Saints, slaves and freemen in European art

December 13, 2012

 

 By Therese Wilson Favors

A small, diverse group of Marylanders, invited by Councilman William “Pete” Welch, gathered for a networking reception and sashayed through the halls of the Walters Art Museum Nov. 30. The group included Bishop Denis J. Madden, Father Donald A. Sterling, pastor of New All Saints in Liberty Heights, and yours truly.

While the networking initiative had great value, the guided tour of the exhibit titled “Revealing the African Presence in Renaissance Europe” was a visual delight, provoking inspiration, sociological insights on race as well as historical revelations. An added treat was that we were travelling with Father Sterling, known nationally for his study and teaching of the “African Presence in Sacred Scripture.”

Led by Dr. Joaneath Spicer, curator of Renaissance and Baroque Art at the Walters, our eyes and minds were opened, new learning gained and myths destroyed. The challenge that often surrounds a discussion on race was on display. Imbued with great passion, insights on art history and sociological impacts, Spicer engaged us. Rich with knowledge, she introduced us to characters, explaining that “during the European Renaissance, there was a new focus on the identity and perspective of the individual. Africans living or visiting Europe at this time included artists, aristocrats, saints, slaves and diplomats.”

As we moved about, it was like reading a good book with the main characters introduced to you through the first panel of portraits of seven characters. These characters, distinctively attired, held eyes inviting you to want to know them, hear their story and see them up close and personal. Their portraits stirred curiosity within the observer, serving as the opening chapter to a great book. We discovered more about them through Spicer’s monologues and we also peeked into a period of art history discovering how the renaissance explored issues of skin color and race.

Paintings include a cacophony of Christian stories. A depiction of the Magi’s visit as stated in the Gospel of St. Matthew is presented. Additionally, the baptism of the Ethiopian eunuch by the apostle Philip as told in the Acts of the Apostles, and the “Breaking of the Bread” as revealed in the Emmaus journey story in the book of St. Luke are included. Depictions of St. Maurice and the Theban Legions, St. Augustine of Hippo and a statue of St. Benedict the Moor conclude the exhibition. Close to this statue is a video display presenting several black Catholic Churches in the United States named after St. Benedict the Moor. Father Sterling listed them and knew many of their pastors.

Punctuated among the paintings and artifacts were statements articulated by people of African ancestry. Their articulations had the makings that could amaze some and challenge others. An abbreviated list included statements such as: “Africa is always producing something new” (a Greek saying); “If my black face displeases your ministers, O King (Philip of Spain), a white one is not pleasant either among the Ethiopians. Nobleman there are all black and so is their King.” (Juan Latino); and “It was prophesied …  in the book of the Holy Fathers that a European King and a King of Ethiopia should meet and that they should give each other peace, and I did not know if this would happen in my days … ” (from a letter written by Dawitt III, emperor of Ethiopia to the King of Portugal).

The exhibition is outstanding. Segments dedicated to the discussion of a black aesthetic reveal a positive source of beauty and provoke a deeper discussion on race under the theme of “Blackness, Black Skin and Prejudice.” I marveled at Spicer’s closing statement: “these images are brought together to advance a communion with our humanity of today.”

“Revealing the African Presence in Renaissance Europe” will be on display until Jan. 21. There is an admission cost for this exhibit, but it is free on Thursdays. It is a great Advent, Christmas and Kwanzaa treat. If you attend, it may be good to bring your copy of Benedictine Father Cyprian Davis’s book, “The History of Black Catholics in the United States.”

 To read a review of the exhibit, click here.

Therese Wilson Favors is the director of the archdiocesan Office of African American Ministries.