This abundantly illustrated book examines the figure of Balthazar, one of the biblical magi, and explains how and why he came to be depicted as a Black African king.
According to the Gospel of Matthew, magi from the East, following a star, traveled to Jerusalem bearing precious gifts for the infant Jesus. The magi were revered as wise men and later as kings. Over time, one of the three came to be known as Balthazar and to be depicted as a Black man.
Balthazar was familiar to medieval Europeans, appearing in paintings, manuscript illuminations, mosaics, carved ivories, and jewelry. But the origin story of this fascinating character uncovers intricate ties between Europe and Africa, including trade and diplomacy as well as colonization and enslavement.
In this book, experts in the fields of Ethiopian, West African, Nubian, and Western European art explore the representation of Balthazar as a Black African king. They examine exceptional art that portrays the European fantasy of the Black magus while offering clues about the very real Africans who may have inspired these images. Along the way, the authors chronicle the Black presence in premodern Europe, where free and enslaved Black people moved through public spaces and courtly circles. The volume’s lavish illustrations include selected works by contemporary artists who creatively challenge traditional depictions of Black history.