Albrecht Dürer, Adoration of the Magi (1504)

This masterpiece by Albrecht Dürer – The Adoration of the Magi – from 1504 synthesises the evolution of the Germanic black King. Even though today we commonly know one of the Three Kings to be black, this was not always the case. The image of the black Magi first spread through Europe in the 1300s, and had become universally adopted by the 1400s.

There were broad forces at work promoting the iconographic evolution of the Black Magi. One of the first royal families to advance more generally the positive representation of blacks in European art, were members of the Hohenstaufen dynasty. Their remarkable fascination with black people, counting many black Moslems to their own courts, meant that positive incarnations of black figures, saints, and martyrs in art became increasingly legitimized from the 13th century onwards.

In Dürer’s the Adoration of the Magi the black figure is particularly celebrated. As the standing white King, the artist inserted his own profile into the painting. His gaze, in turn, directs us to the vanishing point in the middle of the black Magi’s chest. The black King stands isolated, the entirety of the right third of the painting his own; he becomes a bearing column. This work offers a fascinating mirror to the diffusion and importance of the black King. It highlights the positive side of the story, the curiosity and open mind towards blacks.

Julia Alcamo


Source: Albrecht Dürer, Adoration of the Magi, Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence.