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.
Enthroned in celestial majesty, the impassive, monumental figure of Christ proclaims the spiritual equality of all men before God. This transcendent image of human validation dominates the main axis of the Church of St. Paul in the city of Nimes in southern France. It was painted during 1848 and 1849 in the hemispherical vault of the apse spanning the high altar. The title of this monumental image, translated as “The Equality of Men Before God,” is derived from a contemporary printed reproduction distributed just after the painting was finished.
The style of the work recalls the fixed forms of Byzantine and medieval Italian art, but it was actually created during the mid-19th century during the so-called Romanesque Revival. The artist was Jean-Hippolyte Flandrin, a pupil of the acclaimed neoclassical painter Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres. Flandrin had won the prestigious Rome Prize as the capstone of his training at the official art school of the French state. No slavish follower of his master, he soon developed his own spare critique of European art, past and present.
Flandrin’s vast cycle of painting for St. Paul’s soon received critical attention. Appreciative notices in the periodical press, perhaps not surprisingly, confined the issue of equality to the theological context for which the image was created. Yet the concept of universal parity among humankind as it was more generally discussed during this seminal period in French history embraced a far broader range of concerns, both moral and political, than had ever been broached before.
The measured proportions of the figure of Christ, lack of naturalistic foreshortening, suppression of tonal contrasts and standardization of form all combine to produce a striking effect of eternal authority. At either side stand Christ’s two major apostles, rendered on a much smaller scale. St. Peter is seen to the left, holding the keys to heaven and a scroll of the books attributed to him in the New Testament canon. Christ is flanked on the opposite side by St. Paul, who holds his own contributions to Scripture as well as the sword of his martyrdom. This triadic relationship succinctly articulates the basic structure of Roman Catholic Christianity: Peter as the founder of the Lord’s church on Earth, Paul as the formulator of sacred dogma articulating the message of divine redemption.
The relationship between divinity and the created world is represented as two submissive figures kneeling humbly at the feet of Christ. They denote the full spectrum of the material conditions of human existence. On the favored right-hand side relative to Christ crouches a nearly nude black slave, his wrists and ankles still in manacles. Opposite this image of the powerless of the world, a robed king prostrates himself to the same degree, placing his crown and scepter at the feet of Christ. One presents his poverty and disenfranchisement to the Lord of Heaven, the other his earthly riches and power. The outspread arms of Christ extend downward toward each figure, bestowing the same benediction on both. Despite the absolute difference in their worldly fortunes, before the power of heaven they are equal.
The commission for the visual program of the church coincided with a watershed moment of unrest and transition in France. This fertile coincidence between art and history provides a convenient point of entry for the discussion of the issue of slavery as formulated in the apse. As it turns out, the transcendent nature of the image may leave much unsaid about one of the most pertinent issues confronting Frenchmen of the time.
The artist and his assistants completed their project in the astonishingly short span of eight months. For all his self-described isolation from the outside world, in this case the cosmopolitan city of Paris, Flandrin was hardly working in a vacuum. The commission had barely gotten under way when the governing constitutional monarchy was overthrown by the return of a nominally republican form of government under the mercurial figure of Louis-Napoleon.
The new leader, swept into power by the revolution of 1848, was the nephew of the still-revered Napoleon Bonaparte. Like his illustrious forebear, Louis-Napoleon appealed to a broad spectrum of interests through the shrewd manipulation of his political persona. To some he could be the ideal exemplar of a much-needed central authority; others saw him as a democrat concerned with the plight of the working poor, increasingly disenfranchised by the juggernaut of the industrial revolution.
One of the signal accomplishments of this short-lived experiment in progressive government came in the form of the emancipation of the slaves toiling in the colonies of the French West Indies. Unlike the abortive abolishment of slavery under France’s First Republic half a century before, this time freedom was permanent.
As Flandrin worked undistracted within the silent recesses of St. Paul’s, all of France buzzed with fervent talk of politics, revolution and other contentious issues of the day. The issue of equality took on a bewildering range of interpretations. For abolitionists such as Victor Schoelcher, equality meant nothing less than redemption from a life of enforced servitude. For the prominent voices of social reform, the predicament of the working poor was likened to slavery and demanded a kindred form of relief.
Theologians, of course, also had their say, and it is here that the consideration of slavery provoked often contradictory positions marked both by entrenched religious conservatism and the challenge of social idealism to the existing state of affairs. The indispensable teachings of St. Paul, to whom the church was dedicated, were often invoked for quite different ends. On the one hand, the great spiritual authority pronounced that all people, whether Jew or gentile, slave or free, were equal in the sight of God. At another point in his writings, however, he seemed to admonish slaves to be less concerned with their earthly state of bondage and instead seek freedom from the slavery of man’s sinful nature.
In the end, it is difficult to gauge the real extent of the promise of freedom for the slave humbling himself before Christ. Does he miraculously shed his burden of captivity, while the king opposite him surrenders his earthly glory? Or do both men seek spiritual salvation at the feet of their Lord, only to return to their accustomed, spiritually sanctioned, positions on Earth below? Ultimately, Flandrin’s impressive theological formula seems to remain firmly within the confines of conventional spiritual orthodoxy, avoiding the burning issue of equality in the sphere of the mundane. If so, the image is as morally ambiguous as it is aesthetically impressive.
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.