The two biblical scenes most commonly depicted in art come from the New Testament, from the Gospels of St Matthew and St Luke. They are The Nativity of Jesus (Matthew 1:18-25 and Luke 2: 1-7) and The Adoration of the Magi (Matthew 2:1-12).
Although the Bible only speaks of magi, or wise men, who present Christ with gold, frankincense and myrrh, Christian literature and art transformed these into three kings, one of whom was subsequently represented as a Black African or Arab (Moor).The arrival of these secular sovereigns bringing gifts to the Christ Child is regarded as an acknowledgement of Jesus’ task in the world. The New Covenant was concluded between Christ, God’s son incarnate, and all other peoples and individuals.’
In works of art the kings could function as more than one symbol. They could represent the regions of the world, the ages of man, ambassadors of peace, wealth from faraway, foreign countries, trade with these countries and more.
Example 1: Nijmegen school Koning Balthazar Collection Rijksmuseum Amsterdam
Although this Black King is called Balthazar by the Rijksmuseum, others dub him Caspar or even Melchior. The picture is one of the earliest paintings of the African King on panel from the Netherlands and an unusual one to boot. This small panel is probably a fragment from a larger Adoration of the Magi. The Rijksmuseum owns what may be a companion fragment, showing one of the other two Kings.
The maker displays a close affinity with the Master of the St Bartholomew Altar from Cologne 1475 –1480 See http://www.getty.edu/art/gettyguide/artObjectDetails?artobj=1091&handle=li
The African King stands in an early Renaissance- style landscape. Behind him is the road he has just taken. On bended knee before and slightly to the side of the King is a black male attendant, handing him his gift which is contained in a splendidly mounted ox horn on a lobed stand, presumably made of gold.
During the late Middle Ages this kind of showy object was prominently displayed in the chambers of guilds, rhetoricians, city councils and courts. Maybe this object contains the Myrrr
The artist has paid a great deal of attention to these two gentlemen and their elegant, almost choreographed interaction. The attendant wears a gold earring in his ear and his oriental hat has a scarf wound around its rim. The King has nothing in his ear; which is unusual for Black Kings. He wears a combination of a Hungarian hat (sometimes known as a cuman) with a crown and simple, western clothing – a sleeveless tunic, a shirt, an undershirt, hose and pointed shoes. His costume is remarkably plain. He has no mantle with a train and the length of his footwear is modest in comparison with that of Black Kings in other paintings.
This simplicity may indicate that the work was made for a monastic order which lived according to a sober rule.
Although the identity of the artist is unknown, the panel can be situated in Nijmegen. It also compares with miniatures from the same period by artists such Loyset Liedet 1420 –1479, which employ the same simplicity and feature the same fifteenth-century clothing,
at a time when contemporaries working in oil on panel, such as Hans Memling (c. 1433 –1494) and Hieronymus Bosch (c. 1450 –1516), were actually decking out their Kings in rich and fanciful costumes.
Example 2 About hundred years later: The Adoration of the Magi by Maarten de Vos 1599
The Black King stands prominently to the fore in this imposing painting by Maarten de Vos.
The dark cuirass he wears makes him appear almost naked beneath his white mantle. He far surpasses the other two Kings in strength and vitality. The Black King is also depicted in the attire worn by powerful men, a Roman emperor’s garb.
Representations of black men as Roman emperors are not unusual in Dutch and European art: they are found, for example, on a number of cameos from the sixteenth century. In circa 1586/88 Queen Elizabeth I of England gave her favourite Sir Francis Drake a jewel decorated with a black Roman emperor and a white woman.Karen C.C. Dalton argues that the concept of the black emperor is connected with alchemy and stands for Saturn.
Elizabeth McGrath, however, suspects that such black emperors symbolize steadfastness and constancy. In The Masque of Blacknesse (1605) black is described as the colour that is most true (firm and unchanging) and and Elizabeths I personal motto was Semper eadem, or ‘always the same’. The aspect of constancy may also play a role in De Vos’ painting which was produced in a period of religious and political instability. When the Catholics restored their altars in the wake of the Iconoclastic Fury, in 1566, they included paintings of the Three Kings in the decorations, so it is not inconceivable that they would have alluded to the constancy of their faith in these works.
An interesting detail is the gift which the Black Magus holds in his hand, which appears to be a nautilus shell but is actually the much rarer Green Turban or Turbo Marmoratus, also spiral-shaped but less regular in form, with a thicker shell.
It was chiefly popular for the large amount of mother-of-pearl it contained. Once polishing had removed the rough outer surface to reveal the mother-of pearl, the shell was mounted on its side with the spiroid top on display. This type of showy shell cup first appeared around 1590 and was probably of Antwerp design. An earlier print by Johannes de Sadeler from 1585 of the same subject after another De Vos shows even more clearly that the Ethiopian King is holding a Green Turban.
The Three Kings have not arrived by themselves. Standing immediately around them are twelve other people; in the distance a heavily laden and armed caravan with camels and elephants is also approaching. This painting is one of many Antwerp Adorations which typically show costly goods being brought from far and wide.
Around 1599 Maarten de Vos was one of the most important Flemish painters and print designers. He received many commissions, including assignments from the city of Valenciennes, which remained part of the Netherlands until 1680. The painting was ordered by the parishioners of Notre-Dame de la Chaussee, to decorate the high altar. ES
With thanks to Errol van de Werdt (Centraal Museum Utrecht) for his help with the Turbo Marmoratus, and Professor Elizabeth McGrath for her help with the Black Romans in Art.
In 2008 I was guest curator of the exhibition Black is beautiful. Rubens to Dumas. Important advisors: Elizabeth McGrath (Rubens and colleagues, Warburg institute Image of the Black in Western Art collection), Carl Haarnack (slavery in books), Elmer Kolfin (slavery in prints and paintings) en Adi Martis (contemporary art). Gary Schwartz made his research for The Image of the Black in Western Art available to me.
In 2014 my essay ‘Painted Blacks and Radical Imagery in the Netherlands (1900-1940)’ was published in The Image of the Black in Western Art Volume V (I). (ed. David Bindman, Henry Louis Gates jr.)
In 2017 I published a book about the black servants at the Court of the Royal Van Oranje family. More than a thousand documents have been found about their lives. (only in Dutch)
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