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.
Against a brilliant red background, a regal figure and her servant stand before the enthroned King Solomon, the famed ruler of ancient Israel. The renowned monarch gestures in recognition of the queen, who offers him a large golden cup containing a precious gift.
As recounted in the biblical book of 1 Kings (10:1-13), she is the queen of the distant land of Sheba, or Saba, as the name is rendered in other traditions. According to Christian, Jewish and Muslim interpretation, her realm lay within southern Arabia, in present-day Yemen. Within the tradition of medieval Ethiopia, however, it was located there, across the Red Sea, within Africa itself.
According to the biblical account, the appearance of the queen before Solomon was motivated by her desire to gauge the great monarch’s reputation for unsurpassed wisdom. The impressive stature of the queen of Sheba is confirmed not only by her own innate curiosity and initiative but also by the magnificence of the gifts she offered to Solomon. Besides spices and precious stones, she brought four-and-a-half tons of gold, an amount surely exaggerated but that nevertheless emphasizes the great bounty of her native land. After bestowing her benediction on the God of Israel, “she turned and went to her own country, she and her servants.”
Measuring about 2 feet in diameter, this compact scene once formed part of a large stained glass window set within the choir of the Church of St. Thomas in Strasbourg, a vibrant, cosmopolitan French city strongly influenced by its proximity to the Rhine Valley region of Germany. The window contained representations of key events from the Hebrew Bible. Another window depicted stories from the life of St. Thomas. All five windows once in the choir were removed during the 1770s, not as an act of war or religious iconoclasm but to make way for the monumental tomb of a recently deceased military leader.
Part of the stunning effect of this boldly rendered scene has to do with the innovative distinction of the skin colors of the three figures. The face and hands of Solomon are drawn on the clear, or white, glass commonly used for the representation of bare skin in stained glass. The face and hands of the queen, however, are rendered in dark blue, a color often used to produce the effect of blackness in this light-activated medium. The violet shade of her servant’s curly-haired face would seem to indicate yet another ethnicity, perhaps Asian or Middle Eastern.
The tersely related biblical account of the queen of Sheba’s visit to Solomon left many details untold. Later, religious and national traditions built on her adventurous quest in order to advance their own agendas. In The Kebra Nagast (“The Glory of the Kings”), the great royal chronicle of Ethiopia, she is known as Makeda. Her originally platonic relationship with the Hebrew king was extended to include a sexual liaison, which produced a son, Menelik I, the progenitor of a great line of Solomonic emperors. Within the Muslim tradition, it is the king and prophet Suleiman (Solomon) who hears of the queen. He admonishes her to reject the pagan worship of the sun to embrace the one true god, Allah.
For Christians, the response to the matter-of-fact telling of the visit of the queen of Sheba to Solomon was turned to an equally specific purpose. Early theologians regarded her visit as a sign of the recognition of Solomon and his god by the world at large, but it was only later, during the Middle Ages, that this relationship was taken further.
Church scholars such as Otto, the 12th-century bishop of the German city of Freising and uncle of the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick I, began to regard the story of Sheba as an allegory of the relationship between Christ, signified by Solomon, and his mystical bride, Sheba, who stands for the submission of the people of the world to the king of heaven. She was also endowed with the qualities of Mary, mother of Jesus, and the presents given by her to Solomon were likened to the gifts of the Magi at the birth of the savior.
Of great importance for understanding the stained glass roundel here is its relationship to the newly risen assertion of imperial power and ambition among contemporary theologians. For churchmen within the political ambient of the Holy Roman Empire, the importance of the story of the queen of Sheba’s journey was further extended as a manifestation of the imperial mission to rule and evangelize the entire non-Christian world.
This overweening vision of conquest was suggested by the general identification of the queen of Sheba’s land with the remote reaches of southern Arabia or Ethiopia. For Rupert of Deutz and his 12th-century contemporaries, the locations of Asia and Africa on the world map were still somewhat intermingled. The queen of Sheba came to stand as an ideal type for the willing reception of Christianity by pagan lands. Around her were gathered whole hosts of people left out of the original biblical promise.
With this ecumenical treatment of the story of the queen of Sheba, a remarkable thing happens: In certain prominent representations of her visit to Solomon, she appears as a black person. Her transformation within Christian allegory as the universal church of the gentiles brought with it great changes in art, too. Along with the august, militant figure of St. Maurice, the image of the black as a positive aspect of Christianity made its clearest appearance to date.
Her new symbol of universal conversion may have been enhanced by the self-characterization of the ideal bride in the Song of Songs (1:5-6), a group of erotic verses traditionally attributed to King Solomon himself. The protagonist has, in fact, often been identified with the queen of Sheba. In the original Hebrew text, the passage reads: “I am black and beautiful.” Later, her statement was rendered in a more compromised fashion by the Christian scholar Jerome in his Latin Vulgate translation of the Bible as “I am black but beautiful.”
As seen here, the queen of Sheba makes an early appearance as a black woman. In a sense, though, her representation as African is still tentative, since her hair and facial features are unmistakably European. The ephemeral appearance of a dark-skinned African queen may be more narrowly explained by the demise of the imperial formula for universal conquest. But it may also be that the Western mindset was not ready to embrace such an ideal leading lady of color. Only recently has she again assumed her biblical aspect of black and beautiful, this time in the medium of film, played in short order by Halle Berry, Vivica A. Fox and Beyoncé.
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.