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.
In this intriguing evocation of a time-honored Christian theme, three kingly figures pay homage to the newly born Christ child. According to the biblical account in the Book of Matthew, these are the Magi, or wise men, who have followed a star from the East to find the birthplace of Jesus. In later tradition they are also described as kings of the principal regions of the world.
Their arrival at the stable represents the event of Epiphany, the manifestation of the long-prophesized salvation of mankind through the incarnation of God on Earth. The event occurred by tradition 12 days after the actual birth of Jesus and is celebrated by the Western Christian church on Jan. 6.
An older man kneels in prayer, his golden gift placed before the Virgin Mary. It consists not of the usual chest of coins, but a precious metalwork-statue group representing the sacrifice of Isaac. A key event of the Old Testament, it prefigures the crucifixion of Christ. Standing beside the old king, his middle-aged companion offers a paten bearing frankincense, an aromatic resin traditionally offered to the pagan gods but now intended for the son of the true God.
A few paces behind these figures stands a black man clad fully in white raiment. His marvelous robes feature long, fully cut sleeves with prominent pendant tassels. The collar and shoulders are decorated with a cut-work thorn motif. The man holds a round pyx, or lidded vessel, containing myrrh, the precious ointment reserved for the preparation of kings for burial. The container is decorated with a shallow relief depicting figures rendering homage to the biblical King David. Similar to the role of the older man’s gift, the relief foreshadows the advent of Christ, in this case the theme of the Adoration of the Magi itself.
Behind the black wise man stands an androgynous young attendant wearing a red robe and fanciful headdress made of a sprig of leaves and a small red fruit. The figure holds the crown of the young Magus firmly against the chest. One of the most affecting parts of the painting is the little vignette of the figure’s head seen in profile against the wall of the stable. Just inside the building stands a mysterious figure, sometimes identified as the Old Testament prophet Balaam, a forerunner of the Magi in that he predicted the advent of Christ.
The altarpiece was painted by Hieronymus Bosch, a South Netherlandish painter about whom very little is known. Popular in his own day, he lived in the city of ‘s-Hertogenbosch, Netherlands, his birthplace and a center of learning that attracted notable scholars like Erasmus of Rotterdam.
Little is known about the origin of the painting itself. Its relatively large size, about 4-and-a-half feet high, suggests that it was commissioned for a church or perhaps a large family chapel. The wings, or side pieces, of the altarpiece represent the two donors, Peter Bronkhorst and Agnes Bosshuys, with their patron saints. The painting was later acquired by King Philip II of Spain, who kept it in his austere palace-monastery of El Escorial. In the 19th century, it was transferred to its present location at the Prado Museum in Madrid.
Bosch’s panel represents one of the most evocative scenes of the Adoration of the Magi ever painted. He presents with great subtlety the momentous transition from one age of human history to another. The story of the kings had grown from the simplest of accounts in the gospel of Matthew to encompass a rich web of cultural, ethical and geographical associations.
Matthew states only that “wise men from the East” brought the Christ Child presents of gold, frankincense and myrrh. Over time, biblical commentary certified their number as three, interpreted the Magi as both astrologers and kings and provided names for them: Gaspar, Balthasar and Melchior. In addition they came to signify broader attributes, expressed in triadic fashion. Considered to exemplify the three known continents of Europe, Asia and Africa, they also encompass the progression of human life from youth, middle then to old age. In a manner unique to the subject of the Adoration of the Magi, they stand as a microcosm of the medieval conception of the world and its inhabitants.
The inclusion of a black man as one of the kings had undergone a long and tenuous process that evolved along with the European engagement with people of other parts of the world, and just as significantly, with the symbolic concept of blackness itself. As early as the eighth century, Balthasar was described as “fuscus,” that is, dark, perhaps even black. Only in the second half of the 14th century, however, does this designation more clearly occur, when John of Hildesheim wrote his influential Historia Trium Regum, or History of the Three Kings. Shortly after this, the black king began to be depicted in works of art. We have no way of knowing the name of the black king in Bosch’s painting here, but the other important aspects of his identity are clear: his youthful age, his African origin and his gift of myrrh.
This particular treatment of the Magi theme is unusually rich in symbolism. During the medieval scholastic movement, a large body of scriptural interpretation had developed. As a whole, the Adoration of the Magi is presented here as the prefiguration of the Mass, the principal church ceremony that celebrates the sacrifice of Christ for the expiation of the original sin of Adam and Eve. In its details, the imagery associates the birth of Jesus with foreshadowing events of the Old Testament. The cloak of the middle king, for example, bears a representation of the visit of the Queen of Sheba to Solomon, king of Israel. She symbolizes the Gentiles, or pagan peoples, who voluntarily search for holy wisdom. According to the exegetical strategy of Christian typology, she stands for the response of the world to the message of Jesus and thus prefigures the Adoration of the Magi. That she is also shown as black here adds the further dimension of race to the usual context of faith and conversion.
The extremely sympathetic, nuanced character of the black Magus in Bosch’s Adoration of the Magi has his counterparts in several other examples produced by primarily Northern European artists during the same period. The noble bearing imparted to the black king by Bosch’s contemporaries Albrecht Durer and Hans Baldung Grien manifests the same sense of gravitas and measured grace as the white-robed king in the Prado altarpiece. In this period, the representation of the black king reached an apogee of probity and self-composed magnificence rarely equaled in later treatments of his presence at the Adoration of the Magi. The role played by style in this assumption of the essential humanity of the black man may also have been affected by the position of the real African in the European consciousness at this time.
Like many Europeans, Bosch quite likely had seen an actual black person. The notion of blackness at this time was largely associated with the exotic qualities of a still largely unexplored African subcontinent. Whatever the actual condition in life of blacks living in Europe may have been, their living image was capable of conjuring faraway tropes of African authority such as Prester John and the young Magus.
Though the black king would continue to have an exalted place in scenes of the Adoration of the Magi throughout the long history of slavery, his image never seemed to shine with quite as much splendor and self-possession as in the works of Bosch and his contemporaries.
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.