Bloemaert’s Baptism of the Chamberlain is a striking work on account of its monumentaldimensions. The painting shows the life-size baptism of the Chamberlain of the Kandake, the queen of Ethiopia.The Chamberlain, a eunuch, is dressedas an officer in the Roman army. He wears a broad, ornamented metal belt around his waist, over a decorated tunic, and a laudamentum, a senior officer’s mantle trimmed with gold. Before him on the ground lies his turban beside his scimitar.
The clothing is fanciful. It was not uncommon to see a black man depicted as a Roman army officer or even an emperor in this period: at least sixteen cameos carved with a black Roman emperor survive from the sixteenth century, while Black Kings were regularly depicted in Roman costume in Netherlandish paintings from the same century .
The Chamberlain gazes heavenwards in ecstasy and total surrender, thereby suggesting that wealth and military might are thus brought to the true faith. The composition is filled with an imposing group of African onlookers. Since all wear turbans and some are dressed as Roman soldiers, the cortege resembles an army on the warpath rather than the retinue accompanying a high-ranking pilgrim.
Bloemaert undoubtedly wished to allude to the dauntless character of black soldiers, who were known for this quality in Turkish armies of the period. The Turks or Ottomans represented the greatest threat to Christian Europe during the seventeenth century, a period in which the Netherlands was curiously gripped by ‘Turkomania’.
The Chamberlain’s large black retinue in the background is an unusual feature of the painting; in Protestant versions of the subject the Chamberlain’s conversion is generally a subdued and serene private scene. The exceedingly theatrical and public nature of the baptism in this work therefore suggests that it would have been made for a Catholic patron. The presence of Turkish and Roman clothing, plus the absence of a Bible, add substance to this hypothesis.
The large format of the work has prompted De Meyere and Roethlisberger to surmise that it was painted to serve as an altarpiece. Abraham Bloemaert is known as a Utrecht painter who exerted a great influence over the Utrecht Caravaggists and classicists.