Today is Twelfth Night, Epiphany, the Christian feast commemorating an uncorroborated legend in one of the Gospels (Matthew 2, vv 1-9) of a visit by a group of Magi to the infant Jesus. By AD 500 the unnumbered Persian astrologers had become three kings. These mosaics from imperial Ravenna still depict them in Persian dress, but that knowledge was lost in the Dark Ages. Nobody in Western Europe in say 1100 AD had any idea what a Zoroastrian astrologer might have been like, so the shift is understandable.
What is far more puzzling is why one of the kings – usually Balthasar, sometimes Caspar – should be often painted as black.
The oldest source my casual research has found for the tradition is the Venerable Bede, a Saxon monk who lived in the 8th century in Jarrow, near Newcastle. He – or possibly a later writer stealing his name and reputation – described Balthasar as fuscus, dark. Where did Bede get this from? He travelled, but only within Britain. He probably never met a black African. He would surely have recorded a pilgrimage to Rome, where he could have met other pilgrims from Egypt and North Africa. However he (or his double) would have been likely to have met other monks who had made this trip.
The dark skin of Balthasar is a speculation, by Bede or others, made to reinforce the universalist message of Matthew. Its intent is a positive one, given that the argument that the gospel was intended primarily for Jews was lost in the first century of the Church and there is no trace left here of anti-Jewish polemic.
What is very striking in Western art is that when the third King is painted as black, it’s always a very positive image: a noble, handsome, dignified man, like Othello. Here is Hieronymus Bosch painting Balthasar in 1510. Bosch was an artist with a frightening imagination for horrors, but there are none here.
These works suggest that skin-colour racism is not a natural attitude but a learnt one. Slavery in the Ancient World was not racist. The Romans were equal disopportunity slaveowners, importing slaves from every frontier of the empire when they ran out of conquered armies within it. In Western Europe chattel slavery was largely replaced by serfdom under the feudal revolution after 800. It had just about died out in Europe under late feudalism, say 1400, and even serfdom was waning after the Black Death. Late mediaeval Western Europeans were often virulently anti-Semitic, but they did not have an animus against black people.
What created this was colonialism. Portuguese raiders stated enslaving Africans around 1430, as part of warfare against Islamic rulers in Morocco. As explorers pushed further south along the African coast, slavery turned into a profitable business, amplifying and worsening a pre-existing inter-African institution. Other European countries soon piled in.
How did these men justify what they were doing to themselves and their priests and pastors? The revival of slavery was somewhat problematic to the sensibilities of white Europeans in 1500. It wasn’t a normal social practice. All the old apologias from the ancient world, pagan (Aristotle) and Christian (Augustine), were still on the books and available for a second life. However, they reflected the non-racial character of ancient slavery. Aristotle’s specious argument of natural inferiority is racist, but it’s directed against white Scythians from what is now Ukraine. The invention of anti-black racism turned a sketchy antiquarian argument into a psychologically convincing one.
Black Balthasars in Nativity scenes may look kitsch to you, but they still serve an important purpose as exemplars of equal dignity under God. Here is one from a nice museum of belénes (Nativity dioramas, some of remarkable virtuosity) in the farming village of Mollina near Antequera. Six-pack abs and cheetahs, what’s not to like?