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. She can also be the source of an unspecified darkness that can change their appearance to match hers. 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, perhaps matching the image to the poem and suggesting that the noble black queen had not yet lost her relevance.
The poem reads:
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
I am the Queen of Sheba, more famous than others, and attractive:
I am beautiful and chaste. There is a mirror in my chest,
In which young men may behold whatever they wish.
While one of them views it, he pulls a rope, the bellows are compressed,
And darkness suddenly bursts forth from my mouth into the air:
Then he stands before me with a similar skin, similar in color.
 While this particular transcription gives “pictore,” most other manuscripts give “pectore” which is far more coherent. If “pictore” is used, then the translation would be “There stands a mirror, sculpted by a painter,” which makes no sense.
Source: Conrad Kyeser, Bellifortis (originally 1402-1405 but with later revisions), Niedersächsische Staats- und Universitätsbibliothek Göttingen, 2 Cod. Ms. Philos. 63, Cim., fol. 122r. Poem translated by Astrid Khoo. Image ©Niedersächsische Staats- und Universitätsbibliothek Göttingen.
Blackening the Queen of Sheba (ca. 1402-1405) by Jeff Bowersox and Astrid Khoo is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
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