Pedro de la Cuadra, Mercedarians redeeming prisoners, panel from a dismembered altarpiece. Circa 1599, 165 by 116 cm.
Museo Nacional de Escultura Policromada, Valladolid, Spain

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.

During the long and odious history of slavery, moral objection to its depredations has resulted in many counterstrategies to aid those placed in bondage. In the case of the image seen here, a visually arresting scene of redemption occurs not by brute force but, rather, by a pious act of charity.

Over 5 feet high, the scene forms one of more than a dozen such elements in a massive altarpiece produced for a Spanish monastic order dedicated to the ransoming of captives held in foreign lands. In paradigmatic form, this brilliantly carved and painted wooden panel evokes the prevailing attitude toward ethnicity and religious faith within the worldview of imperial Spain. It tells of the increasingly dogmatic line being drawn at this time between the establishment of Iberian national identity and the threat of the Muslim world.

The sustained attempt to redeem Spanish slaves overseas took place within the larger context of the Christian reconquest of Spain from its Muslim rulers. In the early 13th century, the members of a remarkable religious brotherhood dedicated themselves to the recovery of the forced diaspora of their countrymen to the shores of North Africa and beyond. Some of its victims had been captured during the heat of battle, some in coastal raids by Muslim pirates. Still others had fallen prey to the often perilous circumstances of overseas trade and travel.

Many of the lower-ranking captives were taken for the slave trade, to be sold in the marketplace at the first opportunity. Others of more substantial means found themselves in a state of limbo, awaiting the payment of a sizable ransom.

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Judging from the carefully worked patterns of their robes, the four prisoners standing in the upper left of this relief are Spanish merchants or officials unfortunate enough to have been captured while abroad. The high reddish caps with floppy peaks indicate their hostage status, as do the heavy chains attached to their neck collars. They watch with varied expressions as their freedom is secured by two Mercedarian brothers. The sinuous descent of one prisoner’s chains ends at the pile of gold on the merchant’s table, stressing both the enslaved man’s commodified status and the means of his release.

The redemption of fellow Christians directly from the hands of their captors became the sole objective of the religious order of the Mercedarians. The founder, Peter Nolasco, had apparently already begun raising alms for this purpose in the late 12th century. Soon, his little society of Christian militants had grown prominent enough in its mission that the Catholic Church formally recognized the confraternity of knights.

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The brothers put themselves under the spiritual protection of Mary and operated under the royal patronage of King James I of Aragon. The full name of the order—the Royal, Celestial and Military Order of Our Lady of Mercy and the Redemption of the Captives—clearly states its martial beginnings and ongoing cause. The order is distinguished by the coat of arms of James I, surmounted by a cross, and by the white habit worn by its members.

The dramatic rescue of enslaved Spaniards depicted in this panel once formed part of the retablo mayor, or high altarpiece, for the church of the Mercedarian order in Valladolid. It was carved at the end of the 16th century by Pedro de la Cuadra, one of the region’s best-known sculptors. The city lay in the heart of the former kingdoms of León and Castile, an important staging point for the re-establishment of Christian Spain.

Recently the panel was painstakingly restored to its original condition. A comparison with the uncleaned state shown here reveals the brilliant exposition of fabric and skin tone visible when the panel was first set in place. At the right, two bearded and tonsured Mercedarian brothers appear before the counting table of a hostage broker. One of them takes gold coins wrapped in his sacred vestments and adds them to a pile already on the table.

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In contrast with the clear roles played by the other figures in this pious drama, a black man stands ambiguously between the hostages and the broker. He holds his arms across his chest and looks distractedly out at the scene. His position within the panel suggests the role of slave keeper, responsible for the confinement of the prisoners until the transaction is completed.

The addition of vibrant color to the relief transformed the uniform tone of the wood into a vivid simulacrum of reality. The range of ethnicities carved by Pedro de la Cuarda was enhanced by the anonymous painter’s use of the entire range of tonal values. From the near-white of the monks’ faces, the sequence continues with the dusky rose of the prisoners’ skin, then to the reddish-brown hue of the broker, followed by the burnt-umber cast of the black man’s face and arm.

Along with the use of local color to enhance the ethnicity of the figures, the broad range of hues alludes to their position within a metaphysical scheme of good and evil. The monks take on a pallid aura of sanctity appropriate to the nature of their work, while the ruddier complexions of the captives bear witness to their place in the secular world. The darker colors of the broker and his black accomplice, on the other hand, recall the long-established Christian association of darkness with evil, sin and death.

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In this case, however, the spiritual dichotomy between darkness and light that had evolved in early Christian theology has been reinforced by the hardening response of the Catholic Church to the challenge of the Protestant Reformation. Nowhere was the spirit of orthodoxy so pronounced as in Counter-Reformation Spain at the time this relief was produced. Only 10 years after Pedro de la Cuadra finished his work at the convent, King Philip III ordered the expulsion of all people of Muslim descent from Spain.

Within this fixed scheme of metaphysical strife, the black man, though quite possibly a slave himself, will not find redemption because of his ignominious role as the custodian of Christians unjustly deprived of their liberty. The evident disparities of skin color in the relief reflect the Mercedarian order’s strict distinction between Christian and infidel, as well as its intention to save only white prisoners from both physical and spiritual degradation at the hands of the other.

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.