Early medieval written legends report that one of the three kings who paid homage to the Christ Child in Bethlehem was from Africa. But it would take nearly 1,000 years for European artists to begin representing Balthazar, the youngest of the three kings, as a black man. Why? The explanation can be found through a closer look at the history of this period—specifically, in the rise of the African slave trade in mid-1400s.
Delving into the Getty’s collections, we are at work on the exhibition Balthazar: A Black African King in Medieval and Renaissance Art (November 19, 2019–February 17, 2020). We are examining how Balthazar’s depiction coincided with and was furthered by the rise of the slave trade—and we invite your input to inform the exhibition. What questions or ideas do you have about this topic? What stories or themes would you like to see explored? We are eager to incorporate your views into our process. To comment publicly, leave a comment below or get in touch with us on social media @gettymuseum; to reach us individually, email us at email@example.com and we will reply directly.
To give context for the exhibition, in this post we’ll introduce the story of the Magi, and give an example of how Balthazar’s depiction intersects with the history of Western colonialism.
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