Twelfth night is upon us, Christmas is over once more and the space the below the now slightly drooping tree is morosely bare. The metres of glossy wrapping paper and ribbon which once flirted with expectant imaginations now adorns landfill sites and recycling plants across the world. In the Christian ecclesiastical calendar however, the most famous gift givers of the Christmas story have only just arrived. On the Sunday 5th January churches across the world marked the feast of Epiphany, which celebrates the visit of the three wise men, kings, or magi to the birth place of the infant Christ bringing with them gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. Whilst the gospel of Matthew, where these regal visitors first appear, makes no mention of their exact number, the three named gifts which are mentioned has meant that they have been represented as a trio. In the tradition of western Christianity they have commonly been given the names Melchior, Caspar and Balthasar.
Throughout history it is perhaps this element of the Christmas story that has been granted the most attention by visual artists; the products of which have been of great interest to scholars whose work focuses on early interactions between different cultures and the perception and portrayal of the ‘other’. The main focus of these works has been the European artistic tradition of depicting one of the three magi as black, the earliest known example of such a portrayal is believed to be a wall painting dated to the thirteenth century in the Emmaus monastery in Prague and it would appear that this iconographic tradition would remain constant over several centuries.
In his work on the subject The Rise of the Black Magus in Western Art, Paul H. D. Kaplan states that ‘By 1500 the story of the Magi in art constituted the preeminent means of integrating the inhabitants of the non-European world into the Western Christian Universe ’. The figure of the black magus sits in a liminal space in the work of scholars – whilst most would argue that in some ways this figure is chiefly a two dimensional iconographic tool, representing the exotic and the unknown cultures of far distant lands, others would point to evidence which suggests that the presence of an African figure in these images highlights to manner in which the world was getting smaller, a suggestion of the realities of the interactions taking place between Africa and Europe from the mid-fifteenth century.
Some historians have pointed to the complexity of these images due to the early days of the African slave trade which coincide with some of their production dates. In his review of Kaplan’s work in the journal Speculum historian Jeffrey Chipps Smith laments that the author did not make more of the cruel paradox that a black magus was accepted at a time when African slavery was rapidly expanding’.
Indeed it could be argued that these representations of African figures have very little to do with the various exchanged occurring between the two continent s in the medieval and early modern period. The figure of the black magus used as a mere allegory or symbol of a wider concept. It has been suggested that over time the three magi from the biblical story had come to represent the three known continents of the old world, namely Europe, Africa and Asia, with America unknown to Europeans until 1492. Parallels of this use of human figures as geographical allegories can be found in the regular use throughout this period in the representation of the continents.
This interpretation that the depiction of black figures by European artists as the allegorical portrayal of the exotic is common within scholarship on the subject, and whilst it should not be dismissed in could be argued that such an explanation is somewhat of a shallow reading of these images and objects. There can be no doubt that in some ways the details of the manner in which the black magus is often portrayed reveal a desire to depict inhabitants of Africa as distinct from European culture – this is particular true when one examines detail of dress which often seems to have been formulated from European concepts of the exotic. Head dresses and gold earrings in particular were used as markers of difference.
However to label the black magus depicted in these scenes as a representational device for the exotic ‘other’ is to simplify the story. Indeed it could be argued that these pieces reveal something of the reality of the interactions between Africans and Europeans in this period. Whilst the point made by Chipps Smith of the stark contrast between the dignity assigned to the figures of the kings and the horrifying dehumanizing of the increasing number of slaves being brought to Europe from the west coast of Africa ought not to be dismissed or treated lightly, there are historians who would urge us to note that the slave trade was not the sum of all interactions which took place between the two continents in the early modern period. In her 2006 paper for the Royal Historical Society historian Kate Lowe discusses various visits made by ambassadors and princes from Christian Africa to Italy and Portugal between the period 1402-1608. Whilst Lowe notes that the Renaissance preconceptions of Africa and Africans were reinforced by the slave trade surely these encounters demonstrate that for Europeans to portray Africans wearing crowns rather than chains was not solely fictionalized but could in fact have some foundation in real interactions.
In addition to this, the V&A museum, in its discussion of the objects in its own collection which depict the adoration of the magi, suggests that in several of the pieces the figure of the magus depicted with black skin can be seen to be holding objects which shape suggest that of oliphants, or carved ivory hunting horns, which were amongst some of the earliest objects to be brought back to Europe from West Africa by the Portuguese and which were celebrated as great treasures. If this is indeed the case it would again suggest that the presentation of the figure of the black magus was a complex construction combining both elements of reality and the imagined, demonstrating that the formation of the ‘other’ in the early modern European mind was in no way straightforward.
 Paul H. D. Kaplan, The Rise of the Black Magus in Western Art, (Ann Arbor: UMI, 1985), p.119
 ‘The Rise of the Black Magus in Western Art by Paul H. D. Kaplan
Review by: Jeffrey Chipps Smith’, Speculum, Vol. 63, No. 1, Jan., 1988, p.183
 Kate Lowe, ‘Representing’ Africa: Ambassadors and Princes from Christian Africa to Renaissance Italy and Portugal, 1402-1608, Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, (2007), pp. 101-128
Hannah Lee –
Hannah did her BA in History at Oxford University where she specialized in cultural history of the Renaissance. Her research interests include the material histories of trade and currency and gender. She is currently working on a dissertation which focuses on the material portrayal of Africans by Europeans in sculpture and jewellery.
© Hannah Lee, 2014. All Rights Reserved.