How a Black Wise Man’s Pious Act Relates to Slavery

Image of the Week: In a second version of the Adoration of the Magi, a submissive gesture alludes to the abolitionist movement taking place in Europe. 

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CaminadeAdoration of the Magiv2
Alexandre-François Caminade, Adoration of the Magi, 1831. Oil on canvas, 287 by 475 cm.

St. Etienne-du-Mont, Paris

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.

Editor’s note: For the Image of the Week column on the Renaissance version of the Adoration of the Magi, click here. 

This imposing treatment of the Adoration of the Magi was commissioned for the majestic parish church of St. Etienne-du-Mont in Paris. The church houses the relics of St. Genevieve, an early medieval martyr and the patron saint of Paris. Two of France’s great secular sons, the poet Racine and the renowned natural philosopher Pascal, are also buried in places of honor nearby.

The Adoration of the Magi forms part of a cycle of large canvases dedicated to the life of Mary. In it Caminade has depicted the manifestation of the infant Christ to the three wise men from the East. Later in Christian tradition, these rather exotic sages were also characterized as the kings of the known world.

The painting is placed in a monumental setting along the curved walls of a chapel opening off the ambulatory of the choir. Perhaps begun as early as 1829, it was exhibited in 1831 at the Paris Salon, the annual official art exhibition of the French state and the most sought-after venue by artists in the country.

Caminade was well-established in his career when he painted this picture. Trained in the mainstream of official French art during one of its richest and most turbulent periods, he had thoroughly absorbed the tenets of the dominant neoclassical style as a pupil of the illustrious painter Jacques-Louis David. He also studied at the prestigious École des Beaux-Arts in Paris and won the coveted Rome Prize, a student competition that allowed him to perfect his skills in the tradition of the Italian masters.

The Adoration of the Magi takes place in a simple setting defined by the high stone wall of a once-magnificent building. In the Christian understanding of the theme, the wall represents the old dispensation of God’s law, to be replaced by the new age of grace brought about by the birth of Jesus. Caminade has dispensed with the extensive landscape views and surfeit of detail that often appear in scenes of the Adoration of the Magi in order to emphasize the solemn conclusion of the journey of the wise men.

A strong raking light dramatically illuminates the sacred event. The compositional syntax of the scene is provided by the clear diagonal arrangement of the principal figures. In the upper-left foreground, the viewer follows Joseph’s downward gaze toward the elderly wise man’s bestowal of the first gift to the Christ child. Dressed in green and wearing a delicately patterned turban, he offers the infant an open golden vessel. The second king stands behind his fellow travelers. He is dressed in a robe and long, flowing mantle and holds a covered vessel.

Anchoring the triangular foreground group is the figure of the black king, traditionally the youngest of the three. He has prostrated himself before the child, his face to the ground. Beside him lies an elaborately worked golden casket, its lid slightly open. Just behind him kneels a member of his retinue, a black man who gazes intently toward the mother and child, his hand raised in wonder at the miraculous event. His other hand rests on the edge of a large chest containing a variety of sumptuous textiles.

One of the most striking aspects of Caminade’s Adoration of the Magi is the novel placement of the black king within the group. He does not stand aligned with the others, as is usually the case, but throws himself before the Christ child just as the elderly magus offers his gift. This compositional innovation introduces an intriguing alternative interpretation of the age-old theme. The usual sequence of the kings’ obeisance, arranged in order of age, seems supplanted here by the black king’s act of spontaneous recognition of the divine presence before him. The traditional protocol has been ignored, though as rendered here, it is in no way disruptive.

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