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 upon art as a mere reflection or illustration, as in a textbook, of “facts” established by recorded words and numbers. Literary evidence should have suggested that art can influence perceptions—one thinks, for example, of Richard Ligon writing in 1653, in A True & Exact History of the Island of Barbadoes, that the Negro men were shaped exactly in accordance with Dürer’s rules on proportion and that even a Titian could not capture the supple movements of the young virgins.

But apart from the historians’ traditional reluctance to take art seriously, ignorance has been the elemental problem. One can hardly claim that “the black image” has been a major preoccupation in Western art, and even veteran museum goers would have difficulty recalling more than an occasional image by Rubens, Géricault, Delacroix, or Winslow Homer. It was not until 1976, when the fruits of the Menil Foundation’s vast research enterprise began to appear, that even specialists could recognize the extraordinary richness, variety, and complexity of iconographic themes that span some five millennia of Mediterranean and European art.

The Menil Foundation, which has promoted racial equality and has patronized the fine arts in Houston and elsewhere, launched this project over twenty years ago on the assumption that a systematic study of the Western image of blacks would improve racial understanding and help erode the prejudices that sustained racial segregation. “With such a naïve approach,” Dominique de Ménil notes at the beginning of the first volume, “a serious enterprise was started.” It was also a staggering enterprise that required extensive photographic expeditions in Europe, Egypt, and the Sudan; the scrutiny of some six million photographs in archives throughout the world; and scholarly excursions into such subjects as cartography, the meaning of Ethiopia in patristic literature, and the curious appearance of Negro heads on ancient Delphic coins and in the armorial bearings of medieval heraldry.


Because so much of this terrain is still uncharted, Ladislas Bugner, the brilliant art historian who serves as general editor and supervisor, emphasizes the provisional and tentative character of the entire enterprise. It will be left to future scholars, for example, to explore the connections between alchemy, astrology, and Western conceptions of blackness, or the earlier possible influence of Gnosticism and various forms of Manichaeism. The most striking gap in the project—the abrupt and unexplained transition from the realistic portraiture of blacks during the late classical age to the black demons of early Christianity—became apparent only after thousands of representations had been assembled and ordered in accordance with the canons of art history.

We have, to be sure, considerable scholarship on the European image of the “wild man,” l’homme sauvage, and exotic Asians and Amerinds.3 While it is unfortunate that the themes of such literature are generally ignored by the authors of the volumes under review, the connection between blacks and other non-European peoples will presumably become a central focus of Volume Three, which will begin with the sixteenth century (a separate book is now planned for the nineteenth century). The importance of this point is illustrated by a fascinating example Bugner cites in his admirable but regrettably brief and undocumented introduction to Volume One, an introduction that can only fully be appreciated after one has read the two books of Volume Two.

Albert Eckhout, a painter patronized by John Maurice of Nassau-Siegen, who from 1636 to 1644 governed Dutch Brazil, produced a series of portraits of nomadic “Tapuya” or Tarairiu Indians which helped define European conceptions of the exotic savage.4 Eckhout’s paintings, some of which Maurice presented to Louis XIV, also included black slaves and a Congolese black dressed in the most elegant European attire, including a broad felt hat plumed with a red feather. From 1653 to 1663 Eckhout introduced Brazilian scenes to Dresden, at the court of Frederick William, elector of Brandenburg. Although direct evidence is still lacking, Bugner suspects there is a connection between Eckhout’s “documentary” ethnography and Dresden’s magnificent but highly mannered Grüne Gewölbe of the early eighteenth century—ornate statuettes of Negroes and other exotic non-Europeans encrusted with gold and precious stones. Ethnographic discovery and curiosity gradually removed the African from the realm of demonic and religious symbolism to the “fairyland world” of little black pages and hussars, popular, as Bugner points out, “in all the princely courts” from Madrid to St. Petersburg.

One can understand the necessity of limiting such an ambitious enterprise to white perceptions of blacks, or as Bugner puts it, to “the plastic expression by which the white man has marked the state of difference, of ‘otherness,’ in which he situates the black man in relation to himself,” excluding “any preliminary definition of the ‘Negro’ based on anthropological or ethnological data.” This flexible approach illuminates the ambiguities of blackness and of racial definition, and also suggests, as Frank M. Snowden, Jr., maintains, that racial intermixture increased in late antiquity.

But the Menil project also dramatizes the need for even broader and more comparative studies of ethnic (and class) iconography. How do Eckhout’s Brazilian scenes compare with the somewhat earlier Japanese screen paintings that depict long-nosed Portuguese giants who are fanned or shaded from the sun by barefoot black slaves?5 Can cartoons and caricatures of Negro faces be understood without reference to caricatures of European peasants or to a tradition of grotesques designed to illustrate “humours,” emotions, and the plasticity of human expression? What are we to make of the ancient Greek vases and aryballoi that juxtapose a white head, often that of a god, with the head of a thick-lipped and woolly-haired Negro? (See Volume I, figures 160 and 193, and the illustration on next page.) Is it significant that similar janiform black and white faces appear in representations of ancient Khmer and other Asian deities as well as in the folk art of West Africa? If art has its own internal history, can one think of a purely aesthetic formula extending from janiform vases of the sixth century BC to Jules Robert Auguste’s juxtaposition of sensuous black and white female nudes in the early nineteenth century?

The continuity and imaginative adaptation of artistic conventions can mislead any reader who simply assumes that art reflects social reality. For example, the casual viewer who encounters the extraordinary prevalence within the old Holy Roman Empire of a negroid St. Maurice could easily conclude that from the thirteenth to the fifteenth centuries the eastern Germanic marches were guarded by black knights in armor. In view of the racist stereotypes of the nineteenth century, it is also easy to assume that grotesque lips and exaggerated prognathism reflect similar contempt in Greco-Roman times, even when carved in garnets and gold intended for female adornment. (See Volume I, figure 244.) This is not to deny the possible presence of racial prejudice in classical antiquity or the more remote possibility that a wandering Negro warrior served as a model for the magnificent thirteenth-century statue of St. Maurice that decorates the Cathedral of Magdeburg. (See Volume II, part 1, figures 114 and 116, and photograph at end of essay.) The point is that iconography gives no answers to such questions. In Bugner’s view art “brings us the fundamental quality of a presence…. It states but does not reason.”


Yet Bugner also dreams of eventual synthesis of artistic and literary evidence that “would be the only guarantee of the soundness of the iconographic approach.” Although Snowden and Jean Devisse are more sensitive that their coauthors to changing historical settings, The Image of the Black never seriously confronts the methodological problems of synthesizing art with social and intellectual history.6 The text, while indispensable for an understanding of the superb illustrations, is often desultory and preoccupied with technical detail. It never develops Bugner’s intriguing insights or his glimpses of a larger theoretical pattern that might explain the popularity of the black St. Maurice and Wise Man in northern Europe (the British Isles, unfortunately, are seldom mentioned); the virtual absence, before the nineteenth century, of paintings of black laborers, of the slave trade, or even of “the suffering Negro,” except for a few Spanish representations of the Miracle of the Black Leg, to which we shall return in a moment. One hopes that Bugner himself will take the risk of expanding his ideas in a longer essay that will be more accessible to non-specialists.

Even now, however, the published volumes transform the standard view of Europe’s response to Africa. If art does not reason, it still can tell the historian important things. Until the eighteenth century, for example, blacks were not automatically categorized as slaves. Except in Greece, few Europeans had the opportunity to see sculptures of the “Ethiopian” or Kushite kings of Egypt’s Twenty-fifth Dynasty. But in the late Middle Ages artists tended to picture Egyptians as black and to include recognizable Negroes in scenes from the Old Testament. Consider the portrayals of the king of Mali, based on accounts of Mansa Musa’s pilgrimage to Mecca; of a black Prester John and Queen of Sheba; and above all, the introduction of Negro attendants in thirteenth-century scenes of the Adoration of the Magi and the gradual acceptance, by the early fifteenth century, of a black Magus or Wise Man. All these contradicted the common belief that Noah’s curse of Canaan had subjected Africans to perpetual servitude and degradation. This ecumenical approach was encouraged by the Church’s desire to win military allies on the flanks of the Ottoman empire, a strategy that led to Ethiopian and Coptic delegations at the Council of Florence in 1441, and to the Pope’s futile efforts to communicate with “Prester John, illustrious emperor of the Ethiopians.”

But if one accepts the reasonable but unprovable assumption that European racial attitudes were gradually shaped by the iconographic environment—by church paintings, sculptures, and stained-glass windows as well as by maps, armorial bearings, illustrated books, wall paintings, and tapestries—the fusion of art and religion was in some ways catastrophic. During the earlier Hellenistic and Roman periods skilled craftsmen clearly took delight in presenting Negroes in a variety of roles, moods, and postures—as musicians, dancers, jugglers, actors, acrobats, jockeys, charioteers, and soldiers.

The popularity of such motifs, which spread far beyond the probable physical presence of any blacks, may have derived from the fashionableness of Alexandrian styles and ornamentation. The beauty and vitality of such figures do not preclude the possibility that living models, usually young males, were often slaves and were subjected to physical and sexual abuse. The fact remains that such individualized and humanistic representations would have been inconceivable in later slave societies founded on the premise of racial inferiority. In late antiquity the image of the black was one expression of the infinite diversity of a common human nature. It was not associated with the powers of darkness or with a pagan world to be redeemed by Christian light.

Volume Two explores the allegorical and anagogical interpretations of blackness in early Christian thought, the complexities of which can only be intimated here. Despite Augustinian cautions against identifying color or physical appearance with spiritual realities, blackness was a precondition for Christian cosmology and eschatology: the symbol of death, sin, ignorance, idolatry, the synagogue, the devil, and the Church before it was cleansed of heresies. Eventually it would symbolize Islam and the dark-skinned Muslims who threatened to overrun Christendom. While St. Matthew’s legendary conversion of Ethiopia prefigured the ultimate evangelizing of the world’s most distant nations, patristic writers stressed that the Ethiopian was “born of the Devil and wished to serve his evil designs. He is assumed to be black because of the darkness in which his ignorance of God and his perversity establish him.” Therefore, he could be admitted to the glorious city of God only after he had been “wounded by Him who says these words and [has] given up [the] Ethiopian way of life,” and has been washed clean and made whiter than snow.

It is true, as Jean Devisse points out, that Byzantine illustrations of Biblical scenes included realistic blacks as a matter of course, “on a footing of complete equality,” without any suggestion of sin or culpability. It is also true that until the twelfth century the more hostile iconography in Western Europe was characterized by demonic fantasies that lacked the specific ethnic connotations of written Biblical commentary. As Ladislas Bugner shrewdly observes:

Only the Devil is totally black. The whole dialectic of the black-white symbolism was developed out of an unrealism based upon the sense of salvation which allowed the possibility of passing from black to white as well as that of falling back from white to black. The black Ethiopian illustrated the state of sin insofar as the literary metaphor supported the image of an Ethiopian turned white by the grace of repentance and baptism. Could art follow the concept?… Was not the only way to render the image of the black Ethiopian, the figure of sin, to deny him any sort of human face in order to recognize in him the horned, fantastic creature of the Devil?

On the other hand an Ethiopian purified by conversion and relieved of his blackness would no longer be distinguished from a white man. The sarcophagi of the early Christian centuries show us the Ethiopian Eunuch converted by Philip without any distinctive ethnic feature, whereas, in a parallel way, the images of demons eliminate all precise reference to a particular human type. In this case we would have the invisible “Negro” at the center of the debate, but passed over and denied from either side by the white man, in function of his idealized image on the one hand and his phantasmal image on the other.

From the twelfth to the mid-fourteenth centuries, however, the iconography of Western Europe became stocked with images of unmistakable Negroes as torturers, tempters, and executioners, often in scenes of the Passion. Although our knowledge is limited to works that have survived, fortuitously, for five centuries or more, it seems probable that most Europeans got their first subliminal impressions of Negroes in the local church or cathedral—the image of death squads serving the devil. This ethnic realism was doubtless related to the expansion of Europe, the gradual reconquest of Spain, increasing contact with Africa, and the xenophobia and incipient racism exemplified by militant anti-Semitism. On the other hand, the ecumenism and relative tolerance of Byzantine iconography suggests that geographic proximity and relations with dark-skinned peoples did not necessarily lead to such results.

But it is easy to exaggerate the contrast between “positive” and “negative” iconography, as the authors of The Image of the Black tend to do. Unlike the terrifying beaked and horned demons that swarm through medieval visions of the apocalypse, the Negro executioner carved in stone at Chartres Cathedral is an altogether human youth, pensive, and perhaps even reticent as he is about to draw his sword. He is hardly distinguishable from the sculpture from the main portal of the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris (now at the Musée de Cluny) of a young black rising from his coffin at the trumpeting of the Last Judgment. As Devisse points out, the Negro scourger who dominates Giotto’s Mocking of Christ in the Arena Chapel in Padua conveys a sense of impassivity and “formal beauty” that defies analysis. In a sense, the supposedly “positive” image of St. Maurice, the black knight who symbolized the Holy Roman Empire’s crusade against the pagan Slavs, was simply a transmutation of the earlier Negro warrior and executioner. In both cases the black image was an ambiguous and somewhat frightening presence, and hence a challenge to the artistic imagination.

What seems important here is a transmutation of one identity into another—or more precisely a transitional state between two identities—the African warrior and sainted knight; the exotic king or magus who merges his African physiognomy with the splendor of Oriental attire; the Ethiopian Eunuch who, having lost the potency to transmit his blackness, can safely be baptized as a kneeling supplicant—a possible model, as Bugner suggests, for the abolitionists’ icon of the kneeling slave who pleads, “Am I Not a Man, and a Brother?” The most revealing image of transmutation was the Miracle of the Black Leg, a legend in which two saints replace the gangrenous leg of a white man with the limb of a dead or dying Negro.

The psychological implications of this theme deserve more careful analysis, but it is noteworthy that the subject was especially popular in Spain, where iconography was generally more hostile to blacks and where black-white interactions were far more frequent than in the rest of Europe. It is also noteworthy that representations of the “miracle” assumed no sympathy for the amputated Negro, whether pictured in agony or as a cadaver. Blackness seems to have been equated with a spiritual “gangrene” that could be cured only by merger with a white body; yet in this case it is by an African’s sacrifice that a European is saved.

One concludes from these pioneering volumes that artistic representations were historical “events” that eventually helped to shape a mentality that justified the enslavement of millions of Africans as well as later attempts to Christianize and liberate their descendants. The pictorial image of blacks tells us little about social reality in the period from the Egyptian pharaohs to Emperor Charles V. What is most impressive, however, are the overriding interest and delight in diversity, the dignity with which most blacks were portrayed, and the enduring capacity of artists for empathy and human expression. Regardless of the complexities and ambiguities of the black image, the artistic heritage from Egyptian and Hellenistic times to the great portraits by Memling, Bosch, and Rembrandt presents an unanswerable challenge to the later racist societies that have relied on dehumanizing caricature as an instrument of social and economic oppression.

This Issue

November 5, 1981