Adoration of the Magi; Andrea Mantegna (Italian (Paduan), about 1431 - 1506); Italy; about 1495 - 1505 © Getty Open Source

Balthazar, the Black King, Visits The Getty Center this Winter

Exploring prejudice and persecution in the Medieval World, the Getty Center last year mounted an exhibition on Outcasts. Late autumn 2019, this initiative will be followed by another exhibition on the topoi of the Black King, Balthazar, in Medieval and Renaissance Art.

The feast of the epiphany is arguable one of the earliest Christian celebrations. Epiphany means appearance, manifestation, revelation and coming out. The first record of the feast is dated the early 2ndcentury and was celebrated among eastern Christians. The main event, however, was at that point not the arrival of the three magi, but the very early celebrations of Christmas and the following circumcision and baptism of Jesus. After Constantine, however, the birth of Christ was reassigned to the 25thof December with the celebration of the epiphany on the 6thof January. Now, however, the celebration focused on the adoration of the three magi. In the western church the magi came to eclipse the baptism as the major “coming-out-event”. Responsible was Augustine of Hippo, who understood the three Magi as representatives of the three parts of the world, Africa, Asia and Europe. To this was later added the identification by Bede of the three magi as the sons of Noah, representing the forefathers of the tribes, peopling these three continents. As such they came to be presented as belonging to different age groups, locating the new-born child in not just  a geographical but also temporal context. It was the latter dimension, which ruled until the late Middle Ages, when the racial dimension was suddenly introduced.

Pulpit in the Cathedral of Sienna. By Nicola Giovanni Pisano. 1265 to 1268. Source: wikipedia
Pulpit in the Cathedral of Sienna. By Nicola Giovanni Pisano. 1265 to 1268. Source: wikipedia

The Black Magus

Black Head on Capital from Troja in Puglia, Italy © Metropolitan Museum of Art
Black Head on Capital from Troja in Puglia, Italy © Metropolitan Museum of Art

This motive – The Black Magus – did not appear until c. 1350. Albeit we do encounter a black man in the retinue of the wise kings  in the pulpit by Nicola Pisano in the cathedral in Siena already in 1265 – 68, he was not yet “king”. But he was getting there.

P. H. D. Kaplan, who published his thesis on the iconographic motive in 1985, found that the likely inspiration behind this innovation came form the court of the Hohenstaufen. More precisely, he argued that the iconography originated in from the Islamic colony, which Frederick Barbarossa founded at Lucera in Apulia. Kaplan identified at least three sculptures, rendering black servants: One of these would have been Johannes Maurus, who acted as the chamberlain of Frederick II. Perhaps he was also the model for the capital with four heads from c. 1225 -50, now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, but originally from Troja. Another corresponding figure can be seen on a capital, now in the Diocesan Museum in Troja, Puglia. Troja is located 20 km from Lucera and the timing fits well.

A third of these sculptures is found on one of the capitals in the Cathedral of Chartres. Finally, the famous rendition of St. Maurice in Magdeburg from c. 1240, should be mentioned.

Nevertheless, it took at least a hundred years before the black magus became a prominent iconographic motive. And an additional hundred years, before it became not only fashionable, but a standard item. It is likely this idea was coupled with the widespread fascination of the myth of the monarch, Prester John, who was believed to be the descendant of one of the three kings. As black, he represented the idea that kings and not just slaves might be black: a decisive innovation, and yet obviously the exception to the idea of white supremacy. As such – the token par excellance – the third black king was always dressed up and presented with an exotic and slightly decadent aura. Dress, earrings, gaudy textiles would set him apart.

The upcoming exhibition will undoubtedly provide further examples of this iconographic convention as well as invite us to a renewed debate on “outcasts”.


The Rise of the Black Magus in Western Art .
By Paul H. D. Kaplan
Series: Studies in the Fine Arts; Iconography, number 9
Ann Arbor, Mich.: UMI Research. 1985.

Black Africans in Hohenstaufen Iconography
By Paul H. D. Kaplan
In: Gesta (1987) Vol 1, pp 29 – 36


The Getty Center
1200 Getty Center Drive
Los Angeles, CA 90049
19.11.2019 – 16.02.2010