Combat between William of Orange and the Giant Ysore. Fresco, late 13th century.
Tour Ferrande, Pernes-les-Fontaines

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.

Tucked away within the winding streets of the southern-French town of Pernes stands a striking monument to a storied past. The Tour Ferrande contains a rare and nearly intact ensemble of medieval mural paintings. After trudging up three flights of stone steps within the tower, the visitor enters the semigloom of the top floor.

As the eye becomes accustomed to the filtered light, scenes of chivalric combat emerge along the four walls of the room. Most of the scenes recall the victorious military campaign of Charles, ruler of the independent French county of Anjou, against the attempt of the Germanic emperors of the Hohenstaufen dynasty to retake their lost southern-Italian possessions.

As fancifully presented as they may appear today, the battles depicted are well-recorded historical events that transpired during the third quarter of the 13th century. The lavish pictorial decoration of the upper room and its formal historical program denote a special purpose for this setting. The tower apparently served as the local headquarters and archive of the Hospitalers, a knightly charitable order founded during the Crusades.

Amid these memorials to the defeat of the imperial forces, the image of a single combat stands out. The fresco spanning the upper section of the west wall represents a story from a much earlier period than the others. Drawn from the great medieval tradition of heroic literature, it represents the defeat of the giant Ysore by the knight William of Orange. The event takes place during the reign of the Holy Roman Emperor Louis I, son of the famed Charlemagne, during the first half of the ninth century.

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According to a long chanson de geste, or verse poem, written a few centuries later, Ysore was the ruler of the Muslim-held city of Coimbra in Portugal. He had led a large allied army from northern Europe to the gates of Paris, where Louis had taken refuge.

The combat takes place outside the walls of Paris, indicated by a succinct rendering of a city gate to Ysore’s left. An inscription over the black knight’s head states his name in the local French dialect. Ysore is clearly black, as indicated not only by his dark skin color but also by his tightly curled hair and short, projecting nose. William’s lance has pierced the throat of Ysore, and blood spurts from the wound. A more graphic capturing of sudden, violent death in combat is hard to imagine in the art of any period.

Ysore by tradition lived in the ninth century but appears here almost 500 years after the time of Charlemagne in a form just becoming typical for the representation of the black warrior in European art. Nowhere in the telling of his story is he explicitly said to be black, and elsewhere in art he is depicted as light-skinned. Why, then, was he shown here so insistently as a black man?

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Although the question cannot be definitively resolved, the appearance of a black Ysore at this particular moment in history does come at a pivotal point in the depiction of black people in Western art. Blackness itself, in the sense of the absence of light, had long been associated with the threat of sin and evil in Christian theology, and soon took animate form as demons and hellish monsters on the pages of illuminated manuscripts.

Toward the 13th century, a newer, more ambivalent attitude toward the symbolic value of the black person began to make itself felt. A black swordsman could serve as the executioner of the righteous, but righteousness itself could also take the form of a black queen of Sheba, or the holy knight Maurice. The key to understanding this new, more nuanced interpretation of blackness would seem to lie in Europeans’ increased experience of actual black people in the world around them.

The head of the black enemy Ysore appears here in essentially the same form it took when incorporated into the evolving vocabulary of heraldic imagery. The isolated profile head of a black man, wearing a bandeau with fluttering ends and adorned with an earring, was fast becoming the standard, shorthand representation of the black warrior as he appeared on armorial bearings such as coats of arms and shields. The meaning of this potent symbol, however, could vary sharply depending on the intentions of those using it.

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In his full-length form and actively engaged in combat, Ysore the giant is employed as a concrete symbol of the threat to Christianity from hostile forces. For the imperial successors of the Hohenstaufens, on the other hand, the emblem of the Moor’s head was added to the figure of the black St. Maurice as a positive symbol of its political and territorial ambitions.

From the late 13th century, the profile silhouette of a beribboned black man figured prominently in the heraldry of numerous European families. Within the imperial realm, his image can seem ubiquitous and frequently appears on the coats of arms of major German cities. Municipalities like Coburg still proudly retain it, in this case as its sole identifying symbol.

Though the chivalric age of knights-errant is now long past, the people of Paris have never truly forgotten the story of Ysore. Well over a millennium after his death, the giant still retains his hold on the popular imagination. His body was so large that the local citizens buried it where it lay. A nearby street, the rue de la Tombe-Issoire, bears his name to this day.

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The legacy of Ysore has recently been more dramatically conjured by an enormous, rather whimsical polystyrene sculpture mounted on the facade of a local kindergarten. In this current incarnation, he is fairly dark-skinned but clearly not black. The installation brought with it fears of the charge of cultural insensitivity, but the figure seems to have been accepted as part of the authentic heritage of the neighborhood. Paradoxically, it is the foreign threat of Ysore against the city of Paris that takes such vivid form, and not the noble Christian knight who defeated him.

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.

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.