It is the autumn of 2021, and I am studying abroad in Oxford. It is my first time outside the United States. I am a stranger in a strange land. We are visiting Hampton Court Palace, and I see Andrea Mantegna’s Triumphs of Caesar for the first time. I am immediately drawn to the African, his head wrapped with a turban, blowing his trumpet in honour of the Pax Romana. I have never seen Africans in Renaissance iconography—I am shocked. I cannot stop asking my instructor questions: “Were black Africans really conscripts in Caesar’s conquering armies? Is it true that Rome’s armies lost battles to the kingdom of Kush? Why is the term ‘Moor’ employed so imprecisely in medieval Europe?” He answers the questions as best he can. The most striking thing he says is: “Of course black Africans participated as conscripts and mercenaries in Roman armies. Europe has rarely ever lacked contact with Africans from beyond the Sahara.”
My encounter with Mantegna’s Triumphs solidified my love for the European Middle Ages. I had been introduced to romance literature a year prior; I read tales of youthful knights falling in love with fairy queens, a Green Knight who survives his beheading, and a dragon being beaten to death by a young man with a club. Those stories captured my heart: the metre of Middle English poetry, the breath of Middle English prose, took me to a world that did not exist on the West Side of Chicago. While I loved the poetry, the stories that medieval poets sang, I could not see myself in any of those narratives until I saw the trumpet player in Mantegna’s Triumphs. There, I decided that I would dedicate my life to studying the image of the black African in late medieval and Renaissance Europe. It was there I learned that Africans have been in Europe at least since the conquests of the Roman Empire. Many of the black Africans who did not travel back home after the dissolution of the empire chose to live in former Roman colonies.
The African presence in Europe thus predates the Portuguese and Spanish slave trade, which accessed already existing slave-trading networks in West Africa in the 1440s. A 2019 exhibit on Balthazar at the Getty, however, inaccurately draws a spurious association between the rise of the African slave trade in Christian Europe and the blackening of Saint Balthazar. It completely excludes a wealth of evidence for African-European interaction in the Middle Ages: Nubian and Ethiopian expeditions into southern Europe, black Africans among the Muslim armies during the Crusades, the Prester John myth, Saint Maurice, and European awareness of Mansa Musa’s famous hajj. What’s more, the sanctification of blackness could not have been found in the enslaved African. Balthazar’s status as slave would have prevented that process from ever taking place. This misunderstanding of the history of Africans in Europe displays the importance of understanding what social forces aided in the development of the African Balthazar.
Traditionally, Balthazar is one of the three wise men, or magi, from the East who came to venerate the Christ child. The ethnic or racial background of the magi is not described in any biblical texts, but medieval exegetical tradition claims they each hail from the three known continents: Africa, Asia, and Europe. While no written documents give any detailed physical description of Balthazar, he is described as “dusky” in an eighth-century text written by Bede. That description, however, goes no further. Before he was blackened, he was traditionally depicted as a middle-aged European magus, with Melchior often depicted as the oldest and Kaspar as the youngest of the three. However, after Balthazar became an African, he would often be depicted as the youngest of the three magi. Artisans first began to seriously connect him to Africa around the tenth century, by adding a black attendant to the European Balthazar’s retinue. The process of the actual magus being blackened is gradual. His first appearance as an African wasn’t until the first quarter of the fifteenth century.
Before his actual blackening on canvas could occur, it was necessary that the black Balthazar exist within the social and theological imagination of Europe. His skin as it would later appear in paintings, as black as midnight or sometimes mocha coloured, was first deemed worthy of venerating the Christ child because the medieval church came to accept the implications of the promise of resurrection. Since the body and the spirit are tethered and will be resurrected together, the wholeness of the body, the black body, had to be considered a candidate for redemption. If Africa was to be consumed into the body of Christ, the whitening of the African was no longer a viable option, as it had been in The King of Tars or The History of the Holy-Rood Tree. The African was to maintain his hue and also be saved. Balthazar’s blackness became an important symbol within the ecumenical vision of the Catholic Church. The Triune God is Lord of all, including the black African.
The African was to maintain his hue and also be saved. Balthazar’s blackness became an important symbol within the ecumenical vision of the Catholic Church. The Triune God is Lord of all, including the black African.
Centuries of racial theorizing in the European Middle Ages associated the colour black, and thus the black body, with sin, and the colour white with the fair, unblemished soul. The African Balthazar arose principally as a deep, thoughtful, dialectical theological attempt to reconcile oppositional forces. One theological tradition that disrupts these theories and influences the blackening of Balthazar is the blackness of the Bride in the Song of Songs. Since her blackness does not render her ugly or inherently sinful, theologians were forced to work out a plausible theological explanation for this paradox. If the Bride is beautiful, what does that make the blackened demons that appear in medieval iconography? The natural answer to this question was that the body was not always a window into the spiritual purity of an individual. The blackness of the African was no longer a symbol of sin but marked how far Jesus’s promise of salvation reached.
When considering this historical and theological development, the blackening of Balthazar becomes a gateway into a complex vision of blackness in the European Middle Ages. Black is at once the colour of hell and the colour of redemption. These two extremes allowed for both a black Balthazar to be venerated and a black demon to be condemned—blackness in itself no longer constituted sin. We have lost this complexity as modernity and the Enlightenment have flattened our views of race. White and black must always exist in opposition to one another; they are no longer complementary elements that symbolize Christ’s promise of salvation. While medieval conceptions of blackness were by no means without error, there was a desire to reconcile black as a symbol of redemption, of the life we once lived before we were set aflame, but not consumed, by Jesus with the whiteness of purity, the process by which one becomes a new creation. Thomas the Cistercian, speaking of the black Bride, captures the complexity of this dialectic best: “She is black in penance, beautiful in obedience; black in humility, beautiful in charity; . . . black in the discharge of religious duties, beautiful in the sincerity of contemplation; black in the flesh, beautiful in spirit; black in active life, beautiful in contemplative.”
The blackness of the African was no longer a symbol of sin but marked how far Jesus’s promise of salvation reached.
Balthazar’s blackness exists as a symbol of both Christ’s epiphany while we were still in sin and Christ’s process to blanchir (whiten) our souls.
The blackening of Balthazar allowed the African to exit from the realm of the European social imagination and to take on flesh. Balthazar is important not just because he acknowledges that Christ is Lord, or that he offers gifts to a child who would be beneath him in the social hierarchy; what makes the African Balthazar so important is that he represents a school of thought that argued that black, the colour of sin, could be sanctified. He represents the reconciliation between sin and love while also showing the tension inherent in using the physical appearance to judge an individual’s spiritual purity. In Balthazar, there exists a potential recovery of racial complexity.
In Balthazar, there exists a potential recovery of racial complexity.
Epiphany has always centred on the revelation of Jesus, and it reminds us that adoring Christ reveals a part of us we easily forget: that there is a great cloud of witnesses who came before us, and that Prester John, Balthazar, and Saint Maurice are not just “myths” but, through the power of the Spirit, have a real place within the body of Christ. They are witnesses to the possibility of redefining race, blackness in particular, in light of these forgotten histories. They are not mere remnants of the past, but living promises that reframe the history of race. The magi came to the Christ child—one an old white man, one a middle-aged Persian, and one a young black African. When Christ was hung from the cross, he was clothed in the blackness of our sin; Balthazar may allow us to consider how his black skin may have been an epiphany for the original viewers of each of the Adorations. They were saved because Christ wore blackness like a robe.