By Nii B. Andrews.

As luck would have it, my roommate was at Madrid Airport on Monday and she faced the usual barrage of asinine questions from officialdom that any one of a particular demographic must be used to by now when traveling in Europe or America….and sadly, sometimes even in Africa.

Always extremely capable of taking care of herself, she simply left her rude and unsophisticated interlocutors with bloody noses from a measured and severe tongue lashing delivered with class.

It was also a public holiday, the celebration of the Feast of the Epiphany when the Magi, guided by a star, came to perform the Adoration in Bethlehem. Magi is a term that references priests or dream interpreters from Persia.

That same day, very ugly noises were being made elsewhere about destroying cultural sites in Iran including Persepolis the one time seat of the Persian Empire. 

And of course, the Getty Museum has an ongoing exhibition, Balthazar: A Black African King in Medieval and Renaissance Art (November 19, 2019–February 17, 2020).

Jan de Beer, “Adoration of the Magi” (1518-1519), Antwerp, central panel, triptych, Bowdoin College Museum of Art, Bowdoin, ME (image by Sarah E. Bond for Hyperallergic)

Early medieval written legends report that one of the three kings who were at the Adoration in Bethlehem was from Africa. 

But it was not until 1,000 years later that European artists started representing Balthazar, the youngest of the three kings, as a black man. 


The possible explanation can be found through a closer look at the history of this period—specifically, in the rise of the African slave trade in mid-1400s, initiated by the Portuguese – before the events celebrated by the recent Year of Return.

The Getty exhibition chronicles how Balthazar’s depiction coincided with and was furthered by the rise of the slave trade. He does not represent an inclusive, positive standard; instead, he serves solely as a metaphor for the spread of Christianity.

A cultural shift had occurred and recent academic studies have revealed the roots of colorism and race in the medieval period.

Andrea Mantegna, “Adoration of the Magi” (about 1495–1505); distemper on linen; 48.6 × 65.6 cm (19 1/8 × 25 13/16 in.); Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, CA (image via the Getty Open Content program)

Getty museum scholars concluded that, “The late fifteenth-century black African magus is a paradoxical figure. His presence reveals the racial diversity in Europe at a time when ecumenical church councils welcomed delegates from Ethiopia to Florence and Rome. At the same time, however, Europeans began to engage in the brutal African slave trade.”

This important exhibition lays bare the fuller story of the figure of Balthazar and the longer histories of material trade networks between Africa and Europe. 

There is a detailed accompanying edited volume incorporating dozens of scholars called “Toward a Global Middle Ages”, with essays and manuscript illuminations that together illustrate the Middle Ages as the diverse and global period that it was. 

Perhaps yet another Year of Return is required in order to get EVERYBODY on the same page.

A careful and painstaking study of  the depiction of Balthazar over millennia powerfully illustrates how biblical figures within art can reflect contemporary notions and prejudices that change over time and provide even further support for race as a purely social construct devoid of any meaningful scientific basis whatsoever – a useless cudgel wielded by the poorly informed, unenlightened and less than well intentioned.

All of this may help us to decipher rude questions at a Madrid airport on a public holiday in January (The Feast of the Epiphany) amidst bellicose public rants about Iran.

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