Some Thoughts Inspired by Viewing Giotto's Arena Chapel frescoes
Last Saturday, I was with a group of our students in Padua, admiring the exceptional fresco cycle created by the Florentine artist, Giotto di Bondone, completed over, we estimate, a period of about two years or just more than 600 ‘giornate’ from 1303 to 1305. One of the panels is an image that has always drawn my attention, not for its subject or indeed for its pathos (The ‘Expulsion of Joachim from the Temple’ gets that prize for me). It is the simple, but arresting design of the story that grabs us. ‘The Scourging of Christ’ (or ‘The Mocking’) has, as its visual pivot, not Christ himself, but one of the people responsible for his punishment. With a rod in his hand raised, a black man is at the centre of the image. On the left is Christ, seated on a throne, being mocked, and on the right is Pontius Pilate and the priests, so essentially, even though the man with the whip is ‘out of the action’ (in that the actual ‘scourging’ is over) he is integral to it, Christ has already been beaten and is seated, with the imperial robe and crown of thorns but in order for the story to run we need to see the action.
My question has been, is the man with the whip painted black to draw our attention to him, purely as a visual focus, or did Giotto portray him as black for any other reason? In the wake of the resurgence of attention to Black Lives Matter after the killings of George Floyd, Rayshard Brooks and others, my curiosity was further piqued, and I resolved to try to find out a little more about the portrayal of Black people in Western European art but in the context of this one image, and ask myself, is our current perception shaped by the Trans-Atlantic slave trade of the 15th century and beyond, and the results of that, or was there already a ‘reading’ of the Black person in art, and in life?
I asked Dr. Laura Jacobus, a former Senior Lecturer in the Department of History of Art at Birkbeck College, specialising in Italian late-medieval and early renaissance art and the author of Giotto and the Arena Chapel: Art, Architecture & Experience if she could shed any light on this,
“There are all sorts of problems with even thinking in terms of race when the concept didn't exist in the 14thC, but there was clearly an awareness of different physical types that was causing trecento artists to distinguish peoples from different areas by facial types and also by costume.”, she told me, “the African is depicted as anything but 'noble', as a thug and a ruffian and a pagan: not just because he's beating up the saviour of the world, but because he is shown as fat, poorly dressed, and with features which are the opposite of the fair, evenly- proportioned type of face which was considered beautiful and morally superior (as exemplified by Christ and other saints)”. She finishes by saying “That suggests to me that concepts of race were still not strongly developed, but ideas about the 'Other' were used to depict anyone that they wanted to suggest was not a Christian- and that's probably why Giotto includes him.”
Paul Kaplan, writing in the new edition of The Image of the Black in Western Art (Harvard, Vol II part 2) states that “Giotto’s vicious tormentor of Christ…is a conspicuous example of an iconographic type that continued to flourish into the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries…This type of pejorative depiction of black Africans as executioners and persecutors of Christ and the saints has received the most sustained attention in the last few decades.”(p7)
Jean Devisse, contributing to the same publication is more generous, “The stylization introduced by the strict geometry that subtends the movement of his upraised arm, the impassive expression, and the formal beauty of the work seem to suggest that the blind hostility towards the black may have been on the way to disappearing.” (ibid, p88)
Ruth Mellinkoff, in Outcasts (1993), reflects that “skin colour, as well as the conventional physiognomic features assigned to Africans were perceived as ugly”, and that Africans, as well as Jews, Levantines, jesters, and the disabled were considered as outsiders, non-Christians. Black Africans were considered ugly, ‘other’ and non-Christian, but strangely, the active racism that we in the 21st century are more familiar with did not emerge until much later, when justification for the inhumane treatment of Black Africans was required by white Christians who were reassured to be told by ‘experts’ that Black Africans were lesser beings.
Of course, slavery existed in Europe, it had been around since civilisations went to war on one another, with captives deemed part of the rewards of victory, but the de-humanisation of people of colour in particular did not happen until the industrial process of the activity began after the Portuguese and Spanish invasion of the Americas in the 15th century required cheap labour to work on the plantations there. Simultaneously Africa opened up as the easy source. Slaves in Medieval Europe were just as likely to be from Eastern Europe, Byzantium or Palestine as Blacks from Africa,” it was the Slavic peoples who were widely enslaved, enough to give slavery its name.” (Bindman & Gates, introduction to The Image of the Black in Western Art, Vol II, part 1 p xvii)
In the far south of the Italian peninsular, especially in the twelfth century, the king Frederick II of the Hohenstaufan dynasty (1194-1250) based himself in Sicily that had been long ruled as a Moslem territory and on taking control of it he assimilated into the black and brown population, employing them as his personal bodyguards but also adapting their administrative skills to his ends. Black people in Sicily were taken for granted, not as slaves
but as civilians. However, in a Christianised world they were nevertheless regarded as pagans,
Leslie Primo, an art historian working with London’s National Gallery and lecturing at Imperial College and The John Hall Venice Course, tells me, “Generally any figure that could be said to be ‘other’ is usually cast in the role of a non-believer or enemy of Christianity. The sort of characters/caricatures that fit these moulds are more often than not western European stereotypes that could be said to be either black people, Jewish people or perceptions of ugly people engendered by ideas generated by the pseudo-science of Phrenology….In regards to the Giotto image, it is significant that when Giotto uses a Black man in his fresco it is in a pejorative sense, because giving the opportunity to use a Black man in his depiction of the Adoration of the Magi (also in the Cappella Scrovengi) he declines.”
The most common depiction of a Black person in Western art before the rise and boom of the Portuguese slave trade from Africa after the mid 15thC was in the role of Balthazar, one of the Three Magi present at the Nativity of Christ, described as The King of Arabia. He is depicted as noble, kingly and dressed in fine clothes. Of course, all three magi were by their very nature ‘outsiders’, coming, as “St Augustine held…not just from the east, as the Bible seems to say, but also from the north, south and west…united by being, all three of them, complete outsiders to the place and the peoples to which Christ belonged.” (Koerner, 2010)
But however they were depicted in art, whether as the ‘other’, pagan and violent or beautiful and exotic, the Black man, woman or child was very rarely viewed as a person, equal in skills, humanity and opportunity. We are still on the long journey. However, it is interesting to note, that in a new exhibition at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam there is a superb Rembrandt portrait of two black men, presumably Africans, possibly freedmen. It’s an intimate depiction, the reason for its painting we cannot tell, but The Netherlands, like England in the seventeenth century, was enriched by the sugar plantations, and by extension, the exploitation of enslaved Africans. We can only hypothesise what this painter, the master of pathos, was seeing and wishing to convey.
Rembrandt A Portrait of Two African Men. Photograph: Heritage Image Partnership Ltd/Alamy
In Raoul Peck’s exceptional film, ‘I Am Not Your Negro’, based on an unfinished book by James Baldwin, the writer is quoted, saying “It is entirely up to the American people whether or not they are going to face and deal with and embrace this stranger on whom they’ve relied for so long. What white people have to do is to try to find out – find out in their own hearts – why it was necessary to have a nigger in the first place. ‘Cause I’m not a nigger, I’m a man. But if you think I’m a nigger then you need it – so the question the white population has to ask themselves is -- if I’m not the nigger here and you, the white people, invented it, then you have to figure out why. The future of this country relies on that.”
Giotto did not portray a ‘nigger’, but he placed the Black man, for the (presumably, exclusively) white gaze, in the role of otherness. We cannot unpaint it or cover it up, but we must face it honestly and I’ll finish with another Baldwin line, “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced."