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The Story of the Black King Among the Magi

The story behind the rise and decline of the popularity of the black magus during the Renaissance has been largely forgotten, but at one time, the tale was used to explain the perceived need for conversion to Christianity, the three ages of man, as well as emerging theories of race.

The magi bring gifts to Jesus as he sits on Mary’s lap as the star of Bethlehem shines between them, 4th century CE, early Christian sarcophagus lid from Rome now at the Pio Cristiano Museum, Vatican Museum, Vatican City, Italy (image by Sarah E. Bond for Hyperallergic).

LOS ANGELES — “Away in a manger, no crib for a bed.” When we think of baby Jesus at Christmas, we may typically think of a nativity scene. Whether comprised of gingerbread, porcelain, or live performers, such nativity scenes usually include Mary, Joseph, and the baby Jesus surrounded by shepherds, angels, and assorted farm animals. Those bringing gifts to the baby Jesus are three magi or wise men, one of whom is frequently depicted as a black man. His inclusion illustrates the complexities of blackness in different time periods and locations. He is both a token addition and a celebrated king.

This traditional crowded nativity scene is not depicted in the New Testament gospels but constitutes a mash-up of different accounts of the birth of Jesus. According to the gospel of Matthew, wise men from the East come to Jerusalem seeking “the king of the Jews.” Fearing this potential political threat, King Herod, the ruler of Judea, sends them to Bethlehem and instructs them to report to him when they have found the child. Following a star, they find the child and present him with gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Being warned in a dream, they do not return to Herod but take an alternate route home.

On January 6, the arrival of the magi and the recognition of Jesus as the Son of God is celebrated as the Feast of the Epiphany or Three Kings’ Day in Christian tradition. Depictions of the magi on Epiphany were also known as Adorations. In Greek, Epiphany means “manifestation” or “appearance.” Our first recorded instance of the festival by early Christians took place in the city of Alexandria in Roman Egypt during the second century or early third century CE. The celebration spread to the Western Mediterranean within two centuries. Most churches from the early medieval period onward recognized that the Twelve Days of Christmas spanned the time between Christmas and Epiphany and culminated in Twelfth Night on the eve of the magi’s arrival.

Mosaic of the Magi’s Adoration at the Basilica of Sant’Apollinare Nuovo in Ravenna, Italy (completed ca. 526 CE) (image courtesy and via Wikimedia Commons)

Although the biblical text does not specify how many magi were present, they are thought of as the three kings or the three wise men because they brought three gifts to Jesus. A late Roman manuscript written in Syriac dated to as early as the second or third century CE and purporting to be an eyewitness account of the magi’s journey claimed that there were twelve or more. The term “magus” (plural magi) was generally applied to dream interpreters, astrologers, or sorcerers from the area of Persia (modern Iran). An Egyptian, early Christian theologian known as Clement of Alexandria remarked on their ethnicity when noting that philosophy was valued by Greeks, Romans, and the “Magi of the Persians, who foretold the Saviour’s birth, and came into the land of Judæa guided by a star.” On sarcophagi, in frescoes, or within by mosaics, these Persian magi were often distinguished by red Phrygian caps ascribed to those from the East. By the 6th century CE, they had been named Caspar (or Jaspar), Melchior, and Balthazar.

While magi were understood to be wise men from the East, one magus becomes regarded as “black” as early as the 13th century. As art historian Paul Kaplan explored in his work to uncover Balthazar’s history, this depiction became much more common in European art in the next two centuries. This is not equivalent to our contemporary racialized notions of Blackness, but eventually, the black magus is linked to Ethiopia, Africa, and the East. He is used as an example of the breadth of Christianity’s reach. As early as the 8th century CE, an Irish text described Balthazar as fuscus, a Latin word meaning “dark” or “swarthy.” Yet, this may have been a description not of his skin color but only his hair and beard.

Jan de Beer, “Adoration of the Magi” (1518-1519), Antwerp, central panel, triptych, Bowdoin College Museum of Art, Bowdoin, ME (image by Sarah E. Bond for Hyperallergic)

Recent studies have revealed the roots of colorism and racism in the medieval period, and it is within this cultural context that we notice shifts in the depiction of Balthazar in the late Middle Ages. Medievalist Cord Whitaker has worked extensively on the perception of the three magi. He explains that “the discomfort with black goodness is palpable” in medieval works addressing the black king. Whitaker argues, “While the black king is righteous and holy, his people, also black, are heretical and wicked … The black king is little more than a one-off, an exception to the rule, a token.” Balthazar does not represent an inclusive, positive standard for viewing Blackness. Rather, he serves as a metaphor for the spread of Christianity.

In Geraldine Heng’s recent work on The Invention of Race in the European Middle Ages, she notes the tying of blackness to exoticness became fashionable at this time. She explains, “The topos of blackness becomes in Europe a reflexive gesture denoting the exotic and the foreign … by this time, courts, kings, and nobles played with blackness for purposes of spectacle in performances of masques, pageantry, processions and balls.” In short, the European use of blackness for entertainment has a long, sordid history.

Claes Cornelisz. Moeyaert, “The Meeting of Jacob and Joseph in Egypt,” (1636), Dutch, oil on canvas, Bowdoin College Museum of Art, Bowdoin, ME; In the Book of Genesis within the Hebrew Bible, Joseph is sold into slavery in Egypt. Moyaert here depicts one of the servants as a black child, a choice reflecting the influence of the slave trade more than historical accuracy (image by Sarah E. Bond for Hyperallergic).

Late medieval art and literature continued the connection between the black magus and Christianity as a global movement. For example, John of Hildesheim’s 14th century Latin tale, The Three Kings of Cologne details how in the 12th century the bones of the magi were transferred from Milan to an elaborate reliquary, a container for holy relics. This reliquary was eventually kept behind the altar of Cologne Cathedral in Germany where visitors still view them today. This reliquary provided a perceived physical connection between the magi and Northern Europe in addition to literary and artistic depictions of the three kings. In the Cologne tale, it is Jaspar rather than Balthazar who was Ethiopian, but as Whitaker contends, as long as one of the magi was cast as black, the argument was made for Christianity as extending throughout three continents.

By the 15th century CE, within Europe, the three kings were regarded as representative symbols of Africa, Asia, and Europe, and they were frequently depicted within Renaissance and Baroque art with Balthazar as a black king. Depictions of the Adoration with a black magus were particularly popular in Renaissance and Early Modern Belgium. They included a young black king as representing Africa, which was engaging in more frequent contact with Northern Europe. The story behind the rise and decline of the popularity of the black magus during the Renaissance has been largely forgotten, but at one time, the tale was used to explain the perceived need for conversion to Christianity, the three ages of man (childhood, adulthood, and old age), as well as emerging theories of race.

“The Adoration of the Magi,”  copy after Hieronymous Bosch (early 1500s), oil on wood panel, Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia, PA (image by Sarah E. Bond for Hyperallergic)

The aesthetic representation of Balthazar particularly from the high to the late Middle Ages is the subject not only of new scholarship, but of new exhibitions focused on understanding the Middle Ages in a global context. Currently, the Getty Center in Los Angeles has a manuscript exhibition Balthazar: A Black African King in Medieval and Renaissance Art, curated by Kristen Collins and Bryan Keene. The exhibition builds on a 2018 exhibition Outcasts: Prejudice and Persecution in the Medieval World that included Georges Trubert’s “The Adoration of the Magi” (c. 1480–1490), but was also spawned from a series of blog posts that began to unpack the history of the magi.

Andrea Mantegna, “Adoration of the Magi” (about 1495–1505); distemper on linen; 48.6 × 65.6 cm (19 1/8 × 25 13/16 in.); Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, CA (image via the Getty Open Content program)

To bring the exhibition to life the two curators worked in conjunction with other museum professionals including Tyree Boyd-Pates, a former history curator at the California African American Museum and now at the Autry Museum in LA, as well as numerous historians and art historians. In comments to Hyperallergic, Collins and Keene explained, “This is the image that elicited so many questions from our public when we first showed the illumination in Outcasts, and we are excited to be able to display it again in proximity to Andrea Mantegna’s roughly contemporaneous painting of the same subject.” Building on the research of Kaplan, Whitaker, Heng –– as well as the groundbreaking work of Medievalists of Color –– the Getty also produced an edited volume incorporating dozens of scholars called Toward a Global Middle Ages, with essays and manuscript illuminations that together illustrate the Middle Ages as the diverse and global period that it was. Collins and Keene are quick to point out that the collaborative exhibition underscores the need for “inclusive museology” going forward. They assert, “We’re not just broadening our content, we’re changing our working method, reaching out to forge community partnerships and to solicit input from our diverse publics who inform our work in ways we couldn’t have anticipated.”

Jean Chastellain, “The Adoration of the Magi,” (c. 1529), stained and painted glass, Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia, PA (image by Sarah E. Bond for Hyperallergic)

Tracking the depiction of Balthazar over millennia shows us how biblical figures within art can reflect contemporary notions and prejudices that change over time. This king also illustrates how the performance of Blackness continues to be used to serve the objectives of whiteness. In Northern Europe today, some Epiphany or Three Kings’ Day parades have stirred controversy for including blackface in their depictions of the king and other supporting characters. While supporters argue that this is a long-standing cultural tradition, others argue that having non-Black performers wearing makeup to paint their faces black and their lips red is offensive in that it serves to support dehumanizing stereotypes. Balthazar and other figures such as “Black Pete” demonstrate, the white pageantry of blackness is part of a damaging pattern that historians, artists, and museums can and should address.

Balthazar: A Black African King in Medieval and Renaissance Art is currently on display at The Getty Center in Los Angeles, California until February 16, 2020. It was curated by Kristen Collins and Bryan Keene.

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