The Judgment of Solomon, circa 1220. Stone lintel relief.
North transept, west portal, Chartres Cathedral, France

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.

Standing beside the august figure of King Solomon, a black attendant silently witnesses a novel dispensation of justice by the great king of Israel. The attendant wears a double-layered tunic, cinched at the waist, with closely gathered sleeves around the wrists. The only trace of pigment now remaining on the figure, once brightly painted, is a durable coating of black covering his hands and the characteristically African features of his head. In his left hand he holds a large sword within its scabbard, most of which has been broken away. When it was intact, the lower end of the mighty weapon rested directly on the footstool of Solomon’s throne.

Out of view to the right, a horizontal frieze of figures relates the dramatic struggle over a newborn infant between two women. Only one can be right, and so Solomon adopts the unorthodox but cunning strategy of proposing to split the child between them. The true mother nobly offers to give the baby to the false claimant rather than see it suffer such a horrible fate. Upon hearing this selfless demonstration of maternal love, Solomon reunites the mother with her child.

The moving scene is set over a monumental portal on the north side of the great cathedral at Chartres, not far from Paris. The magnificent building stands as the first fully developed example of Gothic architecture. Carved around 1220, the nearly life-size figures display the recent mastery of naturalistic human form and psychological expression by a host of talented though anonymous sculptors.

In related medieval scenes of execution, the agent of oppression is often a grimacing black soldier or headsman who personifies the very nature of the miscarriage of justice. Here, however, the treatment of the incident is anything but disturbing. The medieval narrator leaves the precise moment of the story tantalizingly vague. Most scholars feel that the black soldier beside the king is drawing his sword from its scabbard in preparation for executing the dreadful order. An equally justifiable point of view, however, is that Solomon’s decision has already been rendered, and so the swordsman sheaths the instrument of death, looking down contemplatively as he does so.

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The presence of a black man at the court of the wise king reveals much about the presence of people of African descent in Europe at the dawn of a new, more direct encounter with the surrounding world. Expansion of trade, travel and warfare during the Middle Ages had brought many blacks to Europe from at least the time of the First Crusade of the late 11th century. Most were slaves, though often this condition passed from a de facto status to one of actual freedom.

The trope of the black swordsman, as it turns out, had a living counterpart more than a century earlier in the form of the black slave John, the much-feared henchman of Gaudry, bishop of the not-so-distant French city of Laon. John’s depredations at the behest of his master eventually brought about dire consequences for the bishop when his subjects expelled him from his palace and set up their own government. Those who took in the story of the Judgment of Solomon at Chartres may well have remembered this fateful event, prompted by a sword wielded by a black man.

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The sympathetic nature of Solomon’s black swordsman corresponds with a significant change in the symbolic meaning of blackness as defined by medieval theologians and philosophers. Although the early church scholar Augustine had warned against the attribution of moral qualities to the colors of the spectrum, the temptation soon proved too great to resist for his successors. All hues were considered subordinate to the purity of the white, blazing light of heaven. Black connoted sin, as well as any other kind of abject condition such as ugliness, dishonor or depravity. Such negative references to blackness were not motivated by racism as it is understood today but purely as an effective means of differentiating between states of good and evil.

With the revolutionary stylistic changes pioneered by the sculptors at Chartres also came greater latitude for the depiction of black people as fully included members of the Christian community. A similar indication of higher consciousness, this time manifested through animated facial features, is found in the figure of the risen black man from the contemporary facade of Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, who looks up ecstatically as he leaves his coffin on Judgment Day.

In retrospect, Solomon’s black attendant, with his pensive stance and prominent sword, seems to serve as a dress rehearsal for the next, more sanctified stage of inclusion of the African in the Western mindset. Only 20 years or so later, the martyred Egyptian soldier Maurice was represented for the first time as a black man in a stunning, life-size statue carved for the cathedral of Magdeburg in Germany.

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One further projection of the swordsman’s spiritual persona comes to mind: a holy king who would eventually become a key element of one of the most often represented moments in Christian art. The youthful figure on the relief at Chartres looks ahead to the black wise man, who, with his two companions, journeys from the East to worship before the manger of the Christ child.

The image of the introspective black figure at the court of Solomon reveals a watershed moment in European art and culture. Among the first naturalistic representations of Africans since antiquity, his presence suffuses the scene with a subtle mood of poise and calm. Though the inclusion of people of color in the Western historical agenda is still being negotiated, the basic fact of the African’s humanity had already been grasped as the Middle Ages reached their full flower.

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.