Classic Black Christmas

Over the centuries, European artists depicted a variety of religious figures as black, most notably one of the Three Kings, or Magi, bearing gifts for the baby Jesus. The works of art depicted here can be found in "The Image of the Black in Western Art," co-edited by David Bindam and Henry Louis Gates Jr., chairman of the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute at Harvard University and editor-in-chief of The Root. Four of 10 projected volumes are now available at Amazon.com and other booksellers.

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  • Adoration of the Magi (1504)

    Adoration of the Magi (1504)

    Vol. III, pt. 1, fig. 32; Vol. II, pt. 2, fig. 174. Albrecht Dürer. Adoration of the Magi, 1504. Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence, Italy.

    The reception of the Three Kings by the Virgin and Child is subtly depicted by Dürer. The old king worships the Christ Child, the middle-aged king looks toward the young black king, who in turn is focused on the scene of veneration before him. Elegant and refined, the black king stands out as a magnificent ethnic representation of the features of an African.

    The Image of the Black in Western Art can be found at Amazon.com.

    Captions by Sheldon Cheek

  • Adoration of the Magi (14th Century)

    Adoration of the Magi (14th Century)

    Vol. II, pt. 2, fig. 31. Adoration of the Magi (14th century). Historiated initial. Missale secundum usum ecclesiae s. Floriani, fol. 4r. Circa 1400-05. Parchment. 370 x 250 mm. Chapter at Sankt Florian, Stiftsbibliothek, Austria.

    The Wise Men and their 3 gifts are first mentioned in the biblical book of Matthew. It was only in the 14th century, however, that they received specific names and origins. The magus from Africa is usually identified as Balthasar. His gift to the newborn Jesus was myrhh. Here he occupies the margins. Later, the image of the black in Adoration scenes played an increasingly vivid and important role.

  • Journey of the Magi

    Journey of the Magi

    Vol. II, pt. 2, fig. 126 (detail). Benozzo Gozzoli. Journey of the Magi. Bowman in the cortege. 1459. Fresco. Chapel, Palazzo Medici-Riccardi, Florence, Italy.

    From a fresco commissioned by the famous Medici family of Florence. The walls show the lavish procession of the Three Kings through a verdant countryside. Although none of the kings is black, a remarkable image of this man of African descent appears in the retinue of the old king. He was quite possibly an actual member of the Medici household.

  • The Three Magi Founding a City

    The Three Magi Founding a City

    Vol. II, pt. 2, fig. 40. The Three Magi Founding a City. From the Leben der Heiligen Drei Könige. Woodcut. 1484. Staatsbibliothek Preussicher Kulturbesitz, Berlin.

    During the Middle Ages, the theme of the Adoration of the Magi was explored deeply. Here, the Three Kings, one black, stand near the city of Vaus, which they founded, and from which they first saw the star of the Nativity. The black man on the right, dressed in contemporary European fashion, probably represents a pilgrim coming to venerate the site as a holy shrine.

  • Adoration of the Magi (1613)

    Adoration of the Magi (1613)

    Vol. III, pt. 1, fig. 117 (detail). Fray Juan Bautista Maino. Adoration of the Magi, 1613. Oil on canvas. 315 x 174 cm. Museo del Prado, Madrid.

    Realism and exoticism combine for an effect of grand spectacle and sincere devotion. The exotic depiction of the black king is emphasized by his robes and the sumptuous form of his gift, a vessel incorporating a pearlescent nautilus shell. The nautilus represented the perfect union between nature and art and served as a symbol of black Africa.

  • Adoration of the Magi (1619)

    Adoration of the Magi (1619)

    Vol. III, pt. 1, fig. 114. Diego Velasquez. Adoration of the Magi, 1619. Oil on canvas. 203 x 125 cm. Museo del Prado, Madrid.

    Direct experience with black people and a new current of realism in art converged to present an accurate image of the black in Europe. The reserved, dignified countenance of the black king stands collectively for the great number of accomplished black people in early modern Spain, such as the renowned 16th-century author Juan Latino.

  • St. Maurice of Agaunum

    St. Maurice of Agaunum

    Vol. II, pt. 1, fig. 115. St. Maurice of Agaunum, circa 1240-50. Stone. Life-size. Cathedral of St. Maurice and St. Catherine, Magdeburg, Germany.

    A soldier of the Theban Legion of Egypt, Maurice was canonized in present-day Switzerland for his conversion to Christianity. In the first part of the 13th century, he became a symbol of the aspiration of the Holy Roman Empire to universal hegemony. His cult was widespread throughout northern Europe, especially in the Germanic regions.

  • St. Erasmus and St. Maurice

    St. Erasmus and St. Maurice

    Vol. II, pt. 1, fig. 151. Matthias Grünewald. St. Erasmus and St. Maurice. From Halle, collegiate church. Circa 1520-24. Painting on wood. 226 x 176 cm. Bayerische Staatsgemäldesammlung, Alte Pinakothek, Munich, Germany.

    This painting illustrates the importance of St. Maurice in European history. It was commissioned by Albert of Brandenburg, archbishop of Magdeburg in Germany, for placement in a church dedicated to the saint in the nearby town of Halle. Here Maurice engages St. Erasmus, who bears Albert’s features, in holy conversation.

  • Moorish Dancer

    Moorish Dancer

    Vol. II, pt. 2, fig. 204. Erasmus Grasser. Moorish Dancer, circa 1480.

    One of 16 realistically carved wooden figures originally on display in the ballroom of the town hall of Munich, Germany. The giddy, acrobatic dance moves seem to have originated in north Africa, reaching Europe by the 15th century. All of the other figures in the set are white. What unites them is the high energy of their dancing and the unheard music animating them.

  • Our Lady of Mercy

    Our Lady of Mercy

    Vol. II, pt. 2, fig. 206 (detail). Our Lady of Mercy. From Madrigal de las Altas Torres (Avila). 16th century. Museo Federico Marés, Barcelona, Spain.

    The image of Our Lady of Mercy took on a special meaning in Spain after the reconquest of the country from the Muslims. In this painted sculpture, “typical,” or white, Spaniards are seen alongside a black man and a turbaned man. The Virgin Mary protects all humanity with her cloak, including the considerable number of blacks and Muslims.

  • St. Benedict of Palermo

    St. Benedict of Palermo

    Vol. III, pt. 1, fig. 119. José Montes de Oca (attrib.). St. Benedict of Palermo, circa 1734. Minneapolis Institute of Art.

    St. Benedetto Manasseri, 1524-1589, was born in Messina, Sicily, the son of freed African slaves. Praised for his patience and understanding, at times in the face of racial prejudice, he was also renowned for his healing powers. He is venerated around the world, from Palermo to Brazil. At least six black Roman Catholic parishes in the United States are named in his honor.

  • A Moor

    A Moor

    Vol. III, pt. 1, fig. 157. Karl van Mander III. A Moor, 1640. Oil on canvas. 137 x 108 cm. Statens Museum for Kuns, Copenhagen, Denmark.

    A good deal of this Dutch artist’s work depicts black themes. Here he presents a black person in a type of exotic costume often associated with the Middle East. “Moors” were particularly favored subjects by northern-European artists of the 17th century. In Dutch painting they often figure in “tronies,” or studies of people meant not as portraits but rather as types.