Miracle of the Black Leg: Honorable Act or Exploitation?

Image of the Week: The depiction of a surgical healing was intended as a tribute. But time and history have skewed the perspective of modern-day audiences.

Attributed to Isidro de Villoldo, Miracle of the Black Leg, circa 1547, 70 cm high, polychromed wood.
Attributed to Isidro de Villoldo, Miracle of the Black Leg, circa 1547, 70 cm high, polychromed wood. Museo Nacional de Escultura, Valladolid

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 a startling re-enactment of a pious medieval legend, two doctors perform a miraculous act of surgical healing. Their intervention transcends the parameters of medicine to address the role played by race in the history of early modern Europe.

The scene represents a posthumous miracle of two early Christian saints, the twin doctors Cosmas and Damian. This particular presentation of the story takes the form of a carved and painted relief from a now displaced altarpiece. The work was originally set up, appropriately, in the funerary chapel of a doctor, located in the convent of San Francisco in the Spanish city of Valladolid.

Though Cosmas and Damian are said to have been martyred under the Roman emperor Diocletian in the late third century, the story of the black leg first appears in their hagiography a thousand years later. It is part of the Golden Legend, a collection of engaging accounts of the deeds of Christian saints compiled by the Dominican monk Jacobus de Voragine in the later 13th century.

The story of the black leg relates a wondrous act that took place in a church dedicated to the saints in Rome. Shortly after its dedication in the early sixth century, the sacristan, or custodian, of the church became crippled with an ulcerous leg. As he lay in his bed, he dreamed that the two renowned healing saints appeared beside him, holding medical instruments and an ointment jar. After consulting with each other, they decided to replace the diseased leg with that of a black man, described in the account as an Ethiopian who had died the day before and been buried in another church in the city.

In this relief, the corpse is prominently represented in the right foreground for narrative convenience. The operation was carried out with success, and the sacristan’s leg was buried with the body of the black man. When the sacristan awoke, he leaped from his bed in joy, running to show his new leg to his family and friends. The contrasting color of the limb seems not to have mattered either to the sacristan or to the story’s author.

The role of the black man in the miracle exists within the highly conflicted perception of blackness that had developed within Christian theology during the early Middle Ages. On the one hand, black people could symbolize the ever present threat of demonic forces. Fully countering such negative connotations, however, was the simultaneously emerging characterization of blacks as stalwart exemplars of Christian virtue. Their origins go all the way back to the beginning of Christianity, in the biblical person of the Ethiopian eunuch, actually a high-ranking official at the royal court in Nubia. Also from the tradition of Scripture came the queen of Sheba, as well as the black king who bore the gift of myrrh to the Christ child at his birth.

For Isidro de Villoldo and his contemporaries, the Ethiopian in the miracle of the black leg takes his place among these more optimistic evocations of blackness. The story expressly points out that he was interred in one of the most important churches in Rome, where he would have received the holy sacrament of burial. Dressed in a richly worked garment, he seems to have been a person of high status and, like the Ethiopian eunuch himself, a member of the extended Christian community.

The excision of his leg for the purpose of healing can be regarded as an unusual example of both inclusion and posthumous charity, rather than an egregiously callous act of exploitation. This sympathetic relationship is reinforced compositionally by the identical alignment and similar poses of the bodies of donor and recipient.

In our own times, not surprisingly, the role of the black man in the miracle has provoked quite a different response. The enduring legacy of slavery, with its desire to control the black mind and body, has largely overtaken the previously established, positive notion of blackness in European thought to impose a new, tortured identity upon the Ethiopian donor. He is viewed as a living, suffering victim, emblematic of the thousands of actual black people living in Spain and the New World by the mid-16th century, as well as of the countless others to follow.