Famous Families

(Secret Seal)
On the image of the Blackamoor in European Heraldry
(a preliminary proposal for an iconographical study)
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.

  • Articles about Mario de Valdes y Cocom's research and writings on St. Maurice
  • The pope and a puzzling African king
    Boston Globe columnist Alex Beam turned to Valdes for help decoding the "African king" depicted on new Pope Benedict XVI's coat of arms. (Aug. 4, 2005)
  • Catholic martryr's ancient sacrifice seen as symbol for African-American community
    "If an award-winning Boston television producer has his way, the legend of St. Moritz will be recaptured from the dustbin of history to inspire a new generation to turn away from violence and self-indulgence and live up to the principles of fidelity, humility and service personified by the saint." (The Bay State Banner, July 27, 2006)
  • A fresh take on the life of a saint
    "As a boy growing up in Belize, Central America, Mr. Valdes absorbed the stories of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. He said St. Moritz's exploits are the "black foundations" of the King Arthur stories. ... But does the message of a battle-ready black martyr stand a chance of being heard in a youth culture that embraces thugs and pimps as heroes and role models?" (The Ottawa Citizen, Aug. 3, 2006)
  • Plea to St. Moritz: Give them strength
    "If you Google St. Moritz these days, you'll come up with scads of information about the chic Swiss ski resort. But Valdes ... hopes to reclaim the name as a symbol of strength and will." Also, read Valdes' follow-up letter, and view the painting mentioned in the article. (The Boston Globe, March 18, 2007)

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 10th century.

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 of the Reformation. The order still exist exists although it has now combined with the Order of St. Lazarus. The white trefoiled cross of the combined order belongs to the former.

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.

Prester John

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.

Part II Divine Darkness

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