Racial Tolerance Engraved in Stone

Image of the Week: Two figures represent a growing acceptance of otherness in the medieval world.

Two crouching figures, one a wild man, circa 1250. Right jamb of north portal.
Two crouching figures, one a wild man, circa 1250. Right jamb of north portal. Nortre-Dame, Semur-en-Auxois

The perception of the wild man underwent considerable changes during the Middle Ages. By the 12th century he was commonly depicted as fully covered with tangled, often black hair, a sign often associated with heresy and demonic behavior. The guise of the jamb figure conforms to this type. Because most medieval sculpture was painted, the leaves of the jamb figure may once have been painted black.

The wild-man jamb figure represents a crucial point in the perception of his state in medieval society. The 13th century saw a great flowering of the Catholic Church and its teaching in Western Europe. An all-encompassing philosophy of creation sought to reconcile the most disparate elements of experience into one great harmonious cosmic structure.

The Franciscan scholar Bartholomaeus Anglicus, writing about the time the jamb figures were carved, attempted to discern the physical nature of the world in his magisterial study, On the Properties of Things. He saw in human beings an essential, often conflicting duality of body and soul, and even seemed willing to grant the power of reason to the wild man.

While the two jamb figures may retain some degree of apprehension toward the Other, they effectively capture the complementary makeup of the human soul. The wild man’s African character is treated with an emerging degree of acceptance transcending the dominant racial or color prejudice of the earlier Middle Ages. He stands ready to play a more positive role in Western art, both as the object of wonder and as an aid in deciphering the riddle of humanity in all of its manifold guises.

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.