(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.
A scene of suffering answered by charity takes place in a crude dwelling, engendering a moving tableau between the humble and the exalted in the city of Boston. This work in plaster served as the model for a bronze panel on the base of a monument to the Catholic priest Jean-Louis Lefebvre de Cheverus (1768-1836), erected in his hometown of Mayenne, France.
Cheverus' emerging clerical career in France was cut short by the French Revolution. In 1796, while in exile in Great Britain, he was appointed to undertake missionary work in New England. He became the first Catholic bishop of Boston in 1810 and was later elevated to the rank of cardinal.
Four reliefs on the base of the monument celebrate the popular clergyman's renowned piety and devotion to the poor. The scenes depict his mission to the Native Americans, his benevolence toward the ailing wife of an absent sailor, his prayer for the rescue of his ship at sea and, as seen here, his solicitude for a poor, bedridden man. The striking examples of Cheverus' charity depicted on the monument are taken from a popular biography published by a colleague shortly after his death.
According to this source, Cheverus heard of a black man lying ill and neglected in a shack along one of Boston's main thoroughfares. He hastened to the man's side and then faithfully came early every morning to light a fire, dress his sores and make sure he was comfortable for the rest of the day. Overcome by curiosity, his servant followed him one day and is seen here peeking through the door at the right.
The bishop holds the black man in an act exemplary of Jesus' parable to his disciples regarding compassion for the unfortunate (Matthew 25:35-36): "I was naked and you clothed me, ill and you cared for me … " The Christian content of the benevolent act is made explicit by the interaction of the two men.
As Cheverus wraps the black man's arm, the afflicted man gazes upward into the eyes of his benefactor, his lips nearly touching the cross suspended before him. The motive of salvation, defined by its air of intense devotion, may be seen simply as a demonstration of Cheverus' universal charity but also recalls the passive depiction of blacks in contemporary anti-slavery imagery.
Cheverus was active in Boston amid a growing climate of abolitionism and black self-agency. Most of the notable advances in the social and legal status of blacks resulted from the resolute self-determination of the African-American citizenry.
The African Meeting House was founded in 1806 by several prominent blacks who were dissatisfied with their religious experience in white congregations. During the latter half of the 1820s, David Walker, a pioneering abolitionist, rejected all affronts to his race, taking Thomas Jefferson to task for his racist views of blacks and urging fellow blacks into action against slavery and discrimination.
What separated the early abolitionists from Cheverus was their unswerving commitment to radical social change through legal and at times extralegal advocacy. His dedication to the conservative religious and political authority of prerevolutionary France, represented by Catholicism and the divine right of kings, would seem to have embraced an altogether different form of altruism, one that alleviated social ills within the established order of things. In this regard, one wonders how he felt when the oppressed slaves of Haiti took matters into their own hands and revolted against their French masters.
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.