Code Switch
7:03 am
Fri December 13, 2013

Taking A Magnifying Glass To The Brown Faces In Medieval Art

Originally published on Fri December 13, 2013 5:10 pm

The Tumblr sounds a bit like a college course: People of Color in European Art History.

And its goal is pretty ambitious. The blog's author, Malisha Dewalt, says that her goal is to challenge the common perception that pre-Enlightenment Europe was all white, which she argues is a much more recent and deliberate invention.

"All too often, these works go unseen in museums, Art History classes, online galleries, and other venues because of retroactive whitewashing of Medieval Europe, Scandinavia, and Asia," she writes. "[T]his blog is here to emphasize the modern racism that retroactively erases gigantic swaths of truth and beauty."

And she means erased literally: While it was once the convention to depict one of the Magi — the fabled "three wise men" of the Christian folklore — as a dark-skinned black man, many dark-skinned people who appear in portraits of European royals were later painted white or simply cropped out when they were reproduced in textbooks.

Pamela Patton, a professor of art history who focuses on Iberia, says that artists from the Middle Ages "seem clearly interested in representing a diversity of ethnic variations, including different skin colors, hair textures, and facial features."

She goes on. "It's tempting to ask whether they were primed for this by the actual ethnic diversity of the medieval Iberian world, where there were Africans, Arabs, Jews, and other non-European groups in some numbers," she says.

For Dewalt, the blog is a chance to share findings from her personal research and a way to compare notes with art scholars and aficionados. "It's very common for me to post a work of art, and then to have someone from medieval literature add information from that discipline, and then to have someone from military history add some context from their discipline," she says.

And there are a lot of folks interested in this. Mark Rosen, an art historian at the University of Texas, Dallas, says there's been a flowering of academic interest on race in European art. "There's actually been a great deal of recent scholarship on the topic, especially in the years after 1500," he says. That's when European countries began exploring and Spain expelled its black African population, which settled elsewhere on the Continent.

But history and race are always contested spaces. Art history is no different.

Many scholars suggest that the Black Madonnas were meant to be black, but were actually depicting Virgins who were "sunburnt." On Dewalt's blog, she highlighted a discussion in which a commenter suggested that figures with dark skin in certain psalters and portraits were dark only because of how the dyes used in them had aged over centuries. Others suggested that that Dewalt's blog was an attempt to advance a "multicultural agenda."

We wanted to share the entirety of our enlightening chat with Dewalt, Rosen and Patton. (Brooke Johnsen, who studied the evolution of self-perception during the Middle Ages at the University of Minnesota, also joined our conversation.) We've made minor edits for clarity and length.

Gene Demby: Malisha, how did you discover the art on your blog? Has that been via reader submissions or your own research?

Dewalt: Both, actually. Running this blog has been one of the most amazing learning experiences of my life, because it is a dialog between me and people from all over the world. I've had followers from France go to a local cathedral and submit photographs of Black Madonnas they took themselves! They also interviewed a local historian and submitted what they had learned.

The rest of it is live blogging my own research process. I want my readers to learn how to do research on their own, how to think critically, and how to do what I do, more or less. I'll never forget the time one of my readers submitted information on the thousands of letters Roman soldiers had left in Britain and Scotland — many of them requests for thick socks and warm clothing! I hope that by sharing my joy in learning, others will be inspired to share in it.

Discovering works that show a different cultural and artistic perspective on the same faces we are used to seeing painted in oils cracked and faded with age in a Nigerian hip brooch opens up a world of cross-cultural perspectives on that era.

Demby: Now that you all have had a chance to look through Malisha's blog, what are your initial thoughts on this?

Patton: I have to start with the disclaimer that I promised my teenagers to stay away from Tumblr, so I was not prepared for the rough-and-tumble dialogue that format seems to foster. The author's goal is a good one: She wants to raise awareness of the presence of people of color in Western art. This presence HAS been overlooked (though it's garnering increasing attention now) and it DOES deserve a closer look. It's good to see so many relevant images given viewing space. That said, the space of social media may not get us very far with this because it doesn't permit the kind of sustained dialogue and substantive evidentiary work that works like this invite, and that the author herself seems to be looking for.

Rosen: It's great to see so many images in one place, highlighting the details that might have been missed or overlooked. I think that the point is to raise awareness, and if it gets our students interested in looking more closely at these works and juxtaposing them then that's a good thing. I'd always want to know more about the specific contexts that created these images and how the portrayal of Africans might have been specific to those contexts, but that is not the stated goal of this Tumblr.

Johnsen: Never having heard of this Tumblr account before today, it may actually be my favorite. Because Tumblr lets you make individual posts it very easily facilitates discussion of discrete points in the grand discussion of racial identity. You can have a meaningful, nonlinear discussion that's easy for newcomers to follow — usually the opposite of a formal classroom course! To [Mark Rosen's] point about wanting more context and information about the specific post, I agree that it would be nice, but the joy of medievalism is having to research everything under the sun.

Demby: So to what extent does the art of the medieval world reflect the actual racial realities of that period?

Rosen: There's actually been a great deal of recent scholarship on the topic, especially in the years after 1500 (when great upheavals due to exploration and the expulsion of the black African population from Spain began to greatly impact the arrival of Africans throughout the rest of Europe). The exhibition "Revealing the African Presence in Renaissance Europe" at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore and the Princeton Art Museum last year gathered a large number of these images (most between about 1450 and 1650) in one place. The large multivolume project called "The Image of the Black in Western Art" (which is now at three volumes and is published by Harvard University Press) also has looked at this topic seriously. That said, most scholars conclude that prior to the mid-16th century the great majority of representations of Africans fall into "types" rather than portraits. Only beginning in the late 16th century do you begin to see some instances of portraits of known individuals, some slaves and some ex-slaves or diplomatic ambassadors. It is at around that time that huge distinctions in what is defined as "African" begin to sort out, especially in the distinctions in darker-skinned sub-Saharans versus lighter-skinned Maghreb populations on the North African coast. Often the latter are associated with Turks or Ottomans because of their Muslim affiliations and their control of Mediterranean trade.

Patton: It's true that in the Middle Ages such figures tend to be types rather than individuals — but there are places where a greater sensitivity to "racial realities" is evident. In medieval Spain, where I do my work, some artists seem clearly interested in representing a diversity of ethnic variations, including different skin colors, hair textures, and facial features. It's tempting to ask whether they were primed for this by the actual ethnic diversity of the medieval Iberian world, where there were Africans, Arabs, Jews, and other non-European groups in some numbers.

Dewalt: I think there is a large disconnect between the realities of medieval European history and the common cultural concept of medievalism. I also think that this idea influences the art world in some fairly destructive ways, such as the Yale Center for British Art selling pieces from its Agostino Brunias collection after recommendations that claimed they were too ethnographical, and neither important nor British enough.

So many of these works are pigeonholed as anomalies, or the first of their kind, when in fact each work has at least one predecessor going back into Classical times. There is an unfortunate habit in some collections and even texts that title or mark artwork that feature black subjects specifically as "slaves," even though researching the work in question shows no evidence to support that they were, in fact, enslaved.

One of my most delightful discoveries has been the sheer amount of art that exists of Spanish and Portuguese traders from Japan, Nigeria and Sierra Leone.

Johnsen: The art of the medieval world doesn't reflect its reality as well as if everyone had had a social media account, but the art is still diverse. The shortsightedness comes from our current lack of awareness about what actually exists, and how people thought about their racial identity in the Middle Ages. For example, the Tupinamba cannibals illustrated by Theodor de Bry appear very European despite being native to the Brazilian rain forest. In the context of how Africa and South America came to be populated, the medieval world thought they were the descendants of Noah's son Ham in the Old Testament, so Africans and South Americans were the same stock as Europeans but living on a different continent. This is only one example, but we can't forget to bear in mind how medieval folks perceived race.

Dewalt: Absolutely! One of the ways I explored medieval perceptions of race in the early days of Colonialism was a series on Albert Eckhout's Brazilian portraits. Each one shows influence of earlier mythologies, like medieval Wodewose tapestries and literature, or cartographical works and maps that presuppose what Europeans abroad might encounter. I also discuss the topic of racial Othering in European art, as well as the same topic from the opposite perspective, by showing art of Europeans from other continents.

Demby: Do you think that modern curation of that art — in museums, in textbooks, etc. — reflects that? Are people of color actually being cropped out of medieval art?

Patton:: I think we may see some cropping in textbooks for the general public or for school kids, where pictures are used to illustrate other subjects — likely as often for "lack of space" as for lack of interest in figures of color. But the trend in art historical scholarship favors seeing the big picture — literally. It might be more accurate to say that the study of people of color in art as a topic in itself was neglected for many years, so those POCs who did appear in works of art weren't discussed, or weren't discussed with the nuance and interest that they attract now. As Mark points out, it's engaged a lot of new attention, both in museum exhibitions and in publications. I teach the subject regularly in my art history courses, and the new scholarship that I can bring into class is very exciting.

Rosen: I agree with Pamela, and I think that we are seeing these images more and more frequently in our textbooks as we learn more about trade, immigration, slavery, and diplomatic exchange in this period. There's never been more scholarly interest in these things than right now. I do think one of the positive effects is that we're often now discovering that images of Africans have always been right in front of our face, in major works like Rubens' Adoration of the Magi. And the case of Alessandro de' Medici, the first duke of Tuscany, has garnered a lot of recent attention: He is now believed to have been born illegitimately to a Medici and a Moorish slave, potentially making one of 16 century Europe's most powerful leaders (albeit for a brief time) half-African.

Dewalt: More and more professors are making their own PowerPoint presentations for in-class use, and it seems as though many of the images they use for these slides show cropped images, distorted ones, and otherwise modified materials. Another tendency is the widespread use of YouTube videos as replacement for lectures, and they are often presented without context. This is of course more common at the undergraduate level, but consider that many people in the United States do not even get that amount of education.

I firmly believe that education can be made more accessible to the general populace without dilution or adulteration. Many instructors turn to stock-photo sites rather than academic sources to put together their presentations and class materials, where they are more likely to unknowingly use cropped or edited images. My hope is that the accessibility of my blog will encourage more use of rarely seen images of people of color in art history classrooms, as well as other more general courses like Western [civilization] and early American history.

Johnsen: I think the perspective of racial identity is an afterthought both in major museum curations and in typical university curriculum. The Rijksmuseum presented Albrecht Durer's engravings of the Turks in spring 2012, and despite the existence of people of color in medieval art this is the only presentation related to non-European racial identity I've seen in a museum outside the context of Orientalism.

In the context of a university education we encounter non-Europeans during the Crusades, during the great rush of exploration in the late 15th century, and when discussing trade routes, and in a broad medieval studies curriculum these may only be small opportunities to discuss the portrayal of different racial identities. Our examples of Africans are either the Moors in the Iberian Peninsula or the Muslims in the Maghreb and the near Middle East. In your typical medieval history overview course there may not be enough time to devote to a discussion about the portrayal of race. Not all instructors may care enough about the topic, or have sufficient access to resources.

Luckily my university has a solid medieval curriculum and the professors used more than cropped photos in PowerPoint presentations; we were looking at reproductions of the works themselves and had scholarly sources every single day. I agree with [Malisha] that this material should be more accessible to everyone — whether you're pursuing an education or not. Better access would improve the quality of material in university courses (hopefully students would be enriching their own education) but would also encourage further discussion by people who may not typically be interested in medieval history.

Demby: Why was it the convention that one of the Magi – "the three wise men" in Christian folklore who come to greet the newly born Christ in the manger — be painted with black skin? When did that practice begin?

Patton: This is something Mark will know better than I will, but I can say it begins to appear in the West in the late Middle Ages and really flourishes in Renaissance art. It seems connected in some way to medieval images in which personifications of various lands attend a ruler figure — these are sometimes dressed or colored in a way to suggest that they come from afar.

Rosen: The figure of Balthazar is usually depicted as black-skinned in Renaissance art, and in late medieval art. It is pretty solidly established in the 15th century, although I'm not sure how much earlier it goes back. The papacy and the church tended to use images of Africans to suggest (as Pamela intimates above) the wider dominion of Christianity, that the church's law spreads to previously "uncivilized" lands — such a concept is often seen in representations of the Pentecost, when the word of God descends to the disciples and each goes off to a different land to preach (so you see St. Mark preaching to dark-skinned Egyptians, etc.). And the Magi theme reverses it; those lands come to pay tribute to Christ. In Venice, you can see both themes: the Pentecost dome of San Marco (12th century) features African figures receiving apostolic preaching, while the nearby Clocktower (late 15th century) has Magi figures who once processed on a track around the clock, one of whom was dark-skinned. In the interim between the two works, a number of Africans had appeared in Venice as slaves, but it would be difficult to call the Magus of the Clocktower any more mimetic than the earlier version.

Dewalt: I think one of the more neglected areas is the role of trade in the Netherlands and the influx of wealth coinciding with the production of many Adoration scenes that feature Black Magi. Balthazar is often depicted as the "youngest" Magus, as a symbol of more newly Christian areas, but I also believe that he is meant to be a symbol of the wealth gained through new trade partners.

Demby: One of the blog posts highlighted an argument in which someone challenged the idea that the people depicted in some psalters were meant to be people of color. They argued that the dyes in the paintings became darker and discolored with age; an art restorer pushed back and said that the dyes in question were rarely used to illustrate faces. Whom should we believe here?

Patton: I was sorry to see that dispute get so contentious and personal so quickly on the blog, because it is a valid question. In some cases, changes in pigment or medium do cause color changes in works of art. In others, later restorers might either darken or lighten a work's skin in accordance with current preferences. That happened frequently with so-called Black Madonnas. The kinds of pigments available to the artist also could have an effect — some of the medieval artists I work on used sometimes ingenious techniques and mixtures to produce certain brown and black tones, and others seem to have improvised when a color they wanted was not at hand, so figures could acquire a color that was not entirely intentional. In the case of the works on the blog, I saw a few in which pigment change could have been a factor (in one I am fairly sure it was), but without a more substantive discussion it would be difficult to resolve. The bigger question is why it matters if a few turn out not to have been brown or black originally? The point is that many were. Especially in cases where the artist seems to have worked quite deliberately to mix a specific skin tone (as in the Vidal Mayor, a manuscript in the Getty on which I've done a little work), we can see that skin color mattered a good deal to some artists in some contexts.

Dewalt: I've mentioned a few times on my blog that while the intent of the artist is relevant, I'm more focused on how your average viewer sees these works as inherently anachronistic. That sort of dissonance or discomfort is what I really like my readers to consider. After all, there are so many of these Black Madonnas, why does the phrase itself, "Black Madonnas," seem like a contradiction to so many?

Almost all of the disputes on medievalpoc become very contentious and personal, because I don't adopt a cloak of unassailable truth. I engage in and facilitate discussion. This has the additional benefit of luring in academics from other specialities like medieval literature or classical demography.

Demby: Could you help us get some context on the debate over the Black Madonnas — depictions of the Virgin with dark skin? The blog's author says that the argument that these Virgins weren't meant to be depicted as dark-skinned is contradicted by the sheer number of them. She even points to one eighth century sculpture of a Black Madonna with the inscription that literally translates, "I am black." (Ed. note: Malisha says that the translation is debated. "The line from the 'Song of Songs' is either 'I am black, but beautiful' or 'I am black AND beautiful.' That's the only disputed word.")

Patton: The Black Madonnas are tricky. In some cases it's pretty clear, based on pigment analysis and other examination during conservation, that the color was added later. That is fascinating in itself, because it means that at some point someone (often in the early modern era) thought it would add something to the image to give it dark skin. A young scholar who works on this, Elisa Foster, has suggested that this was often intended to suggest exoticism or venerability, which connects in an interesting way with images of the Queen of Sheba, whose dark skin also seems to have been read in this way. One might argue that in Latin America, the dark skin of such figures had an ethnic/racial role to play as well, but that's still much debated. In the end, skin color and other somatic differences mean so many different things at different times and places that it's hard to generalize about them.

Johnsen: I think we need to consider that people are likely to troll or refute any thought of colored skin in this context because the idea of race isn't something that's really relevant to the general public's knowledge of the Middle Ages. Anything unfamiliar must be wrong, especially if it involves race or religion! Back to [Dewalt's] earlier point, if this material were readily available to the public it wouldn't be so far out of the general realm of consciousness that people would be open to exploring the topic. Instead, people are having knee-jerk reactions and propping up defenses about the restoration history of a piece. This is where the scholarly discussion may be better facilitated in a scholarly arena, but perhaps involving the trolls in the discussion of the historical portrayal of race can expand and improve our current race dialogue.

Dewalt: There's been a great deal of discussion about people's behavior online, and the illusion of anonymity that seems to goad behavior that might usually be suppressed. It's been my misfortune in the last 10 years or so to notice a shift in a lot of college environments that seem to facilitate this kind of behavior, especially related to changing ideas about humor.

Each troll that I publish and respond to is a real person, who carries these attitudes with them in their daily life. There is not much difference between their responses to my posts and ones I have experienced in academia, as a student, at my job — some of them even are indistinguishable from information I've seen in textbooks! What I'm attempting is a dialogue to address where these ideas of a ubiquitously White Medieval Europe come from, and to change the average person's perception of who is "allowed" to be in historical fiction, fantasy, science fiction, and other forms of media.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit