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.
In a startling re-enactment of a pious medieval legend, two doctors perform a miraculous act of surgical healing. Their intervention transcends the parameters of medicine to address the role played by race in the history of early modern Europe.
The scene represents a posthumous miracle of two early Christian saints, the twin doctors Cosmas and Damian. This particular presentation of the story takes the form of a carved and painted relief from a now displaced altarpiece. The work was originally set up, appropriately, in the funerary chapel of a doctor, located in the convent of San Francisco in the Spanish city of Valladolid.
Though Cosmas and Damian are said to have been martyred under the Roman emperor Diocletian in the late third century, the story of the black leg first appears in their hagiography a thousand years later. It is part of the Golden Legend, a collection of engaging accounts of the deeds of Christian saints compiled by the Dominican monk Jacobus de Voragine in the later 13th century.
The story of the black leg relates a wondrous act that took place in a church dedicated to the saints in Rome. Shortly after its dedication in the early sixth century, the sacristan, or custodian, of the church became crippled with an ulcerous leg. As he lay in his bed, he dreamed that the two renowned healing saints appeared beside him, holding medical instruments and an ointment jar. After consulting with each other, they decided to replace the diseased leg with that of a black man, described in the account as an Ethiopian who had died the day before and been buried in another church in the city.
In this relief, the corpse is prominently represented in the right foreground for narrative convenience. The operation was carried out with success, and the sacristan’s leg was buried with the body of the black man. When the sacristan awoke, he leaped from his bed in joy, running to show his new leg to his family and friends. The contrasting color of the limb seems not to have mattered either to the sacristan or to the story’s author.
The role of the black man in the miracle exists within the highly conflicted perception of blackness that had developed within Christian theology during the early Middle Ages. On the one hand, black people could symbolize the ever present threat of demonic forces. Fully countering such negative connotations, however, was the simultaneously emerging characterization of blacks as stalwart exemplars of Christian virtue. Their origins go all the way back to the beginning of Christianity, in the biblical person of the Ethiopian eunuch, actually a high-ranking official at the royal court in Nubia. Also from the tradition of Scripture came the queen of Sheba, as well as the black king who bore the gift of myrrh to the Christ child at his birth.
For Isidro de Villoldo and his contemporaries, the Ethiopian in the miracle of the black leg takes his place among these more optimistic evocations of blackness. The story expressly points out that he was interred in one of the most important churches in Rome, where he would have received the holy sacrament of burial. Dressed in a richly worked garment, he seems to have been a person of high status and, like the Ethiopian eunuch himself, a member of the extended Christian community.
The excision of his leg for the purpose of healing can be regarded as an unusual example of both inclusion and posthumous charity, rather than an egregiously callous act of exploitation. This sympathetic relationship is reinforced compositionally by the identical alignment and similar poses of the bodies of donor and recipient.
In our own times, not surprisingly, the role of the black man in the miracle has provoked quite a different response. The enduring legacy of slavery, with its desire to control the black mind and body, has largely overtaken the previously established, positive notion of blackness in European thought to impose a new, tortured identity upon the Ethiopian donor. He is viewed as a living, suffering victim, emblematic of the thousands of actual black people living in Spain and the New World by the mid-16th century, as well as of the countless others to follow.
The impression of a still-living individual is entirely unintended, however, and is merely the result of the Renaissance artist’s typical concern with the dynamic treatment of natural form, even in a moribund state. The death of the black man is made altogether clear by the omission of his eyes, often characterized as the windows of the soul. Only hollow sockets remain, in contrast with the carefully rendered eyes of the other figures, including those of the sleeping sacristan.
The current engagement with the black man in the miracle has defined a wide range of issues, all quite relevant in themselves. In some cases, artists have reciprocated with works of their own. For Natasha Trethewey, named poet laureate of the U.S. in 2012, this and other works from the early modern period have inspired a series of poems exploring the issue of race in Western culture. In her poem “Miracle of the Black Leg,” the animated, apparently tormented figure of the black man in Villoldo’s relief evokes an immensely troubling, paradoxical relationship of simultaneous desire for and rejection of those of African descent by society’s dominant forces.
Across the Atlantic, in Geneva, the Greek artist and activist Panos Sklavenitis has created an entire installation around the relief, using imagery related to the theme of the black leg to protest the persecution and, sometimes, murder of disadvantaged immigrants in Greece by reactionary forces.
The contemporary response to the relief as a touchstone for addressing issues of profound ethical importance is entirely to be expected, given the inevitable changes in perspective that come with the passage of time. It is equally important, though, not to overlook the time-honored ideal of universal acceptance that has always run alongside the history of intolerance within Western civilization. This more salutary impulse helped, after all, to prompt the social and political will to abolish the horrible blight of slavery and to attempt to heal its painful legacy.
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.