(The Root) — 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.
This chilling scene of martyrdom comes from a lavishly illustrated menologion, a calendar of saints whose lives and deeds are celebrated on their feast days by the Eastern Orthodox Church. It was painted around the year 1000 by artists working under the patronage of the Byzantine Emperor Basil II in the capital city of Constantinople, now Istanbul.
The western portion of the Roman Empire had long since vanished, but its legacy in the eastern regions had remained intact. The menologion provides a splendid example of the major political and artistic high point of Byzantine culture known as the Macedonian Renaissance. The artist's name, Pantoleon, appears to the left of the image.
The scene represents the martyrdom in the fourth century of a large number of Christian hermits at Raithu, a monastic settlement on the west coast of the Sinai Peninsula. The classic account of this and other attacks on desert monastic communities comes from the relatio, or report, of the Egyptian monk Ammonius, who purportedly witnessed the massacre.
According to his account, the raiders, aroused by God to attack the settlement, suddenly appeared and began killing the monks. Their depredations were frustrated by the absolute poverty of the fathers and by the terrifying spectacle of a burning cloud that formed over nearby Mount Sinai. Chastened, they then prayed to the monks for salvation.
Several slain monks lie in the right foreground. Their halos denote their status as martyrs of the faith. Two of the raiders attack them with swords. Three other armed men approach from the left, one of whom thrusts his weapon at a pair of monks standing before him. The head of a man, perhaps Ammonius himself, observes the scene from behind the apse of the church at the far right.
One of the most remarkable features of the scene is the carefully observed ethnicity of the attackers. All five are dark-skinned but otherwise are rendered as two quite distinct types. The reddish-brown complexion of the two men on either side of the standing monks is noticeably lighter than that of the others, whose skin is fully black. In addition, the black-skinned figures have negroid facial features, whereas the others have more oval head shapes and aquiline noses characteristic — in art, at least — of the nonblack populations of the ancient world.
Of primary interest here is the identity of the black figures in the scene. Most accounts of the attacks on Raithu attribute the monks' martyrdom to the Blemmyes, members of a nomadic tribe feared in the Greco-Roman period of Egypt as marauders, much as the Huns or Vandals aroused panic when they confronted the Western Roman Empire at about the same time.
By implication, at least, the Blemmyes were considered dark-skinned by ancient Greek and Roman authors, since they are always characterized as inhabitants of lower Nubia, an area situated in present-day southern Egypt. The black-skinned figures in the illumination would therefore represent Blemmyes, while those with lighter skin perhaps are Saracens, an Arabic people also involved in these raids.
The presence of the Blemmyes and their ancestors in Nubia extends far back into prehistory. They seem to be descendants of the first African pastoralists and have continually occupied the hilly country of the eastern desert between the Red Sea and the Nile for at least several millennia. In the early historical period, they are probably to be identified with the Medjay people recorded in ancient Egyptian documents around 1800 B.C.
Herodotus, the fifth century B.C. Greek historian, was the first to refer to the Blemmyes as such. The account of these remote inhabitants of the known world by the "father of history" startles the reader with its characterization of a monstrous race whose heads are contained within their chests. This fanciful image of an undoubtedly real people has endured in the European imagination, so their depiction in ordinary human form is extremely rare.
The Blemmyes emerge more clearly on the historical stage during the late Roman Imperial period, when they attracted attention with their restless forays beyond their home region. From the wild fastness of the eastern desert, they invaded the fertile area along the Nile between Aswan and the Sudanese border known as the Dodecaschoinus. There they may have adopted aspects of the language and culture of Meroe, including the veneration of the mystery goddess Isis.
The Blemmyes remained in the area until well into the sixth century, when they were driven back into their homeland by the forces of the Byzantine emperor Justinian. The descendants of the Blemmyes are generally believed to be today's Beja people, who inhabit the southern zone of the eastern desert of Egypt and Sudan as well as parts of Eritrea.
By the time the relatio of Ammonius was compiled, possibly as late as the seventh century, the warlike habits of the Blemmyes had quite likely become lodged within the cultural memory of the Byzantines as an archetypal symbol of sudden disaster, a late-antique form of the bogeyman. Similarly, by this time the theology of the Eastern Orthodox Church had incorporated the concept of blackness as a symbol of the demonic forces of evil arrayed against the benevolent agency of the court of heaven.
If Pantoleon did not know just what a real Blemmye looked like, he certainly associated the Blemmyes with black people, and rendered them as such. For models, he would have had ample opportunity to observe a broad range of actual blacks in the cosmopolitan ambient of Constantinople. From such actual examples, Pantoleon fashioned his own striking visual impression of the Blemmyes as credible human beings and real agents of history.
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.