The 1st Black Man to See the Baby Jesus

100 Amazing Facts About the Negro: What do we really know about Balthasar’s origins?

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But Germany is the birthplace of the tradition of depicting one of the Magi as a black African, just as it was the source of the transformation of St. Maurice, the Egyptian martyr and our first black saint. A black man began to appear in German heraldic depictions of the coats of arms of the Three Kings in 1370, but it was not until the year 1437 that Balthasar was clearly represented in a work of art as a black man: Hans Multscher's Wurzach altarpiece. In other words, Balthasar became definitively black between about 1370 and 1437.

By the 1400s, the identity of one of the Magi as a black African had become widely accepted throughout Christendom, in part because of the increasing contact between Europeans and Africans in the latter half of the 15th century, especially the growth of the slave trade. As Kaplan puts it in his book, "By 1500, the story of the Magi in art constituted the preeminent means of integrating the inhabitants of the non-European world into the Western Christian universe. Still associated with Prester John [legendary king of the Ethiopians and discoverer of the Fountain of Youth], the black King was too useful to be discarded. The black Magus/King was a predominantly positive character entwined in a web of attitudes which could damage as well as support the position of black people in European society."

Merry Christmas, everyone!

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Henry Louis Gates Jr. is the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and founding director of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard University. He is also editor-in-chief of The Root. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.