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

When the cathedral was reopened in 1567, the chapter, or governing body of the church, was no longer a Catholic authority, but was constituted instead by a majority of Lutheran clergymen. Kapup’s image of St. Maurice, therefore, was created at a very different period in the history of the archbishopric of Magdeburg. The city and its territory were no longer ruled by the religious authority of the prince-archbishop, but rather by a lay administrator.

The theological meaning of the pulpit reflects the significant changes brought about by the advent of the Lutheran faith, including the notion of sainthood itself. As a result, while the external image of St. Maurice remained unchanged, his former relevance as a divine intercessor and symbol of imperial authority were greatly diminished. The cathedral remained dedicated to St. Maurice and St. Catherine, as Lutheranism did not expressly reject their established place in heaven. As titular patrons of the cathedral, however, they are brought closer to the general community of the Christian faithful. They are honored, but not truly venerated; that is, they are not regarded as intercessors mediating between the faithful and Christ.

The relationship of St. Maurice at Magdeburg to the imperial cause also underwent substantial changes due to the political turmoil caused by the Reformation. His relevance as the symbol of a universal Christian empire was largely mooted when Emperor Charles V abandoned this goal during the 1550s. Still, the noble bearing of Kapup’s figure of St. Maurice, as well as his inclusion in a newly configured body of saints, makes the dismissal of his former status as a mere “trademark,” a shadow of its former self, hard to accept. Today, his example of selfless sacrifice and achievement of great prominence in a foreign land can be related to the even loftier goals of universal peace and acceptance among all people of the world.

The Image of the Black in Western Art Archive resides at Harvard University’s W.E.B. Du Bois Research Institute, part of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research. The founding director of the Hutchins Center is Henry Louis Gates Jr., who is also The Root’s editor-in-chief. The archive and Harvard University Press collaborated to create The Image of the Black in Western Art book series, eight volumes of which were edited by Gates and David Bindman and published by Harvard University Press. Text for each Image of the Week is written by Sheldon Cheek.