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. Museo Nacional de Escultura, Valladolid

The impression of a still-living individual is entirely unintended, however, and is merely the result of the Renaissance artist’s typical concern with the dynamic treatment of natural form, even in a moribund state. The death of the black man is made altogether clear by the omission of his eyes, often characterized as the windows of the soul. Only hollow sockets remain, in contrast with the carefully rendered eyes of the other figures, including those of the sleeping sacristan.

The current engagement with the black man in the miracle has defined a wide range of issues, all quite relevant in themselves. In some cases, artists have reciprocated with works of their own. For Natasha Trethewey, named poet laureate of the U.S. in 2012, this and other works from the early modern period have inspired a series of poems exploring the issue of race in Western culture. In her poem “Miracle of the Black Leg,” the animated, apparently tormented figure of the black man in Villoldo’s relief evokes an immensely troubling, paradoxical relationship of simultaneous desire for and rejection of those of African descent by society’s dominant forces.

Across the Atlantic, in Geneva, the Greek artist and activist Panos Sklavenitis has created an entire installation around the relief, using imagery related to the theme of the black leg to protest the persecution and, sometimes, murder of disadvantaged immigrants in Greece by reactionary forces.

The contemporary response to the relief as a touchstone for addressing issues of profound ethical importance is entirely to be expected, given the inevitable changes in perspective that come with the passage of time. It is equally important, though, not to overlook the time-honored ideal of universal acceptance that has always run alongside the history of intolerance within Western civilization. This more salutary impulse helped, after all, to prompt the social and political will to abolish the horrible blight of slavery and to attempt to heal its painful legacy. 

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.

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