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Visual arts in the context of West, especially during the Gothic period are credited with some profound achievements where it is seen to have led to the rediscovery of an effectual means of presenting the human racial variation. Special attention was dedicated to representations of black Africans, and the imperial dynasty of Hohenstaufen increasingly started to portray a remarkable allure with the black people.
These developments can be viewed to have been the beginning of recognition and appreciation of African people by the West. With time, the African image in the eyes of some West citizens changed positively while others maintained their original views about the Africans; they continued to regard Africans as “the most valuable goods” as slave trade thrived (Fracchia p.24).
Therefore, the discussion and analysis of this paper will largely explore how the image of Africans changed and remained the same in the eyes of the European between 1400 and 1600.
Africans in the Middle Age
During the early days of the middle ages, the black people were generally regarded as evil both in writing and picture, a scenario that remained undisputed until the 12th century when a more positive and encouraging picture about Black people gained grounds (Kaplan 29).
For example, during this period, the mosaics of Pentecost cupola done in San Marco in Venice includes a pair of blacks as among the people to be converted by the apostles, and also a monastery of the Trinitarian order in Rome shows Jesus Christ saving both a white and black slaves from the suffering of slavery (Kaplan 29).
In South Italy and Sicily for instance, black Moslems by this time had gotten some substantive recognition, and as a way of recognizing them, one of the gates of Islamic Palermo was given an African name since most of the residents of the city were black Africans. Towards the end of this period, the black Africans became special attention to many Christian rulers and artists.
How African image was recognized
Hohenstaufen provides the first positive impression to the African people when he indicates how great interest in black Sicilians developed. After Hohenstaufen had settled in Southern Italy, the first and great member of this Swabian family known as the Holy Roman Emperor Fredrick Barbarossa got engaged to Norman heiress of Sicily and Naples and later got married.
Their son, Henry VI became concerned with great ambitions of conquering what he termed as his rightful kingdom and literature indicate clearly how he obtained victory over Norman usurper Tancred of Lecce (Kaplan 29). With regards to this, there are three separate miniatures that constitute black characters, and in all the three presented cases, the blacks appear as royal retainers.
The discovery of Apulian pictures showing the images of Africans also indicate how the image of Africans started to get recognition and appreciation, while Hans Wenzel accounts for the sophistication of the Troia capital where he emphasizes its close relationship to French Gothic sculpture, thus it is here where he makes particular reference to the work on the north porch of Chartres where two encouraging carved blacks appear.
One of the pictures shows an African as a servant to judging Solomon and the other picture shows an African as a retainer to the Queen of Sheba (Kaplan 30), but when the comparison is made between Chartrain blacks and Apulian blacks, the Apulian head appears finer and largely more dignified. Furthermore, the Apulian blacks, unlike the Chartres, are not represented as being mere servants.
During the reign of Fredrick II, Africans are accorded some recognition where their roles are recognized and recorded. For example, in 1239, Fredrick issued orders for the formation of a brass band which had to include two blacks (Kaplan 32).
Further during his expedition to Germany, Fredrick is accompanied by Black servants whose role during the journey is appreciated; “the emperor proceeded in great glory with numerous carriages laden with gold and silver, byssus and purple, germs and costly vessels, with camels, mules as well as dromedaries, with many Saracens, and with Ethiopians having knowledge of rare skills accompanying apes and leopards and serving as guards bringing along money and treasure” (Kaplan 32).
By 1239, Johannes Maurus, who was a son of a black slave woman had attained a position of considerable responsibility at the imperial court (Chamberlain) a position he held until the death of the emperor.
African image remains the same as some Europeans
Fracchia regrets that though Seville was an important market for the slave trade in Western Europe especially during the fifteenth century, surprisingly there are only a few paintings that were produced in Early Modern Spain that give considerable attention to black slaves specifically those in the Iberian Peninsula (Fracchia 23).
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Also, during the Golden Age literature and drama, the image of black people only got some attention and visibility as from the second half of the sixteenth century, and this was due to the works of Cervantes, Mateo Aleman and Lope de Vega (Fracchia p.23).
In 1503, the Casa de Contratacion became a hub for control of trade, and the obvious impacts were the accumulation of capital, the rapid increase in the city’s population and the transformation of the city into a cosmopolitan city. Surprisingly to many colonies and emperors, one of the viable commercial trades was an acceleration in the slave trade.
Wealth slave dealers regarded slave trade as lucrative hence, they introduced many black slaves or the ‘other foreigners’ who inhumanely lived mostly on the fringes of Spanish society (Fracchia 23). More irritating was the fact that most European involved in the slave trade of Africans regarded young women slaves from North Africa as the ‘most valuable goods’ (Fracchia 24).
Since the period of the Middle Ages, black people were traditionally depicted in perspectives of religion representations, and the pictures candidly depicted Black people to be wholly confined into hell. In Spain, the black magus for a long time was repeatedly represented as “an exotic figure sporting Oriental elements in his costume such as the turban or ostrich plumes” (Fracchia 25), and also the black magus as further shown to be detached from his African context.
Furthermore, Velazquez’s paintings constitute two visual pictures. The first picture, in the kitchen set, a female slave is shown going on with her domestic chores and surrounded by objects which when analyzed represent the ‘formed’ status of the slave in the minds of the Europeans. The second picture showing a powerful man represents the belief of the upper echelons of the Spanish society that is used to register identity.
Therefore, the two pictures give the impression of the existence of two different social status that was accorded to slaves (black people) and Europeans where the message is that superiority was accorded to the white person while inferiority defined and categorized the slaves (Fracchia 25).
It can be concluded that the image of black people between 1400 and 1600 was represented differently in different societies. One fact that comes out vividly is that in almost all the societies, the blacks were slaves and therefore treated as inferior servants. Little recognition was accorded to them, but as time went by, and the role of black people in many emperors became evident, ‘fragile’ but steady recognition started to be witnessed.
Fracchia, Carmen. (Lack of) Visual Representation of Black Slaves in Spanish Golden Age Painting. Journal of Iberian and Latin American Studies. 2004. (Attached notes).
Kaplan, Paul, H. Black Africans in Hohenstaufen Iconography. International Center of Medieval Art. 1987. (Attached notes).