Why One of the Wise Men Is Black

Image of the Week: In the first of two takes on the Adoration of the Magi, a Renaissance painting highlights the evolving view of blackness.

Hieronymus Bosch, Adoration of the Magi. Triptych, oil on panel, circa 1510, 138 by 72 cm. 
Hieronymus Bosch, Adoration of the Magi. Triptych, oil on panel, circa 1510, 138 by 72 cm.  Prado Museum, Madrid

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.

In this intriguing evocation of a time-honored Christian theme, three kingly figures pay homage to the newly born Christ child. According to the biblical account in the Book of Matthew, these are the Magi, or wise men, who have followed a star from the East to find the birthplace of Jesus. In later tradition they are also described as kings of the principal regions of the world.

Their arrival at the stable represents the event of Epiphany, the manifestation of the long-prophesized salvation of mankind through the incarnation of God on Earth. The event occurred by tradition 12 days after the actual birth of Jesus and is celebrated by the Western Christian church on Jan. 6.

An older man kneels in prayer, his golden gift placed before the Virgin Mary. It consists not of the usual chest of coins, but a precious metalwork-statue group representing the sacrifice of Isaac. A key event of the Old Testament, it prefigures the crucifixion of Christ. Standing beside the old king, his middle-aged companion offers a paten bearing frankincense, an aromatic resin traditionally offered to the pagan gods but now intended for the son of the true God.

A few paces behind these figures stands a black man clad fully in white raiment. His marvelous robes feature long, fully cut sleeves with prominent pendant tassels. The collar and shoulders are decorated with a cut-work thorn motif. The man holds a round pyx, or lidded vessel, containing myrrh, the precious ointment reserved for the preparation of kings for burial. The container is decorated with a shallow relief depicting figures rendering homage to the biblical King David. Similar to the role of the older man’s gift, the relief foreshadows the advent of Christ, in this case the theme of the Adoration of the Magi itself.

Behind the black wise man stands an androgynous young attendant wearing a red robe and fanciful headdress made of a sprig of leaves and a small red fruit. The figure holds the crown of the young Magus firmly against the chest. One of the most affecting parts of the painting is the little vignette of the figure’s head seen in profile against the wall of the stable. Just inside the building stands a mysterious figure, sometimes identified as the Old Testament prophet Balaam, a forerunner of the Magi in that he predicted the advent of Christ.

The altarpiece was painted by Hieronymus Bosch, a South Netherlandish painter about whom very little is known. Popular in his own day, he lived in the city of ‘s-Hertogenbosch, Netherlands, his birthplace and a center of learning that attracted notable scholars like Erasmus of Rotterdam.

Little is known about the origin of the painting itself. Its relatively large size, about 4-and-a-half feet high, suggests that it was commissioned for a church or perhaps a large family chapel. The wings, or side pieces, of the altarpiece represent the two donors, Peter Bronkhorst and Agnes Bosshuys, with their patron saints. The painting was later acquired by King Philip II of Spain, who kept it in his austere palace-monastery of El Escorial. In the 19th century, it was transferred to its present location at the Prado Museum in Madrid.

Bosch’s panel represents one of the most evocative scenes of the Adoration of the Magi ever painted. He presents with great subtlety the momentous transition from one age of human history to another. The story of the kings had grown from the simplest of accounts in the gospel of Matthew to encompass a rich web of cultural, ethical and geographical associations.