Alexandre-François Caminade, Adoration of the Magi, 1831. Oil on canvas, 287 by 475 cm.
St. Etienne-du-Mont, Paris

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.

Editor’s note: For the Image of the Week column on the Renaissance version of the Adoration of the Magi, click here. 

This imposing treatment of the Adoration of the Magi was commissioned for the majestic parish church of St. Etienne-du-Mont in Paris. The church houses the relics of St. Genevieve, an early medieval martyr and the patron saint of Paris. Two of France’s great secular sons, the poet Racine and the renowned natural philosopher Pascal, are also buried in places of honor nearby.

The Adoration of the Magi forms part of a cycle of large canvases dedicated to the life of Mary. In it Caminade has depicted the manifestation of the infant Christ to the three wise men from the East. Later in Christian tradition, these rather exotic sages were also characterized as the kings of the known world.

The painting is placed in a monumental setting along the curved walls of a chapel opening off the ambulatory of the choir. Perhaps begun as early as 1829, it was exhibited in 1831 at the Paris Salon, the annual official art exhibition of the French state and the most sought-after venue by artists in the country.

Advertisement

Caminade was well-established in his career when he painted this picture. Trained in the mainstream of official French art during one of its richest and most turbulent periods, he had thoroughly absorbed the tenets of the dominant neoclassical style as a pupil of the illustrious painter Jacques-Louis David. He also studied at the prestigious École des Beaux-Arts in Paris and won the coveted Rome Prize, a student competition that allowed him to perfect his skills in the tradition of the Italian masters.

The Adoration of the Magi takes place in a simple setting defined by the high stone wall of a once-magnificent building. In the Christian understanding of the theme, the wall represents the old dispensation of God’s law, to be replaced by the new age of grace brought about by the birth of Jesus. Caminade has dispensed with the extensive landscape views and surfeit of detail that often appear in scenes of the Adoration of the Magi in order to emphasize the solemn conclusion of the journey of the wise men.

A strong raking light dramatically illuminates the sacred event. The compositional syntax of the scene is provided by the clear diagonal arrangement of the principal figures. In the upper-left foreground, the viewer follows Joseph’s downward gaze toward the elderly wise man’s bestowal of the first gift to the Christ child. Dressed in green and wearing a delicately patterned turban, he offers the infant an open golden vessel. The second king stands behind his fellow travelers. He is dressed in a robe and long, flowing mantle and holds a covered vessel.

Advertisement

Anchoring the triangular foreground group is the figure of the black king, traditionally the youngest of the three. He has prostrated himself before the child, his face to the ground. Beside him lies an elaborately worked golden casket, its lid slightly open. Just behind him kneels a member of his retinue, a black man who gazes intently toward the mother and child, his hand raised in wonder at the miraculous event. His other hand rests on the edge of a large chest containing a variety of sumptuous textiles.

One of the most striking aspects of Caminade’s Adoration of the Magi is the novel placement of the black king within the group. He does not stand aligned with the others, as is usually the case, but throws himself before the Christ child just as the elderly magus offers his gift. This compositional innovation introduces an intriguing alternative interpretation of the age-old theme. The usual sequence of the kings’ obeisance, arranged in order of age, seems supplanted here by the black king’s act of spontaneous recognition of the divine presence before him. The traditional protocol has been ignored, though as rendered here, it is in no way disruptive.

The significance of the black king’s subservient gesture is accentuated by the prominence given it within the composition. Set squarely in the center foreground, his life-size presence is further accentuated by the bright-red hue of his robe. It is the dominant coloristic accent in the picture and carries boldly across the broad space of the chapel. Set not far above the eye level of the viewer, his bowed head and humbled posture offer an intimate communion with the viewer on the conduct of personal devotion.

Advertisement

It is quite possible that the lightly bearded young black attendant in Caminade’s picture was made from life. He bears a considerable resemblance to the features of Joseph, a well-known Haitian acrobat and contortionist performing in Paris at that time. Discovered around 1818 by the artist Théodore Géricault among the members of the troupe of the famed tight-rope artist Madame Saqui, Joseph had posed for one of the key figures in that painter’s epochal work The Raft of the Medusa.

From this experience, Joseph undertook a long career as an artist’s model. He became popular not only because of his broad-shouldered physique but also for the engaging nature of his personality. With this information we gain just a glimpse of the real individual behind his appearance in the studio.

Almost 20 years later, Théodore Chassériau painted Joseph nude and full length as a study for the figure of Satan in a work that was never completed. In between, this well-known, attractive man may have posed for Caminade, too. The broad range of subjects that black people were employed to represent in these remarkable images demonstrates their relevance to the thematic concerns of French artists of the period.

Advertisement

To modern eyes, the emphasis on the black king’s pious gesture can represent a dual role, one quite literal, the other broadly speculative and not without irony. Beyond its spiritual significance, his prostrate figure suggests a special place for the African in the contemporary French mindset, not only within the scene but also in the future of the nation itself.

At the time the painting was installed, slavery still existed in the French colonies of the West Indies. Only in 1830, just one year before Caminade’s Adoration of the Magi was installed at St. Etienne, did the French government officially ban the slave trade, although its illegal practice continued for years. The abolition of slavery itself was sporadically discussed in political circles, although the strong lobby of the sugar interests and plantation owners prevented any true progress toward its achievement. The abolition of slavery in French territories would be achieved by nothing less than the tumultuous occurrence of the 1848 revolution.

The black king can be taken as an allusion to the popular image of the supplicant slave employed so effectively by the abolitionist movement in Europe and the United States. Looking further ahead to the colonial ambitions of France in sub-Saharan Africa, the black king also symbolizes the occupation of huge territories within the continent, as well as the concern of its native populations for their own well-being as they faced the prospects of life under new masters in their own land.

Advertisement

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.