Early medieval legends reported that one of the three kings who paid homage to the newborn Christ Child in Bethlehem was from Africa. But it would be nearly one thousand years before artists began representing Balthazar, the youngest of the magi, as a Black African.
This online exhibition explores the juxtaposition of a seemingly positive image with the painful histories of Afro-European contact, particularly the brutal enslavement of African peoples. This online exhibition uses the phrase “Black African” to underscore the racial diversity across the African continent and to address the theme of Balthazar’s Blackness in European art.
According to the Gospel of Matthew in the Christian Bible, “magi from the East” paid tribute to the newborn Christ with offerings of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Magos was an ancient Greek word for a Persian priest-astrologer or dream interpreter. Revered as wise men, they came to be known as three kings because of the number and richness of their gifts.
In the Middle Ages, European Christian writers gave names to the magi: Caspar, Melchior, and Balthazar. The individual identity, origin, age, and gift of each magus varies by region or author, but by the late fifteenth century Balthazar was often depicted as a young Black African ruler.
European artists often alluded to the African identity of Balthazar by depicting him with a Black attendant.
On this leaf from a choir book, Balthazar’s geographic origin is reinforced by the camels visible in the background.
The African magus himself appears as a young white king in a red hat. This frequent juxtaposition of white ruler and Black servant in fifteenth-century images of the magi reflects the very real commodification of Black Africans in Europe at the time.
Initial E: The Adoration of the Magi by Franco dei RussiThe J. Paul Getty Museum
In this scene, the white-haired, kneeling magus wears a cloak made of golden threads, perhaps a reference to fabric in fashion in Europe at the time, as well as to Caspar’s gift of gold. The two standing kings are dressed in garments that call to mind Asia Minor and Africa.
The young, beardless figure wears a turban from the Mamluk sultanate in Egypt. The pink-striped tiraz was a fabric associated with North Africa and the Middle East.
Ships in the background reinforce the theme of travel and evoke the port city of Naples, where this manuscript was created.
The Adoration of the Magi by UnknownThe J. Paul Getty Museum
In the Middle Ages, European artists often depicted the magi as rulers from each of the three continents known to Europeans at the time—a propagandistic portrayal intended to emphasize the global reach of Christianity.
The kneeling king represents Europe . . .
. . . while the standing kings correspond to Asia and Africa. The latter are distinguished by their turbans, used stereotypically in art to identify Muslims, Jews, or peoples of the eastern and southern Mediterranean and beyond.
Notably, the African magus is shown as a Black man. Such racialized images of the figure became common in Europe only around the end of the fifteenth century. Medieval Europe and Africa were far more diverse than is commonly acknowledged, not only in terms of race but also in language and religion.
The Adoration of the Magi by Georges TrubertThe J. Paul Getty Museum
This scene of gift giving builds on a thousand years of medieval Christian thought regarding the origins of the mysterious magi. The eldest king, Caspar, holds Chinese porcelain that identifies him with Asia.
In the center, Melchior carries a Turkish incense burner and wears a turban associated with eastern Europe or Asia Minor. Balthazar wears a leopard-skin headdress evoking Africa. His vessel is made of banded alabaster or agate, recalling the containers used in antiquity for precious oils, such as those infused with myrrh.
At the time this work was made between 1495 and 1505, its creator Andrea Mantegna was one of the most famous Renaissance artists and court painter to Francesco Gonzaga and Isabella d’Este, rulers of Mantua, in northern Italy. Mantegna’s position may provide insight into the objects and people he represented in his work.
While the Renaissance is often called the Age of Exploration, when Europeans collected newly excavated antiquities as well as contemporary objects from distant lands, this painting points to a different, and painful, aspect of the period.
Isabella, an avid collector of antiquities, acquired enslaved people as well. Letters document that she purchased a number of Black African children to be raised as servants (who were nominally freed upon baptism into Christianity). Could the figure of Balthazar in Mantegna’s painting have been based on an individual in her household?
While Mantegna had encountered both enslaved and free Black Africans in the region around Venice since the 1450s, he would have come into regular contact with servants at Isabella’s court in Mantua near the end of the fifteenth century.
Just as Balthazar’s African origin was intended to demonstrate the universal reach of Christianity, Black Africans among Isabella’s or Francesco’s retinue were meant to demonstrate the couple’s worldliness.
Adoration of the Magi by Andrea MantegnaThe J. Paul Getty Museum
Networks of exchange had connected Africa and Europe since antiquity. Commerce in gold and ivory brought inhabitants of both continents into frequent contact, and Black African soldiers served in the courts of medieval European rulers. In the fifteenth century, the Papacy in Rome welcomed Christian delegations from Coptic Egypt and the kingdom of Ethiopia.
At the same time, Europeans escalated the brutal institution of enslaving non-Christian Black Africans. The rise of the slave trade devastated West Africa and brought thousands, ultimately millions, of enslaved peoples into Europe (and later, the Americas).
This oil sketch brings the story beyond the Renaissance. The sketch helped Peter Paul Rubens (1577–1640) refine the figure of Balthazar for a large painting of the Adoration of the Magi, commissioned by the town council of Antwerp, in Flanders (northern Belgium). The biblical story of three kings traveling from afar with gifts for the Christ child resonated in Catholic Antwerp, Rubens’s home city and a center of international commerce. The cult of the magi so captured the imagination of local inhabitants that many children were named Balthazar, Melchior, or Caspar after the kings.
This oil sketch was painted on repurposed ledger paper; the marks of mercantile transactions are visible through the figure’s robe, face, and turban. The immediacy and vibrancy of Rubens’s figure, with his parted mouth and gaze directed to the side, suggest an individual captured in a moment of speech and motion. Was this seventeenth-century depiction inspired by an actual person, and if so, whom?
We know that Rubens often drew from life. One of his patrons in Antwerp had Black African servants in his household, and Rubens made other studies using them as models. This head study was likely made by an assistant in Rubens's studio and copies a work by the artist.
Portuguese emigres had brought enslaved Black Africans to the Netherlands following the expulsion of Jews and Muslims from the Iberian peninsula in 1492. Much research remains to be done on the status of forcibly Christianized Black Africans and their descendents living in Antwerp, specifically their positions and rights within the city and in domestic settings.
Four Studies of a Male Head by Peter Paul RubensThe J. Paul Getty Museum
Complicating an attempt to identify the real people behind Rubens’s sketch in the Getty's collection, scholars have pointed out that there may not be a single source for this likeness. One such source includes a print of Mūlāy Ahmad, the Hafsid Muslim ruler of Tunis (died in 1575), made about seventy-five years earlier as inspiration for this work and others. The Tunisian turban in Rubens’s Head Study for Balthazar casts the biblical character as a sixteenth-century North African king.
However, Balthazar’s features in the Rubens’s sketch are quite different from those of the North African ruler in the print. Thus Rubens’s Balthazar may be an amalgam of an unidentified sitter, likely a servant or enslaved person, and Mūlāy Ahmad, a nearly contemporary ruler. The artist’s image speaks to the intersections of power, faith, and race in commercial Antwerp.
The Getty’s 2019 exhibition on Balthazar provided a close look at fifteenth-century images of the African king against the backdrop of Afro-European contact, which included trade and diplomacy as well as the painful legacies of enslavement. Each case study highlighted the long histories of Africans in Europe.
This material was published in 2019 to coincide with the J. Paul Getty Museum exhibition Balthazar: A Black African King in Medieval and Renaissance Art, November 19, 2019–February 16, 2020, at the Getty Center.
To cite these texts, please use: "Balthazar: A Black African King in Medieval and Renaissance Art," published online in 2020, the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles.