RACE MATTERS: Seeing the Black Figure in the European TraditionLondon
Adoration of the Magi, ca. 1495–1505
J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles
According to the Gospel of Matthew, “magi from the East” paid homage to the newborn Christ with offerings of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Magi, from the ancient Greek word used for Persian priest-astrologers and dream interpreters, were revered as wise men, and the coterie that visited Christ came to be known as the three kings owing to the lavishness of their gifts. Writers later assigned names to them, Caspar, Melchior, and Balthazar, and specified that they came from the three then-known continents of the world, Europe, Asia, and Africa. Despite written descriptions of Balthazar as a Black African, European artists for centuries represented him as a White figure.
It was not until the fifteenth century that artists began representing Balthazar as a Black African with some frequency, with Andrea Mantegna being one of the first Italian artists to do so in paintings like the present Adoration. Renaissance trade and diplomacy were essential factors in this development. African elephant ivory and gold circulated across the Sahara Desert and up the Swahili Coast into the Mediterranean and Europe, bringing Europeans and Africans into contact. In terms of diplomacy, fifteenth-century Ethiopian rulers sent church delegations to Italy in an attempt to forge religious and military alliances with papal Rome. At the same time, in the 1440s, with the Portuguese incursions into West Africa, the slave trade escalated in unprecedented ways, industrialising the practice and bringing thousands—ultimately millions—of subjugated Black Africans into Europe and the Americas. Enslaved Black servants were present at the Sforza court in Milan and the Gonzaga court in Mantua where Mantegna worked, and as such the inclusion of a Black magus in present Adoration reflects a significant aspect of the cultural world the artist inhabited.
The Black magus as represented in European art of the early modern period is often the most ornate and exotic figure in Adoration subjects, whose extreme difference is distinguished by his dark skin and elaborate attire. Mantegna’s Balthazar wears an animal skin turban, jewels, and brightly coloured clothing, suggesting that Africa is both primitive and the source of great wealth.
For more on this work, visit: https://www.getty.edu/art/collection/objects/781/andrea-mantegna-adoration-of-the-magi-italian-about-1495-1505/