Legend tells us that the noble Maurice commanded the Theban legion of Christian soldiers in the late third century CE. Ordered to persecute fellow Christians, the legion under the leadership of Maurice refused. When the emperor, angered by their disobedience, sentenced the entire legion to death, Maurice and his men lay down their arms voluntarily and offered themselves freely to their executioners.
The black Saint Maurice became part of the tradition of using black figures – saints and kings – to evoke cosmopolitanism and Christian universalism across the German lands. Appearing in several corners of northern Europe, he was revered by the Hohenstaufen emperors in the thirteenth century, though the archbishops of Magdeburg were responsible for maintaining his prominence in this region thereafter. The veneration of the noble Maurice continued until the rise of the transatlantic slave trade from about the sixteenth century onward.
Saint Maurice was first depicted as a black man in the thirteenth century with his appearance going through various incarnations in the centuries that followed. Initially clothed in a legionnaire’s uniform with rich materials and fine decorations, he was later depicted in stereotypically “African” garb to accommodate for the increasing racist perception of black people in the time of the slave trade. The wooden statuette below from the mid-fifteenth century can be found in the village of Dederstedt, near Halle in the German state of Saxony-Anhalt. It is not clear if the figure was originally made to be displayed there or if it was brought at a later date, but it represents a typical depiction from the era. It shows him in elaborate armor, his left hand holding the shield standing next to him and his right hand open to hold what was probably once a spear.
Source: Anonymous, Statuette of Saint Maurice (fragment of a retable) (ca. 1460-70), Kirche St. Susanna, Dederstedt. Courtesy of The Image of the Black Project Archive and Library, Harvard University. Photo by Hickey & Robertson, Houston / The Menil Foundation.
Statuette of St. Maurice (ca. 1460-1470) by Julia Alcamo is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available at https://blackcentraleurope.com/who-we-are/.