How a Black Warrior Became a Symbol for a German Fraternal Society

Image of the Week: The Brotherhood of the Black Heads adopted the African rider as an emblem of discovery and commerce.

Ludwig Roselius Museum, Bremen, 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.

An elegantly armored black warrior resolutely charges forth, astride a mythical beast drawn straight from Greek mythology. He holds aloft an elaborate crown, a symbol of dominion over the sea. Behind this positive image of the African lies a notion of blackness held by a remarkable fraternal society in the early days of modern Germany.

The figure is mounted on a hippocamp, a hybrid creature composed of the foreparts of a horse and the tail of a fish. Horse and rider are set atop a high base supported by three black men. To its German owners, this vessel was known as a prunkkanne, or ornamental pitcher, intended for use as the centerpiece of an elaborate table service. The ensemble is enlivened by a carefully exploited variety of textures, surface effects and color contrasts. An additional impression of preciosity is created by the application of a thin layer of gold over the carefully worked silver forms. A coating of lustrous enamel provides the naturalistic effect of black skin.

The work is attributed to Hans Jakob Mair, a master craftsman active in the southern German city of Augsburg during the 17th century. Instead of stone or bronze, his works are fashioned in more malleable silver, creating a grand effect of form and movement on a small scale. This magnificent piece represents a more intimate counterpart to the expressions of political power and prestige of the Baroque Age.

The work was commissioned for the local house of the Brotherhood of the Black Heads, in Riga, Latvia, a prominent civic organization with branches throughout the eastern region of the Baltic Sea. Originally formed in the 15th century as a trading and military company, the Black Heads were once represented in nearly two dozen cities. Today only two remain, one in the Estonian capital of Tallinn, the other in the major port city of Riga. Over half a millennium, the members of the Riga house amassed more than 30 elaborately worked silver objects, including this vessel with the black rider.

The origin of the distinctive name of the Black Heads has long intrigued scholars. Attempts have been made to interpret the name as an allusion to the age or social standing of its members. In any case, the actual identification with blackness took the form of two very potent symbols of authority—the devotional figure of St. Maurice and the heraldic device of a black man’s head in profile. The warrior saint, born in Egypt and martyred in Switzerland for his Christian faith in the late third century, represented the Black Heads’ early quasi-military role as defenders of the city. He figures prominently on the doorjamb of the House of the Black Heads in Riga, holding his characteristic insignia of a large sword, lance and flag bearing the cross.

The isolated head of a black man, commonly known as the Moor’s head, became the ubiquitous symbol of the brotherhood. The motif is defined by clearly established, but not exaggerated, African features. He wears an earring and a twisted headband, or tortil, above the ears and forehead. The band is tied at the back and ends in two fluttering ribbons. From the 13th century, the emblem of the Moor’s head was widely adopted throughout Europe as an element on coats of arms. It is prominently displayed here on the bridle girdling the sea creature’s neck. The heads of the rider and the three seated men are the same type, projected in fully rounded form.

The identity of the black man on the hippocamp is suggested by the relationship of this magnificent work to the history of the Black Heads themselves. By the mid-17th century, when the piece was fashioned, the brotherhood had lost both its devotional and martial aspects. Defense against armed foes was no longer necessary, and there was no place for the formal veneration of St. Maurice on church altars after the adoption of Protestantism in the early 16th century. Even the bond of mutual obligations in commerce had largely slipped away. All of these once so essential functions became sublimated into a strong sense of conviviality and civic philanthropy.

The magnificent riding figure has often been identified as St. Maurice himself, presiding somewhat anachronistically over the organization’s maritime interests. Instead of his customary full suit of medieval armor, he wears only a torso-length, close-fitting cuirass, or leather jacket, modeled on ancient Roman prototypes. Similarly, rather than the usual complement of sword, lance and flag, he holds a large crown, an emblem never associated with the cult. Any explicit reference to the saint has been eclipsed by the exposition of a universally empowered black warrior. As a conflation of the image of the saint and the Moor’s head, this noble figure projects the notion of the brotherhood’s self-image for a new age and purpose.

Bounding forward on his exuberant mount, the black warrior effectively symbolizes the great voyages of discovery undertaken by European powers during this time. The seated figures holding up the whole ensemble may, in a similar vein, suggest the living forces of the earth and its riches, emblematic of a new kind of commerce even more extensive than the brotherhood’s historic association with the lucrative Baltic trade. Their fancifully conceived skirts of overlapping feathers, akin to those edging the rider’s jacket, became a common visual trope for the “savage” nature of these newly encountered worlds.