This image is part of a weekly series that The Root is presenting in conjunction with the Image of the Black Archive & Library at Harvard University’s Hutchins Center for African and African American Research.
When one is investigating the role of people of African descent in Western art, the results often take surprising turns. In the lavishly rendered scene of the Last Supper seen here, a typically medieval approach to color concerns not race but the symbolic representation of the demonic threat to the Christian order. Lying between the naturalistic orientation of antiquity and the humanist ideals of the Renaissance that would follow, medieval Christianity’s primary concern with the spiritual health of its followers forestalled any preoccupation with ethnic diversity. For theologians such as Augustine, the notion of otherness resided solely with the denizens of the infernal realm.
This engaging scene of Christ and his apostles gathered for their last meal was painted by Liutoldus, a monk working in the Benedictine abbey of Mondsee in the present region of Upper Austria. He is known as the illuminator of at least nine surviving manuscripts, including this sumptuous copy of a liturgical text. Numbering almost 200 large-format pages, the Evangeliary contains a selection of stories derived from the four Gospels, or books of the New Testament that relate the life and ministry of Jesus. The monks read passages from this compilation during the divine service of Mass. The text accompanying this illumination is taken from the Latin Vulgate translation of the Gospel of John.
The Last Supper occurs near the end of the manuscript and represents one of the culminating moments of the earthly mission of Jesus. Tightly arranged on either side of the majestic figure of their master, the apostles respond to his disturbing pronouncement that one of them will betray him. In fact, the identity of their guilty companion has been made plain. Jesus points indirectly to the darkly shaded figure of Judas, who stands isolated from the others on the near side of the table.
Through the use of color, the artist effectively reveals the demonic forces at work in the corruption of Judas, whose betrayal ends in the capture and crucifixion of Jesus. In relation to the text inscribed above the scene, Judas stands spiritually in tenebris—that is, in the shadows, like those who hear Christ’s teachings but do not take them to heart. His tawny color recalls the term fuscus used by early church scholars to indicate dark, though not necessarily black, skin.
Though rather naturalistically rendered, the artist’s conception of Judas does not yet reveal the awareness of the black body or the association with evil imposed upon it in subsequent periods of Western art. In accordance with medieval interpretive tradition, darkness itself signifies the perfidious nature of Judas’ betrayal. The meaning of his dark color is confined to the purely metaphorical indication of spiritual ignorance and to his consequent exclusion from the redemptive agency of Christ. Although his facial features and coloration vary significantly from those on the other side of the table, they do not resemble the somatic qualities of a person of African origin.
In medieval art up to this point, as here, the demonic state was commonly rendered by dark-colored figures with grotesquely distorted, nonhuman features. As with Liutoldus’ image of Judas, such fanciful imaginings of infernal beings seem never to have contained ethnic overtones. At the very time that Liutoldus worked on the illustrations for this Evangeliary, however, the image of actual black people was already transforming the visual treatment of Christian subjects. The characterization of Judas here comes at the end of the purely symbolic meaning of darkness as sin, a trait that, along with the opposing state of virtuousness, would soon be transferred to the ethnically black figure.
Nicholas of Verdun, a contemporary of Liutoldus, had produced a dark-skinned, though ambiguously African, image of the Queen of Sheba. The next logical step in the representation of actual blackness was taken in the reimagined form of the Egyptian warrior St. Maurice and of one of the wise men attending the birth of the Christ Child. These exemplary figures all came from Africa or, at any rate, from lands far beyond the direct experience of Western Europe. Blackness took on a new specificity of race and locale, especially for august African personages venerated by the Christian world.
Conversely, a much more threatening view of black people was interpolated within episodes of violence and calumny, though with no basis in sacred literature. Such figures commonly represent anonymous exemplars of the forces of evil, such as the torturers of Christ or the executioners of saints seen on the facades of medieval cathedrals. Darkness connoting race could now conjure both exemplary virtue as well as evil incarnate, and much in between, encompassing the whole spectrum of the human condition.
The association of evil with darkness is one thing, but its subsequent transference to actual human beings is a different matter altogether. The Middle Ages up to the time of Liutoldus can be seen as another period in Western history, like Greco-Roman antiquity, existing before the advent of true racial prejudice, since the notion of darkness itself was sufficient to invoke the demonic threat. In this view, the imposition of the inherent malevolence of darkness onto the black body would deviate entirely from the intentions of early church authorities. That it did happen was the result, among other factors, of the political dynamics surrounding the first real contact with black populations and not simply the continuing influence of theologically derived notions of color symbolism. The characterization of a saint’s executioner as black, for instance, had more to do with European exposure to the threatening world of the “Saracen” to the east than to the retention of a purely abstract notion of evil.
Liutoldus probably lived to witness these dramatic changes in the visual treatment of sacred subjects. He is one of the last exemplars of the symbolic treatment of darkness before the Western mind took on a more empirical approach to knowledge. For better or worse, dark skin had now become directly correlated with ethnicity, in particular that of Africans.
Perceptions of black people no longer directly depended on the abstractions of medieval theology but on the variable experience of black people themselves. By the time of the slave trade, the general equivalence of darkness to evil had further shifted to the assumed ethnic inferiority of Africans within the more concrete context of “enlightened” science and trade. Only with long struggle against the abuses of slavery would such gross mischaracterizations even begin to be redressed.
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.