Blurred Racial Lines:
Black Image During the Middle Ages
Part 3 Sable

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Black Images During the Middle Ages
Part 1- Image of the Blackamoor
Part 2- Divine Darkness | Part 3 - Sable

 

SIGILLUM SECRETUM
(Secret Seal)
On the image of the Blackamoor in European Heraldry
(a preliminary proposal for an iconographical study)
by
Mario de Valdes y Cocom
Part 3

Sable

Besides this possible 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'.

Thirteenth 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 contributed to 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 (coal) 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 is another explanation for the imperial eagle's blackness that bears this out. As the most powerful of birds flying so close to the sun, it, like the Ethiop, 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 propaganda.

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 of sophistication. 

Researched and Written by Mario de Valdes y Cocom an historian of the African diaspora. 

Some of these articles in the series are form the the spartacus educational web site. They first appeared and are currently present on the PBS Web site. For more articles see the PBS Web site.

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