People of Color in European Art History

  1. Fifteenth Century Manuscripts: Fear of the Ottomans and help from Ethiopia

    One of the most beautiful ‘art’ histories that I encountered during my years of research into the imagination of “Black” in the Dutch / Flemish art, were the miniatures in manuscripts in which Africans can be seen. One surprising figure after another surfaced. Unfortunately, these works are rarely lent and we could show only a few examples in the exhibition Black is Beautiful  in 2008.

    An interesting example is that in the period that the Burgundian Duke Philip the Good 1396 -1467 was in power, there was admiration for “Ethiopians”. This appreciation can be found in both in literature and in the arts and has hardly been investigated.

    What lies behind these sometimes intriguing works? A first step of the research was then to find out what was going on historically in that period

    Another historical event that influenced the imagination of black Africans in the visual arts was caused by the threat from the East. While the world in the west became larger and offered more trade opportunities, a new danger was approaching from the East in the form of the Ottomans. The conquest of Constantinople in 1453 on the Christians by the Ottomans made a great impression on religious and secular leaders, including Philip the Good. These leaders went looking for other Christian allies in the world  against this new Muslim enemy. The Europeans became increasingly focused on Ethiopia. They knew this land for centuries as Christian.

    It was thought in Europe that Ethiopian rulers were the only ones who could claim the “real” royal blood. They descended directly from Solomon. Solomon, the third king of Israel, according to the Ethiopian history written in the Kebra Negast (“The Glory of Kings”), had begotten a son with Queen Sheba.

    This son became king Menelik I of Ethiopia. The fifteenth-century king of Ethiopia, it was thought, was a direct descendant of him. The kings of Ethiopia had extraordinary powers and forces, it was also thought. Europeans assumed that the king possessed a great and mighty army, and that he had the power to change the flow of the Nile  He had the tools to beat the Arabs in Egypt.

    Ethiopians were more than welcome in Europe.

    That Philip the Good was expecting good things from black Africans is reflected in the work of the Flemish miniaturist Loyset Liédet, commissioned by Philip.

    In one of the manuscripts of Loyset Liédet, La Fleur des Histoires (fol. 7, 1455 -1460), we see a representation of the reinstallation of Constantine the Great (c. 280-337)  at Constantinople, the three black escorts are probably Ethiopians. The men wear fifteenth-century fashion.

    The dark man in middle front could depict a king or dignitary. He wears the clothes and hat of a highly placed person. On his neck he seems to have a golden chain. Typical of the western view of Africans are the golden earrings and the band around the head of one of the other men.

    -Esther Schruder, Art Historian

    Notice even a professional finds these works very difficult to get SEEN by anyone. Also note that she mentions almost no research has been done-they just let these works of art molder in obscurity.