Things Aren’t Simple: the Black King in Manuscripts

Koningen op reis naar kindje
Koninklijke Bibliotheek Den Haag Hours of the Virgin: Sext The three Magi meet at the crossroads on their journey to Jerusalem

The first black figures in the art of the Low Countries, or Netherlands, can chiefly be found in miniatures, illuminations and illustrations from the late Middle Ages – the Gothic period – and the early Renaissance. After circa 1300 a range of ‘roles’ for blacks evolved in Netherlandish art, in line with developments in the rest of Europe.

There were the Armorials with heraldic arms of families and territories.

Gelre gebiedswapens
Bavaria. Austria, Brabant, Flanders, Holland and more Armorial of Gelre 1370-1395
Gelre  Armorial: Arms of Sardinia and Corsica, which are related with the arms of Aragon

Two armorials, the Armorial de Bellenville (c. 1378) and Armorial de Gelre 1370 –1414, contain highly fanciful familial and territorial heraldic arms  (see above)

There were biblical figures such as the Black King or Magus from the Adoration of the Magi and the Queen of Sheba, Moors who had to be fought,  from the fifteenth century, black people in scenes of daily life and finally Demonic figures and Madonnas could also be represented with a black colour.

The Black King is by far the most common black figure in paintings. The figure appears at an earlier date in book illuminations.

As a rule, medieval manuscripts are not accessible to the general public and are only seldom exhibited on account of their fragility. Indeed some, like Les Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry (c. 1416, Chantilly, Musée Condé) by the Limburg Brothers, are never put on display

But fortunately manuscripts are more and more available online. And so are the many illustrations including the illuminations with black kings.

Below are a few examples

Koning aanbidding 1
Anonymous Adoration of the Magi c. 1450 The Hague, Koninklijke Bibliotheek,

Anonymous Adoration of the Magi c. 1450 Illumination in a Book of Hours, Southern Netherlands (Turnhout?) The Hague, Koninklijke Bibliotheek,

Above miniature with margin decoration somewhat resembles the following one in composition and page coverage, but in reverse.

Koning aanbidding 2
Meesters van het Bezborodko-getijdenboek Aanbidding van de Koningen ca. 1490 Den Haag, Koninklijke Bibliotheek, 135 E 45, fol. 27r

The group that receives the three Kings or Magi is also slightly larger, as Joseph is present too. In this scene the Black King is being greeted by the middle King. Many miniatures and early paintings depict these two Kings in conversation or greeting each other.

Drie koningen interactie KB
Collection Koninklijke Bibliotheek Den Haag

Unlike the figure in, the Black King in this picture does not wear oriental headdress but an ‘ordinary’ European crown. Only his colour indicates that he has come from afar. A striking feature of this Black King is that the brown colour of his face has also been used on his legs, creating the impression that these are bare. He has elegant pointed shoes on his feet and wears red clothing, as befits a king.

Diverse religious texts concerning the Adoration describe the Ethiopian King as clothed in red.

Koning in rode kleding
Koninklijke bibliotheek Den Haag

Around this time the Black Magus or King was an increasingly popular figure in art. Art historian Paul Kaplan attributes this popularity to the fact that contacts between Europe and Ethiopia were growing in intensity, in their common struggle against the Muslims. For example in 1427 ambassadors from King Yeshak of Ethiopia arrived in Valencia for talks with Alfonso I of Aragon, later King Alfonso I of Naples.

In 1450, about the same time as this miniature was painted, these contacts were renewed by Yeshak’s successor Zara Yakob, who despatched ambassadors to Greece, Rome, Aragon and Portugal. On one occasion King Alfonso sent an Ethiopian ambassador on to the Southern Netherlands.

These books of hours are one of many signs that the Black King was beginning to occupy a prominent place in the visual culture of the Netherlands.

But black kings are not always brown or black, they can also be blue.

Aanbidding Koning 3

Anonymous Adoration of the Magi 1490 –1500 Illumination in a Book of Hours (Latin), Southern Netherlands (Ghent?) The Hague, Koninklijke Bibliotheek, 133 D 18, fol. 93

This little book of hours comprising 253 folios measures approximately five by seven centimetres. Fourteen of these folios are decorated with full page miniatures and margin decorations, the latter in Ghent-Bruges style. A striking feature of this illumination, in addition to its small format, is the fact that the Ethiopian King is not depicted here as black or brown but as blue.

This colour is found in representations of black people in a number of manuscripts: a splendidly elegant blue King or Magus can be seen, for example, in the Flemish book of hours from circa 1480 –1489 in the Pierpont Morgan Library in New York (MS M. 234 fol. 083v), while a miniaturist working on the Bijbel van Evert van Soudenbalch in Utrecht around 1465 painted a blue Ethiopian Chamberlain in a scene relating to The Baptism of the Chamberlain (Vienna, Österreichische Nationalbibliothek). The latter figure is probably the first Ethiopian dignitary from the Bible to be represented in the Netherlands.

Not all the dark-skinned figures in the Vienna manuscript were given a blue hue, however: the dark bride kissed by King Solomon in the Old Testament book Song of Songs, for example, is depicted by the miniaturist with a brown skin.

The artists chose to use blue for the Kings and Chamberlains.

Verses in the exceedingly popular poem Cursor Mundi may well have contributed to the emergence of blue Kings and blue Chamberlains, for the series of legends surrounding the Holy Cross in this early fourteenth-century work includes the story of King David’s conversion of four Saracens who are described ‘as black and blue as lead’.

After their conversion they turn white

More about kings: See also The king and his gift 

Zwarte koning beeld
Antwerp school early sixteenth century. Location: monastery in France

Esther Schreuder in the Black is beautiful, Rubens to Dumas catalogue (2008)

References: L.Bugner (ed.) The Image of the Black in Western Art II/I ‘From the Demonic Threat to Sainthood’, Cambridge MA. 1979, P.H.D. Kaplan, The rise of the black Magus in Western Art., Ann Arbor MI. 1985, L. Bugner The Image of the Black in Western Art I/I, ‘From the Pharaohs to the Fall of the Roman Empire’, Cambridge MA, 1991.  J. Kubilski, “Orientalizing Costume in Early fifteenth-Century French Manuscript painting. Cité des Dames, Master, Limbourg Brothers, Boucicaut Master, and Bedford Master’. Gesta XL (2001) 2

About me

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.

Black beautiful Rubens to Dumas cover
Black beautiful Rubens to Dumas cover

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)

Cupido en Sideron Cover 30-8-2017

All photos on this site are not intended for any commercial purpose. I have tried to trace all the rules and rights of all images. As far as I know, these images can be used in this way. If you ar a copyright holder and would like a piece of your work removed or the creditline changed then please do not hesitate to contact me.