Over the centuries the Bible has been translated and retranslated, a process which has sometimes generated varying interpretations of its content.
Black characters figure in diverse books of the Bible, in both the Old and New Testaments. Yet someone described as a Nubian in one book may be referred to as a Moor, an Ethiopian, a Kushite or a Midianite in another. One confusing story of this type concerns Moses’ wife (or wives) who may or may not have been black.
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 black. The arrival of these secular sovereigns bringing gifts to the Christ Child is regarded as an acknowledgement of Jesus’ task in the world.
On the inclusion of a black king in the company Martien de Jong wrote:
‘Being black is more than a picturesque detail. The incarnation of Christ signifies the end of the old covenant between Yahweh and a specific people, which allowed them to regard themselves as exceptional and chosen. 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.
Around the same time the Black King was introduced into art, circa 1450, The Baptism of the Chamberlain also came into vogue in paintings and prints in the Low Countries.
The subject first appeared in miniatures in books of hours, such Charles V’s (Vienna, Österreichische Nationalbibliothek); from the mid sixteenth century it emerged in paintings as well.
One of the first paintings of this theme from the Low Countries is by Hans van Elburg, from circa 1570 (Rotterdam, Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen), although it is also to be found from the sixteenth century in etchings and drawings by artists such as Maerten van Heemskerk or the monogrammist. AC
During the seventeenth century the subject became really popular and acquired an additional function, for both the Protestant Northern Netherlands and the Southern Netherlands, where Catholic Spain held sway, used this biblical story to convey the message that everyone was welcome in their true faith.
Other Biblical subjects in which African figures regularly appeared include Esther and Ahasuerus, The Idolatry of Solomon, The Toilet of Bathsheba, Ecce Homo, The Fiding of Moses, The Last Judgement and Solomon receiving the Queen of Sheba.
Not in the bible are figures as for instance
Esther Schreuder in the Black is beautiful, Rubens to Dumas catalogue (2008 Nieuwe Kerk Amsterdam)
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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