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.

Though German, Frederick preferred to base his court in Sicily. While his northern holdings gradually slipped from his grasp, the affairs of his southern Italian kingdom flourished in an attitude of tolerance of other religions and cultures. Frederick created a vibrant imperial government, renowned for its sophisticated manners, art and efficient bureaucracy, from the rich heritage of those who had ruled the region before him.

Whether at home or on one of his frequent travels throughout his realms, Frederick surrounded himself with the trappings of a far-flung empire. His extensive menagerie included giraffes and camels, and his court featured a truly cosmopolitan mix of Arabs, blacks and Jews. Above all, however, the black presence held a special significance for Frederick. His adoption of a clearly black St. Maurice as the patron saint of the empire is generally taken as a concrete symbol of universal rule.

The completion of the pulpit reliefs in Siena coincides precisely with the extinction of Frederick the Great’s dynasty, and with it the end of his grand imperial aspirations. Still, in the exotic panoply of the arrival of the Magi, with its camel-riding black men, Pisano’s relief seems imprinted by the flavor of the great ruler’s Italian court. One is also reminded of subsequent imperial houses’ adoption of the Magian theme as a means to reinforce the legitimacy of their own rule.

The relief marks a key point in the acceptance of the image of the other during the medieval period. The identification of a black king among the Magi, or wise men, in exegetical literature of the same period was followed by his actual depiction in art.

The presence of blacks in Pisano’s relief foreshadows the magnificent images of the black king in works by the masters of the Renaissance and Baroque periods. Yet these camel drivers occupy a place of honor here as leaders of the kings’ cortege. Even though the image of the black would, in coming centuries, again suffer ignominious treatment, the place of people of African descent as a functioning part of the Western vision of the world could never be revoked.

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.