A wealth of imagery, both in stained glass and in stone, had recently evolved to articulate this splendid vision of paradise. All of the major Christian theological concepts were given visual expression in an effulgence of motives, many of which are still familiar today. The lintel formed the lowest element of a theme of the greatest meaning for the Christian faithful.

The standard subject of the central portal of the medieval cathedral was the Last Judgment, since its doors symbolized the path to salvation. As an angel sounds the trumpet of the Resurrection, the dead rise out of their tombs to be judged by Christ for their sins. Dressed in a simple, lightly pleated garment, the black man seems to float free from the rectangular form of his coffin. His reanimation is powerfully expressed by the resolute turn of his head and expectant upward gaze. 

The representation of blacks in scenes of the Last Judgment is rare in medieval art, and in fact this relief seems to be the only example. Even more remarkably, the treatment of the black man is positive. Although we do not know his eventual fate, the fact that he is presented as a human being, and one who has a soul as well, bestows upon him a tacitly expressed equality among his fellow men. This is all the more notable because previously, blacks, or at least blackness, had usually stood for the demonic and oppressive aspect of the Christian spiritual experience. The black was the ultimate dreaded outsider, and often enough continued to perform ignominious tasks on church façades, such as the beheading of saints. 

In the other parts of Europe ruled by the Holy Roman Empire, positive black identities were beginning to emerge for exemplary figures such as the Queen of Sheba, St. Maurice and the black wise man at the birth of Jesus. There is something fascinating, however, about the representation of “ordinary” blacks in European areas outside the imperial zone. From them we may more easily conjure the vast number of real black people whose lands and personalities Europeans were just beginning to be acquainted with through expanding waves of trade and conquest during this period.

Shifts in cultural paradigms occasioned a greater willingness to include all people within the Christian community. Theologians and reformers from Gilbert de la Porrée to Francis of Assisi had stressed the universal nature of humanity. This of course was not a wholly altruistic urge but nevertheless denoted a basic degree of acceptance of the “other” not evident before. With blacks at least ideally included as followers of Christ, the vision of a truly ecumenical world may have seemed close at hand. 

Sadly, such idealism bore little real fruit. Internal turmoil in Europe and a more aggressive age of exploration prevented the realization of a vision like that emulated by Francis. The institution of slavery effectively removed the black man from his position on the ideal relief of humanity, yielding once more to the goal of inclusion only after a seemingly interminable time in bondage.

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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