TThey came bringing gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. This description of the Magi, the three kings or wise men who followed a star to the newborn Jesus, has always given artists a wide margin to represent ornate boxes, vases and vases. The paintings show them followed by pages, servants, soldiers and pack animals – a whole royal entourage. Dressed in their best clothes, crossing deserts and mountains guided by a light, these pilgrims to the humble stable always look magnificent.
Although the Gospel of Matthew does not give individual names to this royal trio, we know them as Baltasar, Gaspar and Melchior, thanks to a Greek manuscript of 500 AD It was also in the Middle Ages when they were promoted from astronomers to kings. And a text attributed to Venerable Bede, the historian monk of Northumbria, makes Balthasar black. Despite Bede’s claim, there are very few images of a black Balthasar before 1400, possibly because medieval Europeans had so little concept of Africans. It was only with the dawn of the Renaissance that the color of Balthasar began to be emphatically depicted. In fact, the festive and joyous theme of “worship” inspired some of the richest depictions of blacks in European art.
You can try this in Feeling the invisible, the National Gallery London Christmas exhibition, creating a complete soundscape to enhance The Adoration of the Kings, the wonderfully detailed painting by Jan Gossaert from the Netherlands. Amid the lowing of oxen and ringing of bells, Balthasar speaks: a poem by the British-Nigerian writer Teresa Lola gives voice to this black king, a stranger in a strange land. Lola imagines him thinking about how different and how self-conscious he feels. “The ground seems to be opening its teeth, either to bite me or to kiss me, my eyes feel strange. I suppose that to know deeply, you have to look deeply. “
Our attention is drawn to the pensive eyes and melancholy face of Balthasar in Gossaert’s scene, painted in the early 16th century. Sometimes though, all of these auditory additions are both a distraction and an enhancement – you look at screens instead of work, in the middle of a digital environment that isn’t vivid enough, certainly not as vivid as painting. However, this celebration of Balthasar highlights something new and revolutionary that happened in Renaissance art, something that still makes the black magician haunting today, as his image appears on millions of Christmas cards sent around the world, and few people realize how innovative the image is. simply sealed in an envelope.
The artists of 15th and 16th century Europe essentially invented the image of Balthasar, the black king. The appearance of a realistically portrayed black character in Renaissance art did not reflect Bede’s long-ignored assertion, but rather the increasing visibility of other races in a Europe that previously had little concept of elsewhere. This was due to a seismic shift in global events when European ships, led by Portugal and Spain, explored the Atlantic and established trading and slavery posts off the African coast. Behind these dark stains of paint lies a new curiosity about people and peoples: the “humanistic” thought of the Renaissance that inspired the great French philosopher Montaigne to declare that all global customs and beliefs are equally valid. It also inspired Shakespeare to put a black hero on stage in OTHELLO.
In Albrecht Dürer’s Adoration of the Magi, painted in the artist’s hometown of Nuremberg in 1504, a young black man with short hair and red hose stands elegantly holding a spherical gold goblet filled with myrrh, a natural aromatic. The next king is turning to look at his gift, or perhaps his legs. This causes an intriguing chill as the long-haired wizard caught in the middle of the spin is a self-portrait of the bisexual Dürer himself.
What is especially intriguing is that these depictions of a black Balthasar were a choice: they were neither mandatory nor universal in Renaissance art. In Florence, for example, the black magician was whitewashed. All the kings in The famous adoration of Botticelli in 1475 they are white (as in the Procession of the Magi by Benozzo Gozzoli). That’s because they are actually portraits of the Medici family, who liked to identify with these wise and magnificent monarchs.
Northern Italian artist Andrea Mantegna also painted adorations that make Balthasar an African. In an intimate work, we see a porcelain cup, a gift that would have come from China. The reason for his inclusion, which can only be anachronistic, echoes Mantegna’s decision to make Balthasar black: the artist appears to be drawing from the world around him. Mantegna married the artistic Bellini family of Venice, the kind of bustling maritime city where you can find a china mug and, as Othello’s story dramatizes, meet black people.
Black Baltasars in Renaissance art are often associated with cosmopolitan ports like these. Gossaert is a good example. You probably started your career in Antwerp, one of the busiest ports in Europe and a place where you would meet Africans. In 1521, Dürer visited the port and drew a movingly immediate portrait of Katharina, a black servant in the home of the Portuguese merchant João Brandão. Dürer’s diary recounts his friendly dealings with Portuguese merchants who gave him exotic gifts.
In Hieronymus Bosch’s delusional and hypnotic Adoration of the Magi, painted for a couple in Antwerp in the 1490s, Joseph washes Jesus’ diaper as mysterious crowds make their way to the stable, where the Antichrist looks on maliciously. There is no denying the splendor of Bosch’s Balthasar. Contrasting vividly with his complexion, the fantastic white robe the wizard wears is a surreal delight, spilling onto the ground in a creamy yet solid appearance, filled with ornamental leaf details that appear more carved than sewn. It could be one of the ivory works of art that Portuguese ships brought back from West Africa. One could almost say that Bosch’s Balthasar carries African art.
If that seems over the top, it is no exception. There is an adoration of Bosch’s disciple, Pieter Bruegel the Elder, who also gives Balthasar an ivory-colored dress. And his gift is a gold ship shaped like a sailboat, an explicit image of the Atlantic trade in gold and human beings. Bosch painted his worship in the decade that Columbus made landfall in the New World. His hints of a strange new land, with the star shining over a staggeringly futuristic city, reflect his masterpiece, The Garden of Earthly Delights. Bosch’s worship is a mind-blowing hint of a world reborn, where the slaves he may have seen in Antwerp have been transformed into a magnificent king and his page.
Dürer gives his black king the contrapposto pose of a classical statue and, through the self-portrait, seems to give the pilgrim king the same look he gave men on a trip to Venice, where he wrote about sexy soldiers. Their worship seems to confess desires that cross borders. The artist wrote about “the subtle ingenuity of people in foreign lands” and the gifts that his Balthasar brings seem an expression of this admiration.
Dürer, Bosch, or Bruegel certainly cannot be accused of painting a completely white world. The magnificent Adoration of the Magi in the snow by Bruegel brings the kings from afar to an archetypal European village, trembling in a white Christmas. Snowflakes dot the surface of the image, not only the first time they were rendered, but also one of the more radical cases, as Bruegel flirts with something akin to abstraction in his depiction of a monochrome wonderland.
It looks like a Christmas card drunk on Trappist beer, the holiday season taken to magical extremes. The sloping roofs are white. The floor is white. But not all people are white. As WH Auden wrote in his poem Musee des Beaux Arts, the old master Bruegel makes every incident, however tumultuous, part of a much larger canvas filled with everyday and unimportant events. Here he diverts worship, supposedly the main action, to the left and even keeps it partially hidden. Three foreign kings? The birth of the Messiah? It is only part of village life, with Balthasar only part of the European scene, his presence accepted and little noticed.
• Feeling the invisible is scheduled from January 6 to February 28 at the National Gallery in London. The gallery is closed due to Covid-19, but the exhibition will be available online.
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