Updated: May 7, 2021
The painting above was done by Andrea Mantegna for his patron Isabella d'Este, one of the great patrons of the Renaissance, and wife of Francesco Gonzaga, the Marquess of Mantua. Mantegna's name derives from the town of his great fame, Mantua, where his most famous work, the Bridal Chamber, in the Ducal Palace, is acclaimed as a masterpiece of realism and introspection (see https://www.italianways.com/mantegnas-bridal-chamber-trompe-loeil-realism-and-introspection/). The painting of the Adoration is another of his masterpieces. It has a unique quality, as the figures are all grouped together, and their full bodies are not shown as was normally the custom for such scenes. It is said Mantegna was inspired by a Roman relief with figures grouped tightly together. The tight grouping, the three kings on one side and the holy family on the other, focuses the viewer on the faces of the people in this scene. They appear before a solid dark background, which pushes them forward and once again focuses attention on their faces, which are done quite realistically, including the black king. Mantegna paints these characters as individuals and gives some hint of who they are as people and how they react to what is going on.
The child seems interested in the orange vessel carried by the turban-wearing middle king from the Orient (Melchior?), who looks into the middle distance, as if contemplating the moment. Mary looks at her child with rather half asleep eyes, like many new parents. The old king (Gaspar?), shown bare headed and balding to represent his age, has his eyes rolled up as if to see under the swaddling clothes of the baby, though his head is turned a bit away from the child. Paintings of this time often show the old king checking to see that the baby is a real human male child by looking between his legs, so Mantegna's putting the old king's head near the child's legs may hint of this role without "going there." His fair skin represents a European aspect. Joseph's line of sight comes over Mary's shoulder in almost a straight line to the face of the youngest king, the African, as though he is sneaking a peek at this unusual being, whose own eyes trail off heavenward. The African king (Balthazar?) is also wearing a turban and carrying a vessel of alabaster, a treasure known to have been mined in Ancient Egypt. He wears a long earring of pearls with a red-orange jewel at the bottom, a color that matches his turban and contrasts with the blue and green of his robes and which also distinguishes him from the other two kings as coming from a less well known and unusual culture. His fine garments are the hallmark of his august status, and his features are as natural and real as those of the other kings, as Isabella d'Este had several African servants who could have been used as models. And so it was in those times before colonialism and caricatures.
One of the first paintings of this period to show a black magi was done by Hans Memling, a Flemish painter. The composition once again shows the eldest king checking out the humanity of the baby, here more discreetly checking his feet. The middle king once again seems to stare into the middle distance rather than look at the child. And the African king here is shown richly dressed, obviously young, standing a bit apart from the main scene but once again engaging the stare of Joseph, who holds one of the gifts. The background here is more traditional, especially since this is part of a triptych which tells a fuller version of the story than does Mantegna's Adoration. Memling is said to have borrowed the composition of one of his predecessors, Rogier Van der Weyden, whose painting had three white kings. Van der Weyden painted his in 1455, and this painting by Memling was done in 1470-72. So what happened to bring about the change?
Well, the actual history goes back a few centuries. In the 8th century, a monk known only as Pseudo-Bede wrote of "a dark, fully bearded king called Balthazar." Now, just an aside on the names of the kings. While the actual names are agreed upon, which king has which name depends upon whether the painting is from northern Europe or southern Europe or on which art historian is writing on the subject. In some places Balthazar is the young king; in some places his name is Gaspar (or Caspar). Melchior is sometimes the old king and Balthazar the middle king, etc., etc., etc. However, we do know that in around 1360, a black king appears in a painting of the Adoration in an Emmaus monastery in Prague. Up until 1475 the emblem for the city of Cologne in Germany bore three kings, one of whom was black. Cologne's patron saint is St. Maurice, who was a black Christian commander in the Roman army who led his troop of fellow Christians to refuse to kill Christians in Gaul as commanded by the Roman emperor. He was martyred along with his troops for disobeying. Currently that city emblem of Cologne sports just three white crowns. In 1395 the Catalan Atlas shows a black king sitting on a throne holding a ball of gold. He is seated in the general area of Mali and is presumed to be a version of Mansa Musa, the African king who crashed the economies of every country he passed through on his trip to Mecca by showering them with gold. And even earlier, Giotto in his paintings of the life of St. Francis (1306-1311) in the upper chapel of Assisi shows the sultans of North Africa with tall black servants, whom Giotto paints as realistic figures. So we see some knowledge of black people in the European consciousness.
French art historian, Daniel Arasse, in his essay, Un oeil noir (A Black Eye), points out that by the time that Bruegel did this version of the Adoration, the black king had taken on an additional aspect. While he was always finely dressed, here his finely draped softly worked leather cloak in white seems more simply elegant than the clothes of the other two kings, of whom Arasse says, " the old kings look less than regal with their long, dirty, badly combed hair...they look like old worn-out hippies" (p. 61 my translation of the French). As well, as the other two kings look the child over seeing for sure that he is a human male child, the African king's head is bowed, with his view of the child's genitals blocked by the child's left leg. Still he offers his gift of a golden boat, of the kind that carries riches from afar, in good faith and in the spirit of what was later said by that child as a grown up, "Blessed is he who believes without seeing." Arasse goes on to point out that having a black magi became all the rage, to the point of having older paintings with three white magi changed to show the youngest one to be black (p. 78).
Once again looking at the Adoration of the Magi by Mantegna, it is a thoughtful piece, with the kings looking not only dignified but as though they are experiencing a very special moment. Their eyes indicate an almost meditative attitude as their thoughts may have been of their journey that brought them somehow to this place and this child. The African king seems to look heavenward, perhaps at the star that guided him, surely hanging over the birthplace of this child. Hans Memling's African king has a face of solemn dignity as he gazes at the child who was the end goal of his journey. Bruegel's black king's head is slightly bowed as he offers his gift, though his body is regally straight. All are shown as beings whose bearing alone signals they are worthy of their royal status and of respect.
Unfortunately with the coming of the colonization of Africa and the massive slave trade, this tradition, though still seen, devolved into caricatures like those of Black Pete, a cartoonish, near animal-like invention that allows the Belgians and the Dutch to wear blackface and behave like buffoons as part of the Christmas holidays. It is sad that the beautiful renditions of the noble black king, many of them originally painted by Flemish and Dutch painters, are not among the current faces of their Christmas celebrations. However, all things change with time, and the noble black king may appear once again, bringing with him a sharing of a common humanity.
What do you think Mantegna's kings are thinking of? Log in and tell us bout it.
Resources: Daniel Arasse "Un oeil noir" in On n'y voir rien (We don't see anything) published by Folioessais in French, 2000.
The Getty Museum from their exhibition, Balthazar, a Black African King in Medieval and Renaissance Art, November 19, 2019 to February 16, 2020.
For more on this topic look at "The Medici Palace's Procession of the Magi and Sparkling Shiraz" in the December 17, 2020 post on OfArtandWine.com
Paintings pictured here are in public domain.
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© Marjorie Vernelle 2019