Who Was the First Black Saint?

Matthias Grunewald (artist). St. Erasmus and St. Maurice. From Halle, Collegiate church. Ca. 1520-24. Painting on wood
Matthias Grunewald (artist). St. Erasmus and St. Maurice. From Halle, Collegiate church. Ca. 1520-24. Painting on wood

Editor's Note: For those who are wondering about the retro title of this black history series, please take a moment to learn about historian Joel A. Rogers, author of the 1934 book 100 Amazing Facts About the Negro With Complete Proof, to whom these "amazing facts" are an homage.


(The Root) — Amazing Fact About the Negro No. 3: Who was the first black saint?

The jet-setters who frequent the Swiss resort town of St. Moritz are no doubt unaware that it was named after the first black person to be documented as a saint in the Roman Catholic Church. He was known as Saint Maurice (aka St. Mauritius, or St. Moritz).

A third-century Roman legionary who was born in Thebes in Upper Egypt, Maurice  was martyred in what is today Switzerland for refusing to massacre Christians for the Roman Empire. He was canonized by the early church, long before the Pope reserved the right of the Holy See exclusively to canonize souls in 1634. 

In the late fourth century Theodore, the bishop of Octudurum, had a vision in which he saw the martyrdom of Maurice and his fellow soldiers at Agaunum, Switzerland. Soon after, the cult of Maurice was established and a church built on the site. Then, in the early sixth century (ca. 515), devotees established an abbey there on land donated by King Sigismund of Burgundy. The abbey is still an active monastery and pilgrimage site, and the tomb of St. Maurice has been excavated. Maurice's feast day is Sept. 22.

Maurice was named a saint in the early Middle Ages, and many early depictions were of him as a white man. The first representations of him as a black African appear in the middle of the 13th century, when he is depicted as a black African soldier, in a magnificent stone statue in the Magdeburg Cathedral in central Germany in about 1240 A.D., standing next to the grave of Otto I, Holy Roman Emperor.

His cult became important in many places across Germany through the 16th century, and hundreds of images of him stand in European churches. He is the patron saint of soldiers, swordsmiths, armies, infantrymen, weavers and dyers, and is the patron saint of several towns in Europe, including Manresa, Spain, and Piedmont, Italy.


The Image of the Black in Western Art Archive in the Du Bois Institute at Harvard University includes 229 representations of Maurice, compiled by Gude Suckale-Redlefsen and published as The Black Saint Maurice in 1988. Most extant images of him are found in central Germany, but seven are in the Czech Republic, six in Denmark, three in Sweden, two each in Norway, Finland, Austria and Poland and one each in France, Estonia and Latvia.

Scholars believe that Maurice started being depicted as a dark-skinned African at this time because the Holy Roman Emperor, Frederick II Barbarossa, had ambitions to rule the entire world, just as the Pope claimed spiritual dominion over the entire world. We know that Frederick had black Africans at his court and in his retinue. 


Magdeburg, where the first image of Maurice as a black African appeared, was on the frontiers of the Empire, and was a region of military expansion. For whatever reasons, though, the black Saint Maurice became the subject of a masterpiece of Western art in Magdeburg and the subject of some of the greatest works of art created during the late Middle Ages and the Renaissance.  

Finally, the well-known Swiss resort town of St. Moritz — known since ancient times for the healing powers of its therapeutic springs, and today for skiing and other winter sports — takes its name from this black saint.


And how did Joel A. Rogers, author of the 1934 book (and the inspiration for this current series), fare on the question of the first black saint? Rogers was all over this one!

The frontispiece of 100 Amazing Facts About the Negro consists of three images, two of Saint Maurice, whom he identifies as the "celestial saint of Germany" and "a pure Negro," in Amazing Fact No. 53. Rogers also correctly states that Maurice was a member of a Roman legion and was martyred in Switzerland (Gaul) in the third century A.D. for refusing to kill Christians. Home run.


As always, you can find more "Amazing Facts About the Negro" on The Root, and check back each week as we count to 100.

Henry Louis Gates Jr. is the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and the director of the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African-American Research at Harvard University. He is also the editor-in-chief of The Root.