The Image of the Black in Western Art, Volume One: From the Pharaohs to the Fall of the Roman Empire
The Image of the Black in Western Art, Volume Two: From the Early Christian Era to the "Age of Discovery" Part 1, From the Demonic Threat to the Incarnation of Sainthood
The Image of the Black in Western Art, Volume Two: From the Early Christian Era to the "Age of Discovery" Part 2, Africans in the Christian Ordinance of the World (Fourteenth to the Sixteenth Centuries)
During the fifteenth century BC, the Theban pharaohs of the Eighteenth Dynasty established an empire extending from the Euphrates to the Fourth Cataract of the Upper Nile. The southern conquests brought Egyptians into direct contact with black populations who continued to resist and counterattack. In the previous millennium black warriors and captives had occasionally appeared in the art of Egypt, Crete, and Cyprus—their precise racial origins are a matter of debate among scholars still attuned to dolichocephalous and mesaticephalous physical types. But as the first volume of The Image of the Black in Western Art shows us, from the mid-fifteenth century to Tutankhamun’s painted box depicting the slaughter of black tribesmen (ca. 1342-1333 BC), Egyptian art increasingly portrayed realistic and unmistakable Negroes, often as warriors, dancers, or captive slaves. The almost caricatured head of a Negro captive, his neck constricted by three tight ropes, carved in limestone in the late Eighteenth Dynasty, would have struck any European slave trader over more than three thousand years later as a contemporary illustration. (See Volume I, figure 59.)
By coincidence, the fifteenth century AD marked an even more momentous turning point in the history of global expansion, racial exploitation, and the conventions of dominant art. Ottoman conquests cut off southern Europe’s supply of Caucasian slaves and servants, mostly from the Black Sea and Balkans, at a time when Europe was still recovering from the disastrous population losses of the Black Death. In Sicily and even in southern Italy and France, black slaves imported from northern Africa began to replace lighter-skinned “Moors,” who were now differentiated by color as well as by religion.
Almost simultaneously, after the mid-fifteenth century, Portugal’s dramatic explorations southward along the African Atlantic coast led to the shipment of black slaves to Madeira and the Iberian Peninsula. This sudden discovery of sub-Saharan Africa, coupled with increasing knowledge of Asia, added realistic detail to European artists’ fascination with the exotic, the Other. On the one hand, a French illustration of the Departure of the Argonauts, painted about 1470, shows Negro workers loading and preparing for departure a ship that seems to be modeled on the vessels of the new African slave trade. On the other hand, Hans Memling’s contemporary triptych of The Last Judgment includes a well-defined Negro among God’s elect. Following the lead of his master, Rogier van der Weyden, Memling painted a number of magnificent Negro kings in scenes of the Adoration of the Magi, a tradition soon perfected in masterpieces by Albrecht Dürer and Hieronymus Bosch.1 It is a remarkable fact that the first two centuries of the West African slave trade, which went virtually unnoticed in Western art, coincided with extraordinarily beautiful and dignified portraits of blacks by Dürer, Bosch, Veronese, Velázquez, Rubens, and Rembrandt.
Although historians of the past two decades have greatly enriched our understanding of the origins of New World slavery and of whites’ prejudices toward blacks, they have generally ignored iconographic evidence.2 By training they have been accustomed to look…
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