Art surrounding the Bible has often reflected the cultural perspective of those who created it. Consequently, most Western art, using the Bible as inspiration, inaccurately depicts some of the world’s most famous and influential characters. Biblical characters are often Westernised, appearing light-skinned, with inaccurate clothing, ranging from their head coverings to their sandals. However, throughout the centuries artists have represented the Magi more accurately.
According to Matthew’s Gospel the Magi (or wisemen) followed a star from the East to find the Christ child in Bethlehem. Traditionally, their names were Casper, Melchior and Balthazar. Fearing Jesus as a potential political threat, King Herod of Judea sent the Magi to Bethlehem with instructions to report back to him when they found the child. The Magi presented the child Jesus with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. As there were three gifts, it has been assumed that there were three wise men. However, there is no biblical proof of this. After being warned in a dream, they did not return to Herod but took another route home. Some of the earliest representations of the Magi come from Rome and depict the three kings as white, with European features and attired in European dress. These early depictions were found in manuscripts and stained glass. However, the uniformity of these depictions began to change from the fourteenth century.
At this time, it was believed from the Old Testament that the Kings represented the three continents of Europe, Asia and Africa. Alternatively, the Magi were sometimes taken to represent the three stages of life: youth, maturity and old age. The earliest known example of such a change is a 1360 wall painting in the Emmaus monastery in Prague. The wall painting shows one of the three Kings with a darker face than the other characters. However, there is some controversy as to whether the character’s appearance was altered by modern repainting in the twentieth century. Nevertheless, there is no doubt about the growing number of fifteenth and sixteenth-century sculptors and artists who depicted Balthazar as Black or in different cultural clothes. Instead of wearing a crown, artists often depicted him in a turban with a white bandeau and earrings.
It has been argued that the main reason for this change was increased trade between Europe and Africa, which led to the growing visibility and awareness of other races. The gold trade frequently brought diverse groups of people together. Black soldiers served in the courts of medieval European rulers and were servants in wealthy households. Diplomacy also offered a point of contact. For example, Ethiopian rulers in the fifteenth century sent church officials to Italy to forge religious and military alliances with Rome. As painters and sculptors became more familiar with traditional African and Eastern culture, items such as head dresses and jewelry they used them in depictions of the Magi.
However, this was not the only reason for change. The Black Magus symbolised the fact that Christ came for all humanity, Gentiles as well as Jews. The Black Magus showed that people from different lands, should receive and could accept Christ’s message. The African Magus is often depicted as the youthful, beardless king and often at the furthest distance away from Mary and the baby Jesus. His age and position reflect the Europeans’ notions of Africa. It was viewed as the youngest of the three civilisations in their search for Christianity. Moreover, the black King gave high status artists an opportunity to explore European ideas of the ‘exotic’ and to depict a lavishly dressed figure in a religious scene. This was an exciting innovation in art, the mixing of European with that of the ‘exotic’.
However, the inclusion of Black characters in the depiction of the adoration shows the racism that existed during the medieval period. The Adoration of the Magi, by a follower of Giotto shows two angels at the right standing behind the Virgin Mary and infant Christ. The three Magi are adorned in golden robes and three Black attendants are presented on a diminutive scale in the bottom left corner. There are golden halos around the heads of all the characters as symbols of holiness, except for the three Black figures. The absence of halos implies these figures lack the characteristics required to attain holiness and a closeness to Christ that the other figures possess. The Black figures are also smaller in comparison to the other characters, a device which is used to visually diminish their presence. Such works of art illustrate the European view that during the Middle Ages Black people were seen as less holy and worthy than others.
However, what is especially intriguing is that the artist deliberately chose to depict Black characters in the story of the Adoration as they were not generally seen in Renaissance paintings of the Magi. All the characters are white in the Magi paintings of Florentine artists such as Gozzoli and Botticelli as they were portraits of the Medici family, who wanted to be identified with these magnificent wise men.
Looking at the depiction of the Black Magus, often referred to as Balthazar, shows us how contemporary notions affect the way in which biblical figures have been viewed. However, the racism that often occurred with the inclusion of Black figures in the depiction of the adoration continues today. In Northern Europe, some contemporary Epiphany or Three Kings’ Day parades are controversial for including ‘black face’ in their depictions of Balthazar or other supporting characters. The reason given to continue with this is that it has been a long-standing cultural tradition to dress in such a way. However, as there has been increased awareness and cultural acknowledgment of the harm such practices cause, it is considered offensive to synthetically darken one’s skin to dress up as a Black person, since it supports dehumanising stereotypes. Therefore, while the use of a Black Magi could be seen as initially an attempt at representation, this increased ‘representation’ isn’t necessarily respectful in a ‘modern’ or acceptable way.
Written by Sophia Aiello