Early medieval legends report that one of the three kings who paid homage to the Christ child in Bethlehem was from Africa. Written accounts sometimes describe Balthazar, the youngest of the magi, as having a dark complexion. Nevertheless, it would take nearly 1,000 years for European artists to begin representing him as a Black man.
“Balthazar: A Black African King in Medieval and Renaissance Art,” is now on exhibition through February 16, 2020 at the Getty Center Museum, 1200 Getty Center Dr. The exhibit examines how representations in European art of Balthazar as a Black African coincided with the increased interaction between Europe and Africa, particularly with the systematic enslavement of African peoples in the fifteenth century.
“This exhibition examines the illuminated manuscripts and paintings in the Getty’s collection that tell the story of Balthazar, placing this artistic-religious narrative in the context of the long history of material trade networks between Africa and Europe,” said Timothy Potts, director of the Getty Museum. “By exploring how his representation coincided with and is furthered by the rise of the slave trade, we can begin to understand the works of art in our collection and the broader historical and cultural phenomena they reflect in new ways.”
According to the Gospel of Matthew, “magi from the East” paid tribute to the newborn Christ with offerings of gold, frankincense and myrrh. “Magos” is an ancient Greek word for a Persian priest-astrologer or dream interpreter. Revered as wise men, the night visitors came to be known as three kings because of the then-known continents of the world: Europe, Asia and Africa.
Despite further written descriptions of Balthazar as a Black African, European artists continued for centuries to represent him as a White king. Medieval European artists typically and inaccurately represented biblical figures as White, indicating cultural or racial difference only through costume.
In the 1440s, with the Portuguese incursions into West Africa, the slave trade escalated. It was then that artists began representing Balthazar as a Black African, reflecting the evolving worldviews of their audiences. Possibly, the increased number of Black Africans in Europe led artists to revise the figure of Balthazar.
‘There is so much that cannot now be known about the countless Africans who inspired works such as those on view in the gallery,” Potts said. “Although many of their names have been lost to time, we are hoping, through case studies, that this exhibition will pull back the veil on the long history of Africans in pre-modern Europe.”
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