The use of the black figure in medieval art was largely symbolic. Here it is positive, though in other cases, representation of the great cosmic struggle between good and evil likened demonic forces to the concept of darkness. Blacks were often represented as the torturers of Jesus or the saints in works of this period.
In the Gemini relief, however, this pointed distinction between good and evil does not apply. Clearly another aspect of the black person is evoked in the twin on the right. His presence creates a singular, positive impression of harmony obtained through the complementarity of difference, rather than the implacable confrontation of hostile forces.
The black twin does not appear again in Western art. The constructive role of the African figure in the greater scheme of things does occur during this period, however—once more in the context of astrology. It is within this realm of inquiry that the unbiased conception of the black in medieval culture seems most at home.
The Gemini relief reveals an optimistic image of inclusion within the Western consciousness. Instead of the stigma of sin, the image of the black could literally be lifted to the heavens as part of an ideally ordered universe.
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.