Blacks Leading the Wise Men

Image of the Week: In this iconic relief of The Adoration of the Magi, we see people of African descent in a new light.

Nicola Pisano, black camel drivers in the cortege of the Magi, relief on a pulpit (detail), 1266-68, marble. Siena Cathedral.
Nicola Pisano, black camel drivers in the cortege of the Magi, relief on a pulpit (detail), 1266-68, marble. Siena Cathedral.

(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 Adoration of the Magi is one of the most enduring images in Christian art. It not only evokes the prospect of spiritual salvation but also expresses the universal bond between mother and child. Originally treated quite reductively, the representation of this theme became ever more inclusive as its interpretive context expanded during the Middle Ages.

In this carved-relief panel, seen here in a detail, the image of the black makes an appearance of signal importance. He appears for perhaps the first time in a positive role, edging aside the lugubrious stereotype of the black demon or executioner that had obsessed the European mind to this point.

The relief was produced for the pulpit of Siena Cathedral, one of the architectural jewels of central Italy, just after the middle of the 13th century. Its creator was Nicola Pisano, a sculptor instrumental in the development of Italian sculpture of the early Renaissance. In all there were seven panels surrounding the raised lectern where key texts from the Bible were read to the congregation. The Adoration of the Magi is the second in the series, following The Nativity, or actual birth of Jesus. The group ends with panels representing the fate of the blessed and the damned at the Last Judgment.

The detail shows two middle-aged black servants riding on camels. They lead the procession of the wise men, or Magi, who have journeyed from the East to honor the birth of Jesus. The story is told in two parts, seen within the same composition in a technique known as continuous narration. Above the black riders, the Magi appear again, this time dismounted and offering their presents before the Christ Child.

The two men wear elaborately worked tunics and are seated on richly figured boxlike platforms. The rider in the foreground sits with his legs crossed, both feet placed on the camel’s neck. This particular manner of riding, and the convincing forward lurch of the man’s head, convey a convincing impression of travel on the back of one of these exotic beasts and must have been observed from life. The rendering of the facial features of both men — particularly the sagging flesh under the neck of the rear rider — also project a lifelike sense bordering on portraiture.

The magnificent ensemble of the pulpit reliefs required only two years to complete. Three members of Pisano’s shop, including his son Giovanni, assisted him in the monumental task. The highly original works produced by the Pisano family for Pisa, Siena and other cities founded the great tradition of central Italian sculpture, an artistic current later given further impetus by Michelangelo. The artist’s origins, however, lay a good distance farther south. He came from the region of Apulia in the heel of Italy and possibly received his artistic training in one of the workshops set up in the region by the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick the Great.