(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 Research Institute, part of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research.
This chilling scene of martyrdom comes from a lavishly illustrated menologion, a calendar of saints whose lives and deeds are celebrated on their feast days by the Eastern Orthodox Church. It was painted around the year 1000 by artists working under the patronage of the Byzantine Emperor Basil II in the capital city of Constantinople, now Istanbul.
The western portion of the Roman Empire had long since vanished, but its legacy in the eastern regions had remained intact. The menologion provides a splendid example of the major political and artistic high point of Byzantine culture known as the Macedonian Renaissance. The artist’s name, Pantoleon, appears to the left of the image.
The scene represents the martyrdom in the fourth century of a large number of Christian hermits at Raithu, a monastic settlement on the west coast of the Sinai Peninsula. The classic account of this and other attacks on desert monastic communities comes from the relatio, or report, of the Egyptian monk Ammonius, who purportedly witnessed the massacre.
According to his account, the raiders, aroused by God to attack the settlement, suddenly appeared and began killing the monks. Their depredations were frustrated by the absolute poverty of the fathers and by the terrifying spectacle of a burning cloud that formed over nearby Mount Sinai. Chastened, they then prayed to the monks for salvation.
Several slain monks lie in the right foreground. Their halos denote their status as martyrs of the faith. Two of the raiders attack them with swords. Three other armed men approach from the left, one of whom thrusts his weapon at a pair of monks standing before him. The head of a man, perhaps Ammonius himself, observes the scene from behind the apse of the church at the far right.
One of the most remarkable features of the scene is the carefully observed ethnicity of the attackers. All five are dark-skinned but otherwise are rendered as two quite distinct types. The reddish-brown complexion of the two men on either side of the standing monks is noticeably lighter than that of the others, whose skin is fully black. In addition, the black-skinned figures have negroid facial features, whereas the others have more oval head shapes and aquiline noses characteristic — in art, at least — of the nonblack populations of the ancient world.
Of primary interest here is the identity of the black figures in the scene. Most accounts of the attacks on Raithu attribute the monks’ martyrdom to the Blemmyes, members of a nomadic tribe feared in the Greco-Roman period of Egypt as marauders, much as the Huns or Vandals aroused panic when they confronted the Western Roman Empire at about the same time.
By implication, at least, the Blemmyes were considered dark-skinned by ancient Greek and Roman authors, since they are always characterized as inhabitants of lower Nubia, an area situated in present-day southern Egypt. The black-skinned figures in the illumination would therefore represent Blemmyes, while those with lighter skin perhaps are Saracens, an Arabic people also involved in these raids.