The Story of the Black King Among The Magi

The Christian liturgical calendar reserves January 6 as Epiphany––the day when the Magi allegedly visited Jesus as recounted in the Gospel of Matthew. I have written before about the origins of frankincense and myrrh, but about a year ago, I began discussing the magus (the Latin plural is magi) named Balthazar with Nyasha Junior. As we discussed in our piece for Hyperallergic last week, although late antique sources had identified the Magi as Persian, the tale was modified over the course of the Middle Ages in order to reflect new attitudes towards race, the expansion of Christianity, and the ages of man. By the time of the late Middle Ages and the Renaissance, much of Europe depicted at least one of the Three Kings as Black. 

A fresco of the Adoration of the Magi, 3rd century CE, Catacombs of Priscilla, Rome, Italy (Image via the Web Gallery of Art).

As Prof. Junior and I found while writing this piece, there is a rich and growing bibliography which explores the development and deployment of Blackness in the Middle Ages and within the Renaissance, long before theories of biological race developed. . Following the publication of the piece, we also heard many responses regarding various traditions regarding the Magi which we wished to collect and perhaps explore in the future. In this spirit, I have tried to list a bibliography for further inquiry into the Blackness of Balthazar and to provide a short record of other global traditions addressing the tale of Epiphany.

In about a week, I will begin teaching a class on the history of the premodern Middle East from Alexander the Great (d. 323 BCE) to Suleiman the Magnificent (d. 1566). One of the assigned texts is Geraldine Heng‘s The invention of race in the European Middle Ages. This book, along with Cord Whitaker’s new book, Black metaphors : how modern racism emerged from medieval race-thinking, were pivotal to understanding the evolution of Balthazar from the early medieval period to the 16th century. I’d also note that Erin Kathleen Rowe’s new book on Black Saints in Early Modern Global Catholicism provides an incredible amount of background on Black saints within a global context.

Illustration from the Byzantine Menologion of Basil II (ca. 1000 CE) of Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch from Acts (Image via the Vatican Library, Vat. gr. 1613).

There are many analog and digital resources for investigating Blackness in the Middle Ages. As we said in the article, readers should look to the groundbreaking work of Medievalists of Color, as well as the Getty’s edited volume for their Balthazar exhibition, Toward a Global Middle Ages, which incorporates dozens of scholars currently engaged in looking at the medieval period through the lens of critical race theory. The essays and manuscript illuminations in this volume also together illustrate the Middle Ages as the diverse and global period that it was. It also introduces readers to many of the issues that will be discussed next weekend at RaceB4Race at Arizona State University. Note that the theme of this year’s RaceB4Race conference is Appropriation, specifically “on how the term appropriation has recently signified in different ways for early modernists and medievalists.”

A final area of inquiry which I hope Prof. Junior and I can perhaps investigate in the future are more globalized traditions of the Magi. The scholar and manuscript curator Eyob Derillo chimed in on Twitter to inform readers that in the 16th century Ethiopian tradition, the Magi had coffee to help them in their journey to find the messiah. I also recall that when I went to review the Stampede exhibition at the Denver Art Museum for Hyperallergic last year, I saw a 18th century Ecuadorian depiction of the Magi that caught my attention. I would certainly like to explore the reception of the Magi in Latin America more thoroughly.

“Three Kings on Horseback,” 1700s, Ecuador, painted and gessoed wood with gold leaf and cloth, Denver Art Museum, Denver, CO (Image by Sarah E. Bond).

I often like to use my personal blog to add a richer bibliography and perhaps a few more images to my co-authored or stand alone essays published at Hyperallergic. It is the chance to further acknowledge that most of the time, the public scholarship that I and many others engage in are dependent upon the work of others. We cannot and should not erase the important research that many scholars of color have been engaged in for decades just because white scholars like myself have become more interested in these topics as of late. One of the most disheartening things about the polychromy pieces was that the work of Nell Irvin Painter (which first sparked my interest) was often lost in the subsequent coverage. I hope that will not be the case in future pieces and it is a salient reminder that citation is and continues to be a form of inclusion and social justice.

Detail of the Black King within the “Three Kings on Horseback,” 1700s, Ecuador, painted and gessoed wood with gold leaf and cloth, Denver Art Museum, Denver, CO (Image by Sarah E. Bond).

Header Image: The 3rd-4thC CE loculus cover and inscription for a woman named Severa with a depiction of the Adoration of the Magi, originally from the Catacombs, Rome, Italy (Image via the Vatican Museums, Vatican City, Italy).

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