Prado, Madrid

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.

Within the arched compartments of a late-Gothic Spanish altarpiece, a momentous conversation takes place between a Middle Eastern sultan and the charismatic figure of St. Francis. Between the two protagonists, a diminutive black figure pulls the saint toward the ruler’s throne, grimacing as he looks up and pointing with his right hand at the majestically dressed ruler. The figure’s clear African facial features are mildly exaggerated, an effect further emphasized by the rendering of his head in profile.

The altarpiece was discovered in the humble chapel of a farm estate in the northwestern-Spanish province of León. The size of the ornate ensemble and its focus on the life of St. Francis suggest that it originally graced the altar of an as-yet-unidentified Franciscan monastery. The artist, Nicolas Francès, was probably a foreigner, like so many other artists active in Spain during the medieval and early-modern periods.

The scene of St. Francis before the sultan makes up only a small part of the altarpiece. It is located to the left of the central image of the enthroned Madonna and child, the lowest in a tier of three incidents from the life of the revered mendicant saint from the central-Italian hill town of Assisi. The narration of these scenes seems to have been taken from the canonical account of his life written by Bonaventure, one of the leaders of the Franciscan order after the death of Francis in the early 13th century. Bonaventure’s account of the saint’s mission to the Middle East tells of his travel to Damietta, Egypt, during the Fifth Crusade. More than just a fanciful extension of Francis’ hagiography, his mission to convert the sultan, al-Kamil, the nephew of the great Ayyubid ruler Saladin, may actually have happened.

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At the extreme right sits the sultan, listening attentively as Francis tries to convert the Muslim leader to the Christian faith. Despite being sympathetic to the saint’s argument, the sultan chivalrously declines his entreaties. Francis was then safely led back to the camp of the crusaders.

The image of the black demon resolutely leading Francis before the sultan stands at the crossroads of the reception of black people in late-medieval Spain. He appears here simultaneously as the symbolic equivalence of evil in the European consciousness and as a manifestation of the newly arriving numbers of actual black people in Spain.

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In addition to his diminutive size, the role of the black demon as an instrument of the forces of evil is made plain by the presence of three distinct scratches across his face. The damage results from a conscious act of pious vandalism meant to symbolically cancel the power of the devil and his followers. Interestingly, none of the faces of the sultan and his retinue have been similarly marred.

In earlier examples, the image of the demonic presence is rendered solely as an abstraction, as occurs in 11th-century Spanish characterizations of a black devil recumbent in hell. The guiding rationale for the inclusion in the present image of the black demon as a symbol of evil descends from such negative precedents. Blackness, and blacks themselves, were considered the allies of the Muslim invaders.

On the other hand, the essential naturalism of the black figure leading Francis may indicate the increasing familiarity with actual people of African descent in Spain during this period. Their perception in Spain began to change with their arrival under circumstances vastly different from those that had earlier brought them to Spain during the Muslim occupation. No longer perceived as an empowered evil invader, blacks now entered Spain under the deprived condition of enslavement. By the middle of the 15th century, black African slaves were arriving in ever greater numbers as the exploration of the West African coast by Portuguese navigators got under way.

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Within the spiritually charged context of 15th-century Spain, the altarpiece reflects a less savory side of Spanish religious idealism. It was produced in the heartland of the final reconquest of Spain, the kingdom of León and Castile. This period was marked by a growing intolerance toward Muslims and Jews, two religious and cultural groups that had contributed immeasurably to the vibrant, cosmopolitan ambient of medieval and early-Renaissance Spain. By the mid-15th century, both of these distinctive people came to be implacably perceived as the enemies of Christ.

Now part of a new reality based on the practical need for labor, blacks were to be incorporated into the orthodox religion and society of Spain. That they were not singled out for the opprobrium suffered by the Jews and Muslims was due to the general belief by the Catholic Church that Africans fell outside the stigma of impure blood, supposedly the fatal trait of those who refused to accept Christ as their savior.

The tiny figure of the black demon in the St. Francis panel was already nearing the end of his usefulness as a pejorative definition of evil in Spanish art. Soon the concern would turn to the more normative representation of people of African descent, still primarily in the context of religious art. From the early 16th century, the image of black people does an about-face, turning from a sign of the devil to become an exemplar of Christian piety, albeit now in thrall to earthly masters. People of African descent serve more varied and imaginative roles, including allegories of the senses, lavishly dressed servants of the nobility and figures drawn from everyday life.

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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.