On the image of the Blackamoor in European Heraldry
Mario de Valdes y Cocom
Considering the deep roots of Christianity
in the cultural experience of the African American community,
it is only natural that even in the most cursory of discussions
on Black history, the hope always is raised of discovering Christ
as a man of colour. Moreover, in this global village of television
and transatlantic travel, the standard Euro-centric portrayal
of Christ is both anomalous and anachronistic, particularly in
these racially sensitized times.
It might therefore prove a great source
of spiritual strength and psychological affirmation for those
of us of African descent if a relatively unknown and forgotten
medieval European tradition regarding the image of the black was
reconstructed for all to see and share.
What I am referring to are the coat
of arms of the blackamoor which proliferated in both the private
and civic European escutcheons (coat of arms) throughout the 13th,
14th and 15th centuries.
Due likely to the tradition attached
to Sardinia's arms, these insignia have been all too facilely
explained as the grizzly prize of some crusader conquest. The
four African heads each displayed in one of the four quarters
created by the cross on the shield are referred to by an early
motto associated with this island's crest as 'trophea.' The traditional
explanation is they represent the four Moorish emirs who were
defeated by a king of Aragon sometime in the 11th century. (The
possibility of a more probable approach to these insignia will
be raised further on.) Such an interpretation would, of course,
be more than welcome today, especially in the face of establishment
attempts to portray as white the Islamic power that was able to
withstand three successive waves of European invasions.
And, a common corollary to this negative
view was the African figure became a symbol of evil, universal
or personal, that had to be subjugated or vanquished. Given the
economic/political positions of those with the right to bear arms,
the hold that heraldry has had on the imagination of the West
has been a very powerful one and this particular perception of
the blackamoor as a symbol of the negative has undoubtedly played
an enormous part in the propagation of racism.
The Imagery of St. Maurice
Modern specialists in the science of heraldry suspect, however, that this blazon (coat of arms) of the blackamoor is instead the very opposite of a negative symbol.
In the last decade or two it has been pointed out that the moor's
head quite possibly could have referred to St. Maurice, the black
patron saint of the Holy Roman Empire from the beginning of the
Because of his name and native land,
St. Maurice had been portrayed as black ever since the 12th century.
The insignia of the black head, in a great many instances, was
probably meant to represent this soldier saint since a majority
of the arms awarded were knightly or military. With 6,666 of
his African compatriots, St. Maurice had chosen martyrdom rather
than deny his allegiance to his Lord and Saviour, thereby creating
for the Christian world an image of the Church Militant that was
as impressive numerically as it was colourwise.
Here, no doubt, is a major reason why
St. Maurice would become the champion of the old Roman church
and an opposition symbol to the growing influence of Luther and
Calvin. The fact that he was of the same race as the Ethiopian
baptized by St. Philip in Acts of the Apostles was undoubtedly
an important element to his significance as well. Since this
figure from the New Testament was read as a personification of
the Gentile world in its entirety, the complexion of St. Maurice
and his Theban Legion (the number of which signified an infinite
contingent) was also understood as a representation of the Church's
universality - a dogmatic ideal no longer tolerated by the Reformation's
nationalism. Furthermore, it cannot be coincidental that the
most powerful of the German princes to remain within the Catholic
fold, the archbishop Albrecht von Brandenburg, not only dedicated
practically all the major institutions under his jurisdiction
to St. Maurice but in what is today one of the most important
paintings of the Renaissance, had himself portrayed in Sacred
Conversation with him. Even more blatant was the action taken by Emanual Philibert, Duke of Savoy. In 1572 he organized the order of St. Maurice. The papal promulgation published at its institution declared quite unequivocally that the sole purpose for this knighthood was to combat the heresy of the Reformation. It still exists although it is now combined with the Order of St. Lazarus. The white trefoiled cross is the black Saint's.
The particular symbol of St. Maurice's
blackness that must have most antagonized the Protestant faction,
however, was the one regarding the mystery of Papal authority.
Scholars have been able to show, for example, that in the theological
debates of this period, even the abstract adjectives, black and
white, were defiantly acknowledged by apologists of both stripes
to represent the Church and the Reformers respectively.
In addition to St. Maurice, there is
also another figure connected to the blackamoor coat of arms.
It is the semi-mythical Negus (emperor) of Ethiopia, Prester John.
To Otto von Freising an Imperial Hohenstauffen Prince Bishop
of the 12th century who was tired and torn by the endless struggle
between Church and State, this black man who was both priest and
king and ruled a land of peace and plenty at the edge of the world
became the personification of the ideal state. To this day the
arms of the see of Freising is the bust of a crowned blackamoor.
Because of their ethnic and geographic
origins, it is likely that St. Maurice and his Theban Legion became
associated with Prester John as the ideal soldiers for the ideal
state. It should be pointed out, furthermore, that, heraldically,
since he was the only monarch who could claim the 'Sang Real'
or the 'Royal Blood' of Christ because of his descent from Solomon,
Prester John was the only individual deemed worthy of the right
to bear as arms the image of the Crucifix. Even the earring traditionally
worn by the blackamoor is a reference to this sacred privilege.
The Golden Ring in the Blackamoor's Ear
To understand how these two objects
are related to each other--the earring and the image of the Crucifix--we
must refer back to the Old Testament. In the Book of Leviticus
can be found an ordinance describing the ritual ear piercing of
any slave who chooses to continue in his master's service after
being granted his freedom. Since one of the most important of
all Ethiopian royal titles was "Slave of the Cross,"
the golden ring in the blackamoor's ear was probably meant to
be interpreted as a deeply devotional and--considering the belief
in the Bible as the Word of God--a highly rhetorical symbol.
Ethiopia and the Holy Grail
Due also to the age-old belief that
the Ark of the Covenant had been hidden in Ethiopia, the great
epics of the Arthurian cycle transformed the Ethiopian emperor
into the founder of the Grail dynasty and the ancestor, nine generations
later, of the only knight of the Round Table who would achieve
the Quest, Sir Galahad. It would appear that the long-standing
confusion over whether the Holy Grail was a cup or a stone was
a deliberate one. Considering the opportunity afforded by these
Ethiopian traditions, medieval writers were able to theologically
fuse together the symbols of both the Old and the New Testament:
the Tablet of the Law and the Chalice.
In the middle of the 14th century, one
of the most profound examples of the symbol of the blackamoor
can be seen in the use of this image to represent Christ. It is
clear from the documentation we have for the city of Lauingen
in Germany, for example, that at about this time, the city's seal
with the head of Christ wearing a crown of thorns is transformed
to the head of a blackamoor wearing a golden crown. That the
latter insignia is meant to represent the former is quite obvious
from the accompanying inscriptions. One of the earlier ones read:
"Sigillum civium de Lougingin" (seal of the city of
Lauingen), while a later version clearly explains itself as the
"Sigillum secretum civitatis palatinae Lavgingen (secret
seal of the palatinate city of Lauingen)."
A German heraldic scholar writing before
World War II offered two other reasons for a similar coats of
arms. He pointed out that Ethiop (sun burnt) the black was a
sun sign and therefore a symbol of divinity that could alternately
be used for the Son of God or the Son of Man. He also pointed
out that from what we know of the cult of the Black Madonna, the
blazon of the blackamoor queen was a reference to Mary, the Queen
of Heaven or her prefiguration as the Queen of Sheba and that
the male versions of these insignia were therefore references
to her Son.
The discovery of this particular seal
was especially surprising to me since I had taken for granted
that it was either another reference to Prester John or, even
more likely, to Balthazar, the black Wise man of the Epiphany
who has, iconographically, almost always been treated as a king.
Because his gift of myrrh prophesied not only Our Lord's death
but, most importantly, His Resurrection and the proof, therefore,
of His divinity, the awe Balthazar's blackness inspired must have
had a powerful impression on the science of heraldry. A coat of Arms that is apparently derived from the same theological source as that of the city of Lavingen belongs to the Cruse or Cross family of France. Since cockle shells are so liturgically associated with the sacrament of baptism, their number here probably signifies the three nails of the Crucifixion while the women, in all likely-hood, are representations of Mary and the Queen of Sheba.
The Arms of King Balthazar
No more graphic a demonstration of the
African figure as a symbol of the sun is to be found than in the
arms ascribed to King Balthazar. Initially this had posed a problem
for me since the ethnic background of this Wise Man, to my mind,
was simply not enough of a reason for this heraldic device. It
was not until coming upon an early text describing his coat of
arms as that of the sun that I at last realized what the blackamoor
on Balthazar's livery signified. Since King Melchior bore a field
of stars and King Kaspar, the moon, it is fairly obvious that
as an allusion, no doubt, to the celestial phenomenon which had
guided them to Bethlehem, the original arms of the Magi had been
the sun, the moon and the stars. I do not think it would be unreasonable
to suppose that for whatever theological line of reasoning, the
heraldic insignia of both Balthazar and the city of Lauingen had
been changed at the same point in history.
Blackness as an Allusion to God
Perhaps even more remarkable, especially
from our perspective today, is evidence which would suggest that
in the language of heraldry, the blackamoor could be an allusion
to God Himself. The most obvious of these examples are to be
found in the arms of the city of Coburg, the Kob family of Nuremberg
and the Pucci of Florence. Since these three names are derived
from that of Jacob (Coburg=Jacoburg, Kob=Jakob, Pucci=Jacopucci),
the clue is to be found in the Book of Genesis.
In the passage relating the changing
of his name to that of Israel, Jacob discovers that the dark spirit
he has wrestled with all night long is none other than God in
the impenetrable image of His infinite Self. The fact that the
name, James, is nothing other than a variant of Jacob, might well
provide us with the significance for the arms of Sardinia I described
earlier since it is to the Aragonese king, James 1, that their
use can first be traced.
Blackness as Wisdom
One of the most dramatic and, certainly,
most graphic uses of blackness as wisdom can be seen in the portrayal
of the Good Thief from a number of 15th century Flemish masterpieces
depicting the Crucifixion. For the ability to recognize his Saviour's
spiritual supremacy beneath the harsh reality of the Cross, St.
Dismas is not only painted as an African, he is painted blindfolded
as well. The blindfold on certain blackamoor coat of arms, therefore,
is not a mistakenly placed headband or torse, the standard headpiece
of this specific symbol when a crown is not called for. This
blazon is, instead, an exhortation or, more precisely, a divine
demand that we not only respond to the weakest and most helpless
of our neighbours as we would Our Lord but, like St. Dismas, that
we do so even while in the death throes of our own personal crucifixions.
Interestingly enough, a number of early theologians writing on
this subject, have attributed to the Black Wise Man's colour the
same kind of reasoning from which St. Dismas would derive his
doubly dark imagery; his ability to recognize the Messiah in a
The social gospel so strikingly symbolized
by this example of the blackamoor blazon is also, interestingly
enough, quite implicit in even its most negative use-- that of
the vanquished infidel. From what is known regarding the popularity
of the Charlemagnian epics during the latter middle ages, we can
assume that this image was, in all probability, associated with
Marsile, the black heathen king who, as the enemy of all Christendom,
was Charlemagne's paramount opponent. Offered baptism at his
defeat, Marsile had instead chosen death rather than accept a
faith whose adherents he scornfully mocked and condemned for their
immoral and reprehensible treatment of the poor. An image that
was so scathing a reminder of a community's responsibility to
its less fortunate could, therefore, have only been perceived
as a positive one.
The relationship of the black image
to the concept of justice was nowhere more politically utilized
than with the Holy Roman emperors of the Hohenstauffern dynasty.
Indeed, it would appear that the sable blazon of the imperial
eagle and that of the moor's head were meant to be perceived as
synonymous. The simple headbands worn by both are, as a matter
of fact, identical and, interestingly enough, nothing less, despite
the simplicity of the design, than the imperial diadem' of ancient
Rome. Also interesting is the fantastic coat of arms attributed
to Ethiopia by the heralds of the middle ages. For like the bicephalic
bird of the Holy Roman Empire, Ethiopia bore a 'v' shaped emblem
with a blackamoor's head 'torsed' at the end of each arm.
This parallelism between both sets of
heads can, of course, be explained by the "rex / sacerdos"
argument which occupied the very centre of the political stage
during this particular period of history. To both the papacy
that preached the imperial nature of its sanctified
position and the Hohenstauffern dynasty that proclaimed the priestliness
of its own power, the figure of Prester John became an almost
magical icon. Because we today know that the double-headed eagle
represented the claims of both the church and the state, it would
be quite logical to surmise that the reason why Ethiopia's arms
were conceived as double-headed is due to the belief already mentioned
that the Negus (emperor) exercised the prerogatives of both priest
Because they are described in the 'Tristam
und Isult' cycles, the arms of Sir Pallamedes, the Moorish prince
who becomes a knight of the Round Table, have received a certain
amount of scholarly attention. Chequered in black and white,
this highly contrasting design would appear to be nothing more
than perhaps the most abstract icon of those dualities already
pointed to, such as God and Jacob (Jacquelado is the word for
checkered in Spanish), or Church and State. Instead of his coat
armour, it is the body of Sir Fierfitz Angevin, the black knight
from Eschenbach's 'Parzival' that is patterned in a piebald motif.
The fact that the poet likens Fierfitz's skin to a parchment
with writing is what expands this symbol to its most encompassing
To the Greeks, Pallamedes, the mythological
figure from whom Sir Tristam's Moorish companion derives his name,
was commemorated as the inventor of writing, counting, weighing
and measuring and the games of the chessboard. Since his name
translates as 'Ancient Wisdom', it is fairly obvious that all
dualistic tensions were intended to be nuanced; from the most
simple 'yes or no', 'O or I' to the most sophisticated of Parmenedes'
models regarding 'The I and the Thou' or 'The One and the Many'.
Obviously intending to follow the bifurcated symbolism of the
Hohenstauffern eagle or the two headed branch of Ethiopia, the
writer of the prose Tristam recounts that of all the knights of
the Round Table, Sir Pallamedes was the only one who wore two
swords. Whether as a reference to Pallamedes' name or the political wisdom Prester John stood for, or, perhaps, as a conflation of both, it is interesting that the blackamoor's head was one of the earliest watermarks in the history of paper making. Examples collected date from about 1380 to 1460.
Besides its obvious reference to Prester
John, another reason for the black blazon of the imperial eagle
is to be found in the rules and regulations governing the use
of 'metals' and 'tinctures' in coat armour.
Following the classical Greek analysis
of light and colour, black and white were considered the two primaries
since the interplay between light and dark is what was held to
produce the spectrum. Furthermore, white, or more accurately,
light, was not defined as a colour or 'tincture' but as the gold
or the silver which, to this day, are still the only options for
the term 'metal' in the language of heraldry. Black, therefore,
was considered the most important of colours, ranking above the
red, blue and green standardly referred to as 'tinctures'.
Nineteenth century texts explaining
the imperial insignia go even further. Because of medieval conceptions
of the absorption of light by darkness, the writers theorized
that within the color black was contained all the light or the
white it had displaced.
This is obviously the reason why when
the ruby is substituted for red or 'gules' and the emerald for
green or 'vert' according to the traditions of gemnological blazonry,
it is nothing other than the diamond that stands for 'sable'.
In all probability, it is also this line of reasoning that was
at the source of the cult of the Black Madonna. For, having borne
the Light of Creation within her very womb, the devotion to the
Mother of God as the black Queen of Heaven is a superb example
of how this law of physics was at one time interpreted.
According to the early heralds, the
black eagle on a field of gold translated quite literally to,
"As God is in Heaven so is the Emperor on Earth". The
colour of its outspread wings was explicitly said to symbolize
the embodiment or the materialization of light. Furthermore,
since it was also held that the dark, by its interaction with
the light is what produced the spectrum, the colour black apparently
came to represent the intermediary position a divine rights monarch
maintained between his God and his people. If the eagle, therefore,
was the zoomorphic symbol of these ideas, the blackamoor in Hohenstauffern
Europe could only have been interpreted as their anthropomorphic
equivalent. Indeed, there are other explanations for the imperial
eagle's blackness that bear this out. Believed, as being the
most powerful of birds, to fly closest to the sun, like the Ethiop,
it was regarded as a solar symbol.
Perhaps because it is so recent and
therefore so comparatively easier to interpret, one of the more
exciting examples of the blackamoor as a symbol of the Redeemer
is the one to be found in an insignia designed by Pope Pius VII
in the early part of the last century. Commonly referred to as
the Moretto, it was awarded to the Princes of the Academy of St.
Luke, a class of nobles created exclusively for artists by the
Holy See in recognition of their life's work and contributions
to the field. It is in the age old tradition that St. Luke once
painted a portrait of the Infant Jesus where the key to the symbolism
of this Papal decoration can be found. The fact that St. Luke
is also an evangelist, is evidence enough that at least, allegorically,
he had succeeded in the challenge which, as a true artist, he
would, of course, have had to confront--that of conveying in his
painting the divine reality incarnate in the form of a human child.
As clearly then as the Moretto or, in English, the Little Moor
is a metaphor for the incarnate God St. Luke portrayed, so too
is the implied challenge to the artist: to portray for the world
the Divinity nascent in it.
It is this last example in particular
which leads me to think that the blackamoor figured candelabra
dating back a century or two earlier was meant to be seen in this
light. Instead of another embarrassing icon like the lawn jockey
or the Aunt Jemima cookie jar--those examples of main stream Americana
which many of us find so embarrassing--this classic European 'object
d'art' was probably intended either as an injunction or a blessing.
And, from what I have already pointed out regarding the imagery
of St. Maurice, perhaps the most negative significance they might
have had is that they were also intended as Counter-Reformation
What I hope I have, at least, succeeded
in providing here is the outline for a study which, even though
based on so arcane and romantically European a tradition as heraldry,
could nevertheless prove a great deal more revolutionary than
any of the more 'politically correct' approaches to black history
undertaken thus far.
For if this was the visual language
that once articulated or signified the most important of the spiritual,
cultural and political aspirations of the West, it would not be
too difficult to imagine the kind of impact such a primer or catechism
of positive black symbolism could have today on those whose self
imagery has been so consistently and so systematically destroyed
by the racism of our more recent past.
Today, one of the few vestiges that
remain of this medieval mysticism can be found in the colour of
the robes we wear at graduation--that right of passage by which
society declares us to be 'educated'--and the robes of those who
make decisions regarding our legal affairs. Although clerical
garb might be interpreted as the rejection of worldly comforts
and benefits, it is, therefore, a mark of the wearer's more profound
pursuit as well. And, as every woman knows, it is the secret
of the little black basic which can add immeasurably to her air