Do You Know the Legend of the 1st Black Saint?           

Image of the Week: A medieval altarpiece may provide the first narrative depictions of the life of St. Maurice.

IOW-Scenes from life of S.Maurice.High altarpiece,Juterbog.3.3mb
Scenes from the legend of St. Maurice. Panel from the wing of an altarpiece, circa 1433-35. Wood, 190 by 175 cm.

St. Nicholas choir, Jüterbog, 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.

Represented on this wooden panel is a rare sequence of narrative scenes from the life and martyrdom of the warrior saint Maurice. These four incidents make up only one part of the massive former high altarpiece of the Church of St. Nicholas in Jüterbog, a small but vibrant town located not far from the larger city of Magdeburg in eastern Germany. The illustration of this important saint’s legend here reflects his full inclusion within the dynamics of power, prestige and culture of late medieval northern Europe.

According to legend, St. Maurice commanded a legion of Roman soldiers recruited from Upper Egypt during the late Roman Empire. The Theban Legion, as it was known, numbered only Christians among its ranks. Sent far to the west to quell a rebellion in Gaul, the unit received orders to attack other Christians. For their refusal to obey, the entire legion was put to death.

The sequence of events from the saint’s life seen here begins in the lower left field of the panel, with his conversion to the Christian faith. Maurice receives the rite of baptism, officiated by Zabdes, bishop of Jerusalem. A nobleman waits to clothe him with a richly embroidered robe. In the upper-left panel, Maurice refuses the imperial order to worship a pagan idol before doing battle; on the bottom right, he is seen engaged in dispute with the Roman Emperor Maximian. In the final scene, on the upper right, he kneels to receive the blow of the headsman’s sword. The emperor watches from behind a hill, while an angel hovers above to receive the martyr’s head.

The artist is a prime exemplar of the late medieval style often characterized as International Gothic. Trained within a highly elegant, cosmopolitan milieu, this anonymous master was formed within the stylistic currents of Bohemia to the east, as well as other distinctly regional styles practiced in the north and west of Magdeburg. This confluence of aesthetic qualities is not surprising, given the importance of both Magdeburg and Jüterbog as trading centers connecting the Hanseatic mercantile cities to the north with the rest of eastern Germany and present-day Poland.

In addition, Magdeburg served as the capital of a powerful archbishopric. Founded in the 10th century by the Holy Roman Emperor Otto I as a bulwark against invading non-Christian Slavs, this ecclesiastical institution came to play a key role in the expansion of imperial hegemony to the east. The archbishop was not merely a spiritual leader but also represented the political interests of the nobility. He typically came from their ranks and often played a pivotal role in the destinies of heads of state, including the emperor himself. As part of their policy of expansion, the archbishops of Magdeburg had long maintained the importance of St. Maurice as a sign of imperial conquest.

This panel formed one side of a hinged wing, or outer covering panel, of one of the largest altarpieces made in Europe during this period. When intact and fully opened, the entire ensemble measured more than 20 feet in width. The highly significant work was commissioned by the officials of the Church of St. Nicholas, almost certainly under the direction of Günter II von Schwarzburg, the archbishop of Magdeburg, under whose jurisdiction Jüterbog fell. Scientific examination of the tree ring sequence of the wooden panels has established a date for the painting of 1433 or shortly after.

As magnificent as the altarpiece must have appeared when installed on the high altar, time and changing religious views took their toll. Sometime after 1700, the ensemble was taken down and replaced by a new, more contemporary altarpiece in the baroque style. Though dismembered, the many pieces of the old altarpiece were not destroyed but were simply recycled as interior elements of the choir area.

Recently the altarpiece has been reassembled and brilliantly restored. Now it is much easier to understand its original function. During most times of the year, the central part of the altarpiece would have been covered by two pairs of wings. For the celebration of major festival days, the outer wings were opened to reveal the inner wings painted with scenes of the trial and execution of Christ. The reverse side of the left outer wing bears the four scenes from the life of St. Maurice seen here. Opposite them is an equal number of events from the life of St. Nicholas, to whom the parish church of Jüterbog was dedicated.

Thus the central element depicting the suffering and sacrifice of Christ was flanked by the narration in similar style of the deeds of these two venerated figures. Finally, when fully opened, a sculpted representation of the Virgin Mary, flanked by saints, was revealed. To her right in the celestial place of honor stood St. Maurice, bareheaded but otherwise dressed in full armor.

The depictions of saints and other holy figures not only reflect the theological program of the altarpiece but also reference the strong role of patronage as a statement of political identity and ambition. As noted above, Nicholas is included because of his status as patron saint. For similar reasons, St. Maurice is given equal emphasis. As patron of the city of Magdeburg, the warrior saint emphasizes the close connection between the capital of the archbishopric and its newly acquired outlying city of Jüterbog.

Situated close to the still-volatile eastern border area of the empire, Jüterbog represented the expanding commercial and political interests of the archbishop of Magdeburg. The exotic figure of St. Maurice served as an ideal emblem of the martial strength and resolve necessary for the expansion of the empire into new territory. The image of St. Maurice in these scenes follows the precedent established by the magnificent, life-sized image of the saint carved for Magdeburg Cathedral just before the middle of the 13th century. The Emperor Otto I and his successors had long maintained the importance of the saint as a sign of imperial conquest, but the stone sculpture seems to be the earliest known example of his representation as a black man. Because of his African origins, he’s often considered to be the first black saint.

Though significant events from the lives of the saints have been related in images for centuries, these painted scenes on the Jüterbog altarpiece may well be the first narrative depictions of the story of St. Maurice. The prominence of the warrior saint on this majestic work indicates his more intense veneration at a particularly important moment in the history of Central and Eastern Europe. Formulated expressly for this commission, the scenes give full expression to the piety and steadfastness of the great warrior saint at a time when the extension of imperial dominion by force of arms was still under way.

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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