Blackening the Queen of Sheba (ca. 1402-1405)

In the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, as the Holy Roman Empire developed a new iconography to justify its expansive pretensions, certain Christian figures received black features. Along with St. Maurice and the Black Magus, the Queen of Sheba began to appear as a positive black figure, a noble queen who represented the possibility of converting pagans to Christianity. However, this representation was not to last.

We can see the changes happening in a manuscript on military science by Conrad Kyeser, a physician at the court of King Wenceslas IV of Bohemia. It is not clear why the Queen of Sheba appears in the work, but the artist depicts her as graceful and regal. In the accompanying poem, however, we can see the ambivalence surrounding her. She asserts that she is beautiful and pure but also a mirror in which men see what they want to see. Her flowing blond hair originally was paired with light skin, reflecting shifts in depictions of the Queen of Sheba in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. An anonymous illustrator later added dark skin, suggesting the noble black queen had not yet lost her relevance.

Jeff Bowersox


Queen Sheba Bellifortis

Sum regina Sabba clarior ceteris et venusta

Pulchra sum et casta stat speculum pictore sculptum

In quo contemplantur juvenes quecumque volunt

Et in visu tacta fune retro follis absconsa

Per aerem subito movet fuliginem ore

Astans nisi similis pelle colore stabit

Source: Conrad Kyeser, Bellifortis, Niedersächsische Staats- und Universitätsbibliothek Göttingen, 2 Cod. Ms. Philos. 63, Cim., fol. 122r.