The Black Saint Who Embodied Christianity for the African Masses

Image of the Week: An 18th-century painting details the story of St. Elesbaan, one of the “pillars of Ethiopia.”

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IOW- Saint Elesbaan.18th century.3.1mb
Anonymous (Portuguese), St. Elesbaan, circa 1750. Oil on canvas, 110 by 75 cm.

Museu de Arte Sacra, Arouca, Portugal

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.

This remarkable black saint, whose story of victory and piety begins in ancient Abyssinia, now known as Ethiopia, found his ultimate fulfillment much later as a spiritual guide to his fellow black Africans. In this painting, the saint wears the habit of the Carmelite religious order and holds a miniature church. The inscription at the bottom of the painting attests to his Abyssinian origins and declares his special role as a protector against “the dangers of the sea.”

This painting is an outstanding example of Portuguese devotional art of the 18th century. In style and format, it precisely corresponds to a painting of the black virgin saint Ephigenia. Of unknown origin, these two works were conceived as a pair within a single devotional context. According to early church legend, Ephigenia was the daughter of the king of Nubia. Her father had been converted to the Christian faith in the first century by the evangelist Matthew. The devout Ephigenia founded a convent and, like Elesbaan, overcame great resistance to the faith, thereby ushering in a period of prosperity under Christian rule.

The story of St. Elesbaan goes back to the early period of Christianity’s long presence in Ethiopia. Christian missionaries had converted the kingdom of Axum to the faith about 200 years before his reign. According to standard accounts, the man who would become St. Elesbaan ruled Axum during the first half of the sixth century. His given name was Kaleb, and he took the throne name Ella Atsbeha, “the one who brought about the morning.” Kaleb was canonized in the 16th century as St. Elesbaan, a version of his kingly name.

Upon hearing that Dunaan, the Himyarite ruler of the southern Arabian peninsula, was persecuting Christians, Kaleb sent his army across the turbulent waters of the Red Sea. After a protracted campaign, Dunaan was killed and replaced by a Christian monarch. After this militant advocacy for the church, Kaleb gave up his royal title and retired to a monastery, devoting himself to solitary contemplation.

The life and deeds of the saint are summed up in the iconography of his figure. The crown lying on the ground beside him signifies his renunciation of earthly glory, the lion on the flag represents his personification as the Lion of Judah, and the spear signifies his triumph over the infidel king trampled under his feet.

The Brazilian-born priest José Pereira de Santana devoted a definitive, two-volume work to Elesbaan and Ephigenia, published respectively in 1735 and 1738 at Lisbon. He considered them the two pillars of African sanctity and refashioned them as saints of his own Carmelite order. Interestingly, the saints were first venerated by an all-white, upper-class congregation founded by Santana at the Carmelite monastery in Lisbon. Espousing the principle of blood purity, its members regarded Elesbaan and Ephigenia as high-born African rulers whose supposedly “white” souls, purified by faith, were cloaked in bodies only “accidentally” blackened by the tropical sun.

At this early point in his revival, Elesbaan represented the triumph of Christianity over Judaism in the person of Dunaan, while Ephigenia stood for the early, voluntary acceptance of the Gospel in Africa. As such, she served as the model for the similarly intended reception of Christianity by slaves taken by force from the continent. The rehabilitation of the two black holy figures as Roman Catholic saints enabled the establishment of these time-honored “pillars of Ethiopia” as native-born guides for the spiritual enlightenment of so-called pagan blacks.

The real story of the veneration of Elesbaan, however, occurs with the arrival of black Africans, mostly as slaves, first in Spain and Portugal in the 15th century, then in their New World colonies. To aid in the process of spiritual assimilation among the captives, religious confraternities of blacks, both free and enslaved, came to be established. Each was dedicated to one or more of a pantheon of exemplary black saints, including more contemporary figures such as Benedict the Moor and Antônio de Categeró. Elesbaan and Ephigenia joined them as powerful advocates of the ever greater number of slaves arriving from Africa during the 18th century.

But the devotion to these saints that soon took hold in Brazil and other regions of the New World was to become an indispensable force for the formation of black identity and empowerment far beyond the scope imagined by Santana. Shortly after the publication of his account of the saints, a confraternity dedicated to saints Elesbaan and Ephigenia had been founded by a community of blacks in Rio de Janeiro. The close proximity in time between these events suggests the guiding role of Santana’s local fellow Carmelites.

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