Pskov School of iconography
Maundy Thursday (Jesus washes the feet of the Disciples)
Russia (c. 1300s)
tempera on wood panel
One of the oft-used methods of erasure of people of color among western art historians is to claim, especially of older religious icons, that the dark skin of the biblical figures is due to age, smoke, or wear and tear. This flies in the face of logic once you consider that, as in the image above of Jesus and his disciples, the white cloth and the highlights of cloth, buildings, and skin have remained bright white.
In Russian iconography, the Byzantine style of icon-making remained popular through the middle ages and the Renaissance, with stylized figures, flat perspectives, and many religious personages depicted with light or dark brown skin. It stands to reason since many religious images dating from the first through tenth century made their way into northern Europe during the religious wars that took place in the Middle East at that time. Many of the Black Madonnas of France date from this period.
The fact that the skin color of the figures in these icons remains dark despite attempts in the 19th and 20th centuries to scrape away the “dark layers”, “restore” and/or repaint them, supports the idea that the original works and their Russian copies are depictions of Middle Eastern people with dark or light brown skin.
Derived from the Latin word mandatum, meaning “commandment,” Maundy refers to the commands Jesus gave his disciples at the Last Supper: to love with humility by serving one another and to remember his sacrifice.
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