Tarragona Cathedral, 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.

Once an ardent foe of Christianity, Paul the Apostle went on to provide the new religion with a creed firmly rooted in faith, divine mystery and spiritual redemption.

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In this depiction, his austere figure seems suspended between the timeless realm of sainthood and the earthbound call of the evangelist. He is surrounded by a crowd of followers intent on hearing his message, but it is the two figures directly beside him who are of particular interest. One is the virgin martyr Thecla, an ardent follower of the apostle and a supreme exemplar of chastity. The other is a black monk who, though nameless, figures prominently in the veneration of the apostle.

This lively carved stone relief is one of the chief glories of Tarragona Cathedral. Dedicated to both Paul and Thecla, the imposing church stands as the ecclesiastical center of one of the major seaports of Catalonia, an important political and cultural region of northeastern Spain. The association of Thecla with Spain goes back nearly as far as her reputed origins in Asia Minor. A local tradition extends her evangelical travels with Paul to Catalonia, where her cult seems to have been celebrated from at least the third century.

The panel is set within the lower zone of the majestic high altarpiece of the cathedral, the first of six narrative scenes from the life of Thecla. It is carved from alabaster, a relatively soft stone capable of bearing fine detail. Its translucent surface was once sumptuously painted and gilded, creating a visual effect that would have carried across the entire length of the church. The huge undertaking was produced by the Catalan sculptor Pere Johan and a workshop of numerous assistants.

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The major deeds of this early saint’s life are related in the apocryphal book of the Acts of Paul and Thecla, probably written during the second century. Though never truly accepted as part of the canonical record of St. Paul’s missionary activity, the engaging, fast-paced account nevertheless is a testament to the power of evangelization. According to this popular text, Thecla was a native of Iconium, now the town of Konya in central Turkey, where she received the message of Paul as he was preaching next door to her family’s home.

Though betrothed to the wealthiest man in the city, Thecla was converted instantly by Paul’s message, renouncing the obligations of marriage and family life. The subsequent reliefs in the series relate her various trials, including three attempts to execute her. The last panel depicts her triumphant reception in heaven after 70 years spent in holy isolation.

As conceived by Pere Johan in the relief seen here, the preaching of Paul at Iconium takes on a quite magisterial air. Several patrician ladies are seated in the lower zone of the relief. High above them, seated on an elegant throne flanked by the heads of lions, Paul holds an open book of his teachings. He points downward, exhorting the women to embrace charity as the only sure way to spiritual redemption. Above the gathering of women, several men also hear Paul’s message.

Standing in a place of honor beside the apostle’s throne, two figures hold up their young charges directly on either side of the saint. At the right, an angel supports the haloed figure of St. Thecla. In the corresponding position on the left, a baby in swaddling clothes is lifted by a monk toward the figure of Paul. The head of the monk is clearly that of a black man, with tightly curled hair, a broad nose and thick lips. The meaning of Thecla’s presentation to the saint can be extrapolated from the events of her legend, but what of the baby held by the black monk opposite her?

Perhaps the child simply represents a new generation’s reception of Paul’s preaching, but the child’s appearance opposite Thecla implies some greater degree of spiritual significance not explicated in surviving accounts of her story.

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The monk’s sub-Saharan origin also raises the intriguing question of his presence here. The fortunes of black people in Europe up to this point are less well understood than the larger and more thoroughly documented influx of Africans who came with the establishment of the slave trade by the Portuguese shortly after this relief was carved. A combination of visual evidence and the occasional reference to the situation of black people in surviving archival material can, however, shed some light on the appearance of a black monk in late-medieval Spanish art.

Black Africans, often obtained from overland routes leading directly from the sub-Saharan region to the north-African coast, were certainly not a rarity in medieval Europe but took their place within the ranks of a multiethnic community of slaves drawn from the distant reaches of eastern Europe and Asia Minor. Slavery during this period was not determined solely by race or regional origin. Pere Johan’s own father, Jordi de Déu, had been bought as a slave by a sculptor to train as his assistant. Jordi has been described as a Greek from the Sicilian town of Messina and was therefore conventionally white.

The presence of black people in northeastern Spain is documented well before the period of the relief. In 1278 the bishop of the Catalan city of Gerona included a Christian black slave in his will. A few decades later, a “black Saracen” by the name of Alibez was sold elsewhere in Catalonia. In 1395, not long before this panel was carved, Juan I, ruler of the kingdom of Aragon to the south, recovered two runaway black slaves, termed “Ethiopians” in the documentary register.

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The acceptance of black people into Christian monastic orders may have been fairly common in late-medieval Europe and is another indication of the socially porous nature of its major institutions. The proximity of the cowled black man in the relief to the sanctified figure of the apostle presents an ideal image of the level of spiritual commitment to which black men and women could aspire during this momentous period of change.

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.