Spanish, Our Lady of Mercy, mid-16th century. Polychromed wood.
Museu Frederic Marès, Barcelona, 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.

Depicted in a rhythmic, almost dancelike motion, Mary, the Queen of Heaven, offers protection to her followers beneath her broad mantle. Behind her, saints Peter and Paul aid in the offering of divine favor. In this majestic form she represents Our Lady of Mercy, the heavenly intercessor between a wrathful god and the forgiveness offered to the Christian faithful by the sacrifice of her son. Here in microcosm is the complementary duality of the Spanish church and state of the early 16th century.

Among her followers is the noble figure of a black man in a richly worked golden robe, his gaze fervently directed toward Mary. Beyond this programmatic act of inclusion, the idealized appearance of a black person affords an ideal starting point for the consideration of the place occupied by real people of African descent in Spain just as the newly reconstituted kingdom began its expansion onto the world stage.

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The relief was produced in the kingdom of Castile, the cradle of the Spanish reconquest of the peninsula from Arab rule. Its original location is unknown but is thought to have been a church in the small town of Madrigal de las Altas Torres, the birthplace of Isabella, the future queen of Spain. It bears the influence of Flemish workshops farther north but may be the product of a local artist. At some point in the 17th century, the relief was transferred to another church in the same region. As is typical of many Spanish carvings of this sort, the lively group once served as part of a large altarpiece set prominently behind the high altar.

Like the others, the black man appears in idealized form. He is characterized by his exaggeratedly curly hair and a large gold earring. His noble image signifies the universal black presence in the mind of the European before any more specific identity could be imposed on his image. He is characterized as the other, similar to representations of the so-called black Moor in heraldic devices, a multivalent image familiar to Europeans since the 13th century. This common trope of the distant African, signifying either menace or savior, remained lodged within the Western consciousness to some extent but was greatly tempered by the experience of actual black people when they began to arrive within Spain’s borders in greater numbers.

The integration of the African within the challenging, complex culture of Renaissance Spain went far beyond the realm of spiritual enlightenment. At the time this relief was carved and painted, sub-Saharan Africa was quickly emerging within the European awareness of lands and cultures beyond its own borders. Black people arrived there under all conceivable circumstances. By far the most common circumstance was as slaves destined for a variety of tasks both menial and skilled.

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The first African slaves to arrive in Europe were delivered to Portugal in 1444. Within a short time the trade had extended throughout the rest of the continent, especially the southern-Mediterranean countries. The majority of slaves went to Spanish buyers, and by the mid-16th century, about the time this relief was made, Spain had the largest black population in Europe—about 100,000, by some estimates.

Such simple statistics give a good idea of the presence of Africans in Spain at the time this relief was created. A far fuller sense of what their lives were actually like emerges from the documentary record. Unlike the practice in the New World colonies of Spain, slavery within Spain itself was not always hereditary. Slaves were often freed by their masters and could quickly gain considerable success within many areas of Spanish life.

Any limitations on the personal advancement of black people within the country were therefore as much a matter of talent and circumstances as of race alone. The case of the great author and teacher Juan de Sessa, self-styled as Juan Latino, vividly demonstrates the full scope of advancement open to black people during this period. Born to slave parents, he attended the University of Granada with his master’s son. He quickly excelled at his studies, receiving his degree in 1545. He taught grammar and Latin for many years at the university and eventually married a white woman of elevated social status. In his published works he refuted the religious justification of African slavery.

The expectant gaze of the black man adoring the Madonna alludes to the manifold destiny of those who would follow him in the African Diaspora. From an idealized vision of inclusion in the Spanish world order to the actual experience of large numbers of black Africans and their descendants in the country, there emerges a story not just of assimilation but ultimately of resistance and adaptation to the dominant forces of crown and faith.

Black Spaniards represent the largely unacknowledged cultural leavening of a society often characterized as rigid and intolerant. Early modern Spain was, in fact, much more vital and culturally diverse, largely because of the contributions of its black population. As research continues, more of this fascinating odyssey will surely come to light.

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.