Today, even the question itself seems blasphemous. Yet, for most of Christian history, the answer was rather negative.
White people in Medieval Europe were aware of black people’s existence, even though this knowledge was akin to that of a Sahara Bedouin about snow. They could get the picture of what black people really looked like, as many churches would have an Adoration of the Magi icon or fresco, with Balthazar painted tar black.
Otherwise, the Medieval European art scene was as white as your typical refrigerator; with people of colour assigned the rare roles of pageboys and the Queen of Sheba (confined mostly to book illustration, and racially vague, for sometimes her skin was painted blue or purple). Albertus Magnus, a saint and scholar of the 12th c., was certain that perfect reason could dwell in the “normal body” only. His ideas had paved the way for black people to be seen as sub-human for the next three hundred years.
It was unimaginable to have a mix of black and white people in a religious painting. The Last Judgement theme was especially difficult. The Apocalypse was supposed to happen to everybody, not just white people. Black people had to be present there and, hence, shown.
Artists didn’t know what to do with black people. The Church was at a loss itself! Were the unfair-skinned supposed to descend to Hell in marching order, given that they were given black skin already? Was soul-weighting to have any meaning for people with black skin at all?
So, artists put the doctrinally awkward population at the back of the queue of the resurrected, hoping it would get sorted out in some natural order during the Apocalypse.
This Judgement Day of 1435 by Stefan Lochner, a German artist who was Durer’s inspiration, is a good example of the trick:
I know it is difficult to see a black man in this work without a magnifying glass. Here he is, barely visible:
What is most remarkable about this painting though – and I can’t miss it even though it takes me off the main track – is its monster community. Each monster is individually unique and mesmerizingly frightening. My favourite is this multi-faced green guy:
Seeing that devilish creature upon resurrection can send a man back to the grave with a heart attack, which is rather ironic. And yes, if you look to the right of the cutie, you’d realise a beer belly takes you to Hell, with the weighting of the soul being no longer necessary. My other fav is the face of the monster relaxing in Hell at the very right corner of the painting:
I am sorry I have to torture you, says the eye. And sheds a tear.
The breakthrough in the attitude towards black people occurred in 1471, in the work of another German artist, Hans Memling.
This Last Judgement triptych is full of symbolism that has helped many a student obtain top marks for their art theses (I won’t torture you with it, but you can read about it here). While many observers notice two black people in this painting, no one (at least no one I am aware of) has reflected upon the importance of where they were painted. No longer are they queuing at the back. Even though they are not painted at the front, the artist sends one of them to Paradise, while the other is lined up for Hell.
This is the unfortunate black man. He stands among screaming people wriggling with pain and despair, looking up to Archangel Michael with a silent question in his eyes, “What the hell – no pun intended – am I doing here?! Is this just the colour of my skin?!” And indeed, Memling could paint a black man, but he probably had never seen a black man screaming in pain. Do black people tear their hair off? Do they wring their hands? OK, let’s just leave him standing there, wondering what mortal sin he committed. Memling created, inadvertently, the first “WTF” visualisation in art history.
And this is the lucky black man who stands at the back of the crowd herded by angels towards the Gates of Paradise. No rush, there is a whole eternity in front of them.
It is in this painting that black people were recognised to be (a) people, and (b) equal to white Europeans in the eyes of God, perhaps, for the first time, because they were worthy of the weighting of their souls.
I will come back to Memling and this painting over the week. There are many things to enjoy there. Surprisingly, some art critics believe Memling was a lesser artist than Rogier van der Wayden, his predecessor and mentor. This is so not true.