Statue Captures a Black Saint’s Prominent Role

Image of the Week: St. Maurice, a Roman soldier of African origin, is depicted as the patron saint of the empire.

Cathedral of St. Maurice and St. Catherine, Magdeburg, Germany

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.

One of the most imposing sculptural monuments to the great black warrior-saint Maurice is found, not surprisingly, at the chief place of his veneration. Less expected, though, is the persistence of this august figure at a time when his traditional significance was undergoing a radical change.

The stirring characterization of the saint seen here forms an integral part of a magnificent pulpit adorned with carved alabaster reliefs. An architectural complex in itself, this brilliant ensemble is set within the immense space of Magdeburg cathedral, one of the great architectural landmarks of Germany. Its winding structure accommodates the massive vertical form of a stone pier in the nave of the church toward the choir.

Christoph Kapup, a highly talented but relatively little-studied representative of the German late Renaissance, carved the impressive structure between 1595 and 1597. His somewhat mannered style, characterized by an engaging play between ornament and content, typified much of European art produced just before the exuberant forms of Baroque expression revolutionized artistic expression across the continent.

The complex imagery of the pulpit presents a visual exposition on sin and salvation. Its balustrade is adorned with four large reliefs, each about one meter high, of principal figures of the Christian faith. From the left, John the Baptist represents the imminent appearance of Christ, who appears as the divine Redeemer on the next panel. The two following reliefs represent the patron saints of the cathedral, Saints Maurice and Catherine. The pulpit is roofed by an ornate structure surmounted by a double-headed eagle, symbol of the Holy Roman Empire.

St. Maurice, a Roman soldier of African origin said to have been martyred during the late third century at the Swiss town that bears his name today, is depicted with the accoutrements characterizing him as the patron saint of the empire. He holds a flag bearing the Christian cross and a shield emblazoned, once again, with the double-headed imperial eagle. These insignia had become an established part of the saint’s imagery at Magdeburg. A key trading city located in the Eastern German province of Saxony-Anhalt, Magdeburg had served as a rallying point of imperial interests since the time of Otto I in the 10th century. The most tangible manifestation of the emperor’s ambition for political power and expansion took the form of a religious cult dedicated to the saint. From its origin at Magdeburg, his veneration soon spread to other centers such as Prague. In a remarkable act of political and cultural self-identification, the imperial aspiration of a universal Christian realm became embodied in the figure of St. Maurice.

The better known 13th-century stone statue of St. Maurice, now located in the choir of the cathedral, represents a key shift in the representation of the saint. In this work of the high medieval period, Maurice is represented for the first time, as far as is known, as black. In many of the several hundred subsequent representations of the saint created during the medieval and Renaissance periods, Maurice is also shown with distinctively black features. The reason for this unusual, and wholly positive reference to an African figure has never been fully established, but his foreign aspect is usually taken as a symbol of imperial dominion over the whole Earth and its many peoples.

Kapup’s image of St. Maurice is part of a long tradition of the saint’s representation as co-patron of the cathedral. As a result of the tumultuous political and religious events of the 16th century, however, the relevance of Maurice within the spiritual consciousness of Northern Europe was profoundly altered. His figure on the pulpit stands at the crossroads between a fervently desired Christian ordinance of the world and the more quixotic nature of political reality.

The high point of the importance of St. Maurice within imperial politics and religion was reached in the early 16th century, during the tenure of Prince-Archbishop Albert of Brandenburg. Albert promoted the cult of Maurice to such a fervent extent that the finances of the archbishopric became dangerously strained. The means of payment for his grand display of devotion in part involved official practices severely criticized by reformers such as the young monk Martin Luther. Albert soon found himself in a fierce, ongoing struggle against forces both financial and ideological. Ultimately he was forced to resign his post as archbishop as the Protestant Reformation took hold around him. After his death in 1546, Magdeburg cathedral remained closed for more than 20 years.