Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
April 30, 2020
Balthazar: A Black African King in Medieval and Renaissance Art
Getty Center, Los Angeles, November 19, 2019–February 16, 2020
Georges Trubert, The Adoration of the Magi, from a book of hours (text in Latin), Provence, France, ca. 1480–90. J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles (artwork in the public domain; image provided by Getty Center)

Opening in time for Epiphany 2020, the exhibition Balthazar: A Black African King in Medieval and Renaissance Art at the Getty Center in Los Angeles was the first exhibition at a major museum to examine the portrayal of the youngest of the Three Magi, Balthazar, as a black African king. (The exhibition adopted the phrase “black African” in acknowledgment of racial diversity across Africa. Medieval European terms were in contrast often vague, inaccurate, or pejorative.) Balthazar begins with a question: why, if early medieval legends describe Balthazar as a black African man, does it take nearly a millennium for him to be portrayed as such in western European art of the fifteenth century?

Curated by Kristen Collins and Bryan C. Keene, Balthazar represents an important step forward in ongoing attempts to improve inclusivity and the representation of marginalized populations in major museums and to focus attention on the biases and difficult histories of museum collections. As is often the case, the timeliness of Balthazar goes hand in hand with its being long overdue; the exhibition is largely based on Paul H. D. Kaplan’s 1983 monograph, The Rise of the Black Magus in Western Art (UMI Research Press). Balthazar follows two other collections-based exhibitions held at the Getty Center that have examined globality in the medieval and early modern period: the 2016 exhibition Traversing the Globe through Illuminated Manuscripts focused on positive examples of commonality and connection in the premodern world, and the 2018 exhibition Outcasts: Prejudice and Persecution in the Medieval World took intersectional approaches to examine negative images of difference from medieval Europe. Public interest in the portrayal of Balthazar in the late fifteenth-century illumination The Adoration of the Magi (Getty, MS 48, f. 59r) by Georges Trubert, seen in Outcasts, provided the impetus for the present exhibition, which thus serves as a model for curatorial engagement with visitor feedback. Between Traversing the Globe and Outcasts, Balthazar takes a middle path: what at first seems to be a story about positive images of diversity and globality in late medieval and early modern Europe is shown to be a reflection of the brutal European escalation of the slave trade over the course of the fifteenth century.

Balthazar featured pieces from the Getty’s collections of western European manuscripts and paintings, with additional objects on loan from the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA). At the entrance to the gallery, visitors encountered a large panel of introductory wall text juxtaposed with the display of the tiny book of hours containing the aforementioned Adoration of the Magi from Outcasts. The one-room exhibition was arranged thematically, including explorations of trade across the Mediterranean and North Africa; European notions of African kingship; portrayals of race in European heraldry; the (medieval) language of race, slavery, and religion; and the universalism and expanding ecumenicalism of the Catholic Church in the fifteenth century.

Much of the exhibition focused on connectivity and trade in the Mediterranean and North Africa. One side of the gallery featured objects emblematic either of gifts that the Magi presented to the Christ Child or, more generally, of the luxury goods that circulated along Mediterranean, trans-Saharan, and Atlantic trade routes, including gold, porcelain, ivory, and unguents. In a similar vein, European interest in African Christianity formed a central component of the exhibition, with a particular emphasis on the legends of Prester John, a mythical African Christian king, and the presence of Coptic and Ethiopian Christians at ecumenical councils in Europe. Two Ethiopian objects—a gospel book of circa 1504–5 from the Getty’s collections (Getty, MS 102, fols. 19v-20) and a cross of circa 1200–1400 on loan from LACMA—vividly illustrate the contemporary visual culture of that Christian African kingdom.

Many of the Adoration scenes featured in Balthazar hint at the complex history of the development of Three Magi iconography. Some scenes do not portray Balthazar as a black magus, either because they reflect a different artistic tradition, as seen in an Armenian gospel book (Getty, MS Ludwig II 6, fols. 5v-6), or because they generally predate the portrayal of Balthazar as black, as in a German benedictional of circa 1030–40 (Getty, MS Ludwig VII 1, fols. 25v-26). In such cases, the magi may only be differentiated by age. Elsewhere in the gallery was a twelfth-century English manuscript (Getty, MS 101, fols. 35v-36) that once featured a pale white Balthazar—until he was tinted a darker shade in the late fifteenth century. Some paintings portray Balthazar as white but allude to his African origins by including a black attendant, as seen, for example, in a gradual dated to the 1470s (Getty, MS 83) painted by the Italian artist Franco dei Russi, as well as in a large Franco-Flemish painting of circa 1410–20 now titled The Adoration of the Magi with Saint Anthony Abbot, located in another gallery in the North Pavilion.

The two standouts of the exhibition were undoubtedly Adoration of the Magi by Andrea Mantegna and an oil sketch study of Balthazar by Peter Paul Rubens. Mantegna’s Adoration provided a key focus for the side of the room dedicated to the theme of trade, as it was juxtaposed with objects that visually echoed those in the painting, while Rubens’s oil sketch served as the exhibition’s epilogue. As the gallery text noted, Rubens’s sketch was made on reused ledger paper and visibly bears the physical imprints of commerce. The two works provide the most moving and visceral evidence of the connection between the portrayal of Balthazar and the slave trade, as they both may have been directly modeled on enslaved persons. The exhibition relates the portrayal of Balthazar in Mantegna’s painting to the presence of enslaved servants at the court of Francesco Gonzaga and Isabella d’Este, while Rubens’s preparatory oil sketch study for Balthazar was based on two different models: a now-anonymous sitter of African descent and a print depicting a contemporary Tunisian ruler. Rubens’s two different models hint at the contradictions underlying European portrayals of Balthazar: while often modeled on people of African descent living in Europe, many of whom were enslaved or in domestic servitude, the artworks instead portray African rulers, who often profited from and colluded in the slave trade. (African rulers were of course often constrained by asymmetric military, political, and mercantile relations with other powers. Moreover, categories of royalty and enslavement are not mutually exclusive and might overlap at times.) Both works also raise further questions about the extent to which enslaved persons could consent to portrayal.

While the richness of the Getty’s collections of European manuscripts and paintings made Balthazar possible, Iberia as well as west and central Africa were largely absent in the gallery. (The principal exception was a late thirteenth- or early fourteenth-century Spanish manuscript of a legal code, The Feudal Customs of Aragon [Getty, MS Ludwig XIV 6, fols. 242v-243], open to an initial showing the baptism of an erstwhile Muslim.) Additionally, most objects in the exhibition related not to the Atlantic slave trade but rather to the trans-Saharan and Mediterranean ones. While the exhibition might have more explicitly explored how Balthazar’s representation reflected transformations in the slave trade, that was perhaps not the point. The exhibition’s range of objects and paintings demonstrated instead the impact in visual art of a growing African population in Europe, many of whom were enslaved, and Europeans’ manifest interest in Africa and in commodifying enslaved black Africans. Balthazar thus provides a view into the contradictory attitudes, mischaracterizations, and mercantile agendas that fed the early development of the Atlantic slave trade before its spread to the Americas.

While the exhibition does not have a catalog, an object checklist and the gallery text are available online at the Getty’s website. Collins and Keene give an informative overview of the show on the Getty’s blog and further situate this and earlier exhibitions at the Getty in a coauthored piece, “Mobilizing the Collection: Teaching beyond the (Medieval) Canon with Museum Objects,” in Toward a Global Middle Ages: Encountering the World through Illuminated Manuscripts (J. Paul Getty Museum, 2019, 175–81).

Andrew Griebeler
University of Southern California