Pedro de Zuera and Bernardo de Arás, Crucifixion, circa 1449. Tempera on wood, 122 cm by 108 cm.
Museo Diocesano, Huesca, Spain

This image is part of a weekly series that The Root is presenting in conjunction with the Image of the Black Archive & Library at Harvard University’s Hutchins Center for African and African American Research.

In a rocky valley outside Jerusalem, the followers of Jesus gather below his crucified body in a sacred tableau of profound sorrow. To this standard representation of the event is added a pointed lesson on the importance of the divine sacrifice.

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At the lower right, barely seen below the retinue of an Eastern king, a pair of diminutive figures engage in what seems to be an impromptu wrestling match. Far more than this, however, they summarize the turbulent mix of race, faith and royal prerogative shaping the national character of Spain as it entered the most expansive period in its history.

The moving scene of the Crucifixion occupies the crowning position of a large but now incomplete altarpiece once located in the parish church of Tardienta. The small town lies in Aragon, a medieval kingdom in northeastern Spain. The altarpiece was dedicated to St. Anne, the mother of the Virgin Mary.

Around a large, central image of Anne, Mary and the infant Jesus, several panels recount the key events of Mary’s life. Long considered a work by an anonymous painter, the altarpiece has recently been attributed to two Spanish artists working under the influence of the popular Franco-Flemish style. The Crucifixion panel is a key example of the emergence from the Gothic style of the late Middle Ages to the more naturalistic spirit of the Renaissance.

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On the left, Jesus’ sacrifice is witnessed by the sorrowing maternal group of holy women. The penitent Mary Magdalene, clad in a scarlet mantle, gazes resolutely into the face of her savior. Farther to the left, John the Evangelist supports the swooning Mary, mother of Jesus. Two other women stand just behind them. The even lighting that bathes this side of the scene metaphorically evokes the cleansing power of spiritual revelation.

The treatment of the area to the right of the cross, on the other hand, presents a far different reaction to the transcendent moment. None of the figures in this area are canonical elements in the story of the Crucifixion. Instead of the impassioned witness of John and the holy women, a group of mounted figures has come to a halt before the cross. One wears an ermine-trimmed cap circled by a gold diadem. His sumptuous attire clearly identifies him as a ruler of great power.

The overall impression given by the tight knot of riders is one of astonishment and incomprehension. This effect is reinforced by the dark, chaotic landscape rising behind them and by the turn of Jesus’ head away from the horsemen. Their unenlightened state is not left unaddressed, however.

A man wearing a fur-lined red hat and cloak points his finger toward the figure on the cross while he earnestly converses with the crowned rider. His role seems to be that of the exegete, or interpreter of divine events, who guides the ruler and his companions to a fuller understanding of the momentous event occurring before them. Implicit in his witness to the new faith is the conversion of an entire people to Christianity.

Front and center in the right foreground, two tiny, struggling figures further explicate the significance of the cavalcade gathered before the Crucifixion. Completely out of scale with the other figures in the scene, two young men—one black, the other white—engage each other in what seems to be a friendly wrestling match.

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Though the fighting pair’s presence may seem entirely incidental, its history as a motif goes back at least two centuries in the pictorial art of Europe. Their appearance here, on the other hand, constitutes the only known example of racial differentiation between the two struggling figures. What’s more, the wrestler on the left depicts one of the earliest representations of a black person in European panel painting.

The opposed nature of the wrestling pair’s skin color directly relates to a centuries-old trope of Christian theology. According to medieval speculation, darkness generally signified the demonic force at work in the world, while light evoked the countervailing presence of the ultimate good. Given its context here, the contention between these youths may also allude to the eternal struggle between good and evil. The fighting pair clearly signals the inner spiritual turmoil that will decide the outcome of the contest between faith and ignorance taking place above them.

More specifically, the ruler wearing his fanciful crown may represent the hoped-for conversion of the world of Islam. He would therefore incorporate the fervent desire of European leaders to counter the Moorish threat to Christendom, a situation quite tangible at a time when the Ottoman Turks were closing in on the strategic Byzantine capital of Constantinople.

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The black wrestler directly evokes the epic scope of the struggle. When this painting was made, the term “Moor” could apply to those of Middle Eastern descent, like the ruler confronting the cross, as well as to the many black people living in Muslim-controlled lands. In this sense, he embodies the cultural as well as spiritual confrontation between the two great civilizations of the Mediterranean world.

At this point, the theological confines of the subject begin to merge with its broader contemporary sociohistorical context. Just as this panel was being painted, the symbolic value of skin color had begun to take on qualities more overtly associated with race. The polarized state of the wrestlers can therefore be likened to today’s philosophical perception of the inherent alienation between the dominant order and its opposite Other.

The clothing worn by the black wrestler may represent the formal dress, or livery, of a household servant. The elegant ensemble of a short, red tunic with scalloped hem, leggings and fine leather shoes implies his association with the upper levels of society. The servant-cum-wrestler alludes to the renewed importation of black Africans to Spain during the second half of the 15th century, to live beside those already long present there. His legal status at this early point in the slave trade would have been uncertain, given that the concept of chattel slavery had yet to be fully formalized.

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The black wrestler symbolically confronts the trauma of displacement from his native soil. Taken further, the simple, seemingly casual device of the two contending figures evokes the perpetual struggle between good and evil. In this case the battle is fought not just for human souls but also for the control of individual lives and destinies.

The Image of the Black Archive & Library resides at Harvard University’s Hutchins Center for African and African American Research. The founding director of the Hutchins Center is Henry Louis Gates Jr., who is also chairman of The Root. 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.