(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 Institute for African and African American Research.
The Adoration of the Magi is one of the most enduring images in Christian art. It not only evokes the prospect of spiritual salvation but also expresses the universal bond between mother and child. Originally treated quite reductively, the representation of this theme became ever more inclusive as its interpretive context expanded during the Middle Ages.
In this carved-relief panel, seen here in a detail, the image of the black makes an appearance of signal importance. He appears for perhaps the first time in a positive role, edging aside the lugubrious stereotype of the black demon or executioner that had obsessed the European mind to this point.
The relief was produced for the pulpit of Siena Cathedral, one of the architectural jewels of central Italy, just after the middle of the 13th century. Its creator was Nicola Pisano, a sculptor instrumental in the development of Italian sculpture of the early Renaissance. In all there were seven panels surrounding the raised lectern where key texts from the Bible were read to the congregation. The Adoration of the Magi is the second in the series, following The Nativity, or actual birth of Jesus. The group ends with panels representing the fate of the blessed and the damned at the Last Judgment.
The detail shows two middle-aged black servants riding on camels. They lead the procession of the wise men, or Magi, who have journeyed from the East to honor the birth of Jesus. The story is told in two parts, seen within the same composition in a technique known as continuous narration. Above the black riders, the Magi appear again, this time dismounted and offering their presents before the Christ Child.
The two men wear elaborately worked tunics and are seated on richly figured boxlike platforms. The rider in the foreground sits with his legs crossed, both feet placed on the camel's neck. This particular manner of riding, and the convincing forward lurch of the man's head, convey a convincing impression of travel on the back of one of these exotic beasts and must have been observed from life. The rendering of the facial features of both men — particularly the sagging flesh under the neck of the rear rider — also project a lifelike sense bordering on portraiture.
The magnificent ensemble of the pulpit reliefs required only two years to complete. Three members of Pisano's shop, including his son Giovanni, assisted him in the monumental task. The highly original works produced by the Pisano family for Pisa, Siena and other cities founded the great tradition of central Italian sculpture, an artistic current later given further impetus by Michelangelo. The artist's origins, however, lay a good distance farther south. He came from the region of Apulia in the heel of Italy and possibly received his artistic training in one of the workshops set up in the region by the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick the Great.
Though German, Frederick preferred to base his court in Sicily. While his northern holdings gradually slipped from his grasp, the affairs of his southern Italian kingdom flourished in an attitude of tolerance of other religions and cultures. Frederick created a vibrant imperial government, renowned for its sophisticated manners, art and efficient bureaucracy, from the rich heritage of those who had ruled the region before him.
Whether at home or on one of his frequent travels throughout his realms, Frederick surrounded himself with the trappings of a far-flung empire. His extensive menagerie included giraffes and camels, and his court featured a truly cosmopolitan mix of Arabs, blacks and Jews. Above all, however, the black presence held a special significance for Frederick. His adoption of a clearly black St. Maurice as the patron saint of the empire is generally taken as a concrete symbol of universal rule.
The completion of the pulpit reliefs in Siena coincides precisely with the extinction of Frederick the Great's dynasty, and with it the end of his grand imperial aspirations. Still, in the exotic panoply of the arrival of the Magi, with its camel-riding black men, Pisano's relief seems imprinted by the flavor of the great ruler's Italian court. One is also reminded of subsequent imperial houses' adoption of the Magian theme as a means to reinforce the legitimacy of their own rule.
The relief marks a key point in the acceptance of the image of the other during the medieval period. The identification of a black king among the Magi, or wise men, in exegetical literature of the same period was followed by his actual depiction in art.
The presence of blacks in Pisano's relief foreshadows the magnificent images of the black king in works by the masters of the Renaissance and Baroque periods. Yet these camel drivers occupy a place of honor here as leaders of the kings' cortege. Even though the image of the black would, in coming centuries, again suffer ignominious treatment, the place of people of African descent as a functioning part of the Western vision of the world could never be revoked.
The Image of the Black in Western Art Archive resides at Harvard University's W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research. The director of the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute 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.