The Black King – Are nativity scenes racist?

In October 2020, a decision by those responsible for Ulm cathedral (Bavaria) caused a stir throughout Germany. The local Protestant parish decided this year to set up their nativity scene from the 1920s without the figures of the three kings. The reason: The depiction of the black king reflects a colonialist and essentially racist attitude towards people with dark skin. The decision led to a controversial, sometimes polemical debate. Did a sellout of occidental culture take place here? Had the „cancel culture“, i.e. the conscious exclusion of representations and texts with potentially racist content, now also reached the church? Was the church bowing to a left-wing mainstream that had become dominant in the course of the identity debates? Are depictions of black people in Europe always fundamentally racist, or are they simply part of our cultural heritage and can, of course, continued to be shown? Theologians, on the other hand, intervened in the discussion and quickly pointed out that the figure of the black African king was not meant to be racist, but on the contrary to be understood as helping people understand each other. After all, the mission of Jesus Christ to all people on earth is clearly expressed here in one picture. The Ulm community therefore made it clear that it was by no means about banning the black king from the nativity scenes in general. Her decision only relates to this particular representation, which finally shows a plump African with misshapen limbs, thick lips and golden earrings. Such an image of a black man is actually a stereotypical embodiment of an African. From the point of view of white Europeans of the 19th and 20th centuries, Africans were characterized as a separate „race“ with typical physical features, often with the ulterior motive that they were also an „inferior“ race.

In fact, today’s critical discourse on the topic of „race“ (the word „Rasse“ is avoided in Germany) indicates that representations and images contribute to the spread of racism just as much as the spoken and written word. A view formed by the colonialism of the 19th century and the enslavement of black people is still reflected today in the way black people are spoken about and thought about. In this way, prejudices about “cultural inferiority”, the lack of productivity or the lack of intellectual potential of black people can subliminally be conveyed. In this respect, it is correct to also critically question artistic representations in terms of ideology. The question is: where does a representation become discriminatory and racist so that one should refrain from showing it? The problem is that the answer to this question is largely dependent on the viewer. There can certainly be a great deal of agreement that, for example, caricatures from the colonial era or from the context of slavery should no longer be disseminated “innocently” and without comment. In the case of works of fine art, the line is more difficult to draw. The Ulm parish community therefore made sure in its judgment of its nativity figure and asked people with black skin for their opinion. These confirmed the impression of the racist, hurtful portrayal.

So do we now have to subject all of our cribs to critical scrutiny? My answer would be: We should do it anyway. This not only has to do with the question of possible racism (this should not be the focus of nativity scenes). Rather, the question would be what the meaning of the biblical story about the three wise men is and how we would like to express it.

First of all, back to the Black King. In fact, we must not dismiss the view of black people’s portrayal as unimportant. In his book “Critique of Black Reason”, which has meanwhile received worldwide acclaim, the philosopher Achille Mbembe dealt in depth with the reception of black people in the European and American context. Pictorial and literary portraits of black people inevitably transport ideas, judgments and fantasies. Since the 19th century, black people have all too often been seen as the antithesis, as the “negation” or “negation” of civilized bourgeois Europeans. Mbembe writes:

„The rest [i.e. the things and people that do not correspond to the European image of the civilized citizen] – forms of the different, of difference and the pure power of the negative – was an expression of being an object in general. Africa in general, and the Negro in particular, were portrayed as perfect symbols of this vegetative and limited life. […] About such figures Hegel [the German philosopher] said they were statues without language and self-awareness; human beings incapable of definitively freeing themselves from the animal form with which they were mingled […].”

In plain language this means: The Africans with black skin were not perceived as real people at all, but if at all then as people on a lower cultural and even biological level. This derogatory belief was widespread in the age of slavery and colonialism, in which biological racial theory eventually developed, and is subliminal, so the accusation, still present today. It was and is also to be found in pictures and texts. In addition, another tendency developed in the late 19th and early 20th century in the description of other cultures, including African ones. Europeans rediscovered the foreign and the exotic in them. In the distant countries and their inhabitants, the different was felt to be attractive. The fascination awakened the wanderlust but also the interest in the foreign culture. For Africa, Mbembe points to the influence of the European avant-garde artists of the 1920s. Here, Africa, as the unadulterated source of original, archaic humanity, becomes a projection surface for esoteric and magical fantasies and dream worlds, as can be seen in Picasso and Max Ernst. African art is viewed as a path to a „possible return to origins“. The depiction of the Black King from Ulm also falls into this phase. If I see it correctly, the nativity scene is conceived less as a colonialist caricature of a black man and more as an expressionist depiction. Nevertheless, this form of Africa reception is of course distorting. It reflects the romantic dreams of European seekers of meaning, including their sexual fantasies.

The black king in the pictures and figures of Christian art follows the exotic rather than the archaic interest of the painters and sculptors. Looking at the huge panels from the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, the popular depiction of the Adoration of the Magi at the Nativity gives artists an opportunity to demonstrate their artistry. You indulge in the representation of royal splendor in the robes and jewelry of the kings, as well as the accompanying entourage including exotic animals. Like the others, the black king is also a representative of a foreign high culture, and thus also of a distant imaginary world that the artists never knew about from their own experience. The black king is not portrayed in a racist way. At least in comparison to the others, no inferiority can be read from him. In the eyes of the ideology-critical observer, the racist context could be that the Holy Family is always depicted according to the European model (naturally based on living models from the painter’s environment) and never as the Near East persons, which they are based on the biblical tradition. Here, if you like, the peoples of the world bring their gifts to Europe in the image of kings which, bowing their knees to the Child Jesus, submit to European power, religion and culture. It cannot be ruled out that this background played a role in many a picture panel commissioned by a princes and kings.

But if you look at different images of the Adoration of the Magi, you will notice something completely different. in some of them the black king is missing. That may come as a surprise at first glance. In fact, however, there are often no Africans to be found in medieval depictions, not even in Germany’s perhaps most famous picture of the Three Kings, the altarpiece by Stefan Lochner from Cologne Cathedral (15th century). Even Rembrandt painted three white kings two centuries later. The typical nativity scene with the black king has become so firmly imprinted that we would suspect him in every depiction. Of course, in the biblical account (Mt 2) there is no mention of a black man, nor of „kings“. Matthew speaks of magicians (Greek: „magoi“) from the East. The portrayal of these men has only evolved over the centuries. As a classic picture composition, it appears specially from the 14th/15th Century that the kings embody the three continents, Europe, Asia and Africa and also the three ages (one is young, one is middle-aged, one is already old). The representation would like to make a theological statement: Jesus Christ is the promised king of the world. The peoples of the earth come to him. All people (embodied in the kings and in the shepherds) find life and peace in him. In addition, the worship of kings also shows the rule of God, before whom even the mighty of the earth should bow their knees.

This theological statement is a thoroughly meaningful interpretation of the Bible text. The evangelist Matthew refers to the importance of the star that guides the wise men. A parallel to Is 60 can be drawn. There is a vision of a bright light rising over Jerusalem as a sign that God has once again taken up residence in the temple. To this light the peoples of the earth go and bring the riches of the world to Jerusalem to worship God. Therefore the magicians in the gospel move to Jerusalem first. There, however, they meet the „false king“, because Herod is not the king appointed by God, the Messiah who is supposed to restore God’s rule over Israel. So you look into the other promises of the prophetic texts and discover there the Bethlehem prophecy of the prophet Micah, according to which the Messiah is to be born in this city (the birthplace of David). The gifts then also apply to this Messiah and thus to the “Son of God”. Psalm 72 glorifies the reign of the Messiah. Kings (!) come to him from distant lands, bow down before him and serve him (Ps 72:10ff.). From this theological interpretation of events, suggested by the Gospel of Matthew, then comes the tradition of the “kings of the nations” into which the original “magicians” or “wise men” from the East “transform” themselves.

In early Christianity, this “transformation” did not play an important role. Several sermons from Pope Leo the Great (5th century) on the Feast of the Epiphany (January 6th) have been handed down, in which he interprets, among other things, the visit of the magicians to the Christ Child. Some of the later Epiphany traditions can be found here, for example that one speaks of three magicians (derived from the three gifts). Above all, however, the magicians are regarded as representatives of the heathen peoples who recognized the importance of Jesus earlier than the Jews. But even for Leo it is still clear that these are magicians from the eastern part of the Roman Empire, but not kings and certainly not Africans.
In the Eastern Church (i.e. the Orthodox and Oriental Churches) a somewhat different interpretation has emerged. More than the Catholic Church, it has preserved the original content of the Epiphany feast on January 6th, in which the public „appearance“ of Jesus is commemorated in three ways: as a child in the manger (with a visit from the magicians), as a son revealed in baptism of God and in his first public sign at the wedding at Cana. The icon, i.e. the celebratory image of January 6th, does not show the three kings, but the baptism of Jesus. In fact, the „magicians“ are rarely portrayed. In the depictions of the Eastern Church they appear in priestly robes, as Persians or Babylonians. One of the few pictorial works can be found in the Ravenna mosaics. More than kings, the three „wise men“ here are priests who do not bring gifts but offerings, as is customary for the cult in the temple (the incense in particular, but also the gold for the furnishings of the temple make sense in this regard). . The Eastern Church tradition thus theologically continues the temple prophecy from Isa 60 and thinks of the visit to the baby Jesus as liturgical (i.e. as part of a service). Just like the wise men of that time, we, or the church as a whole, come together to worship Jesus in worship and bring their gifts to this day. The “magicians” become the representatives of the believers here, as the first to be called from the peoples of the world.

Back to our Christmas nativity scenes. It should have become clear that they require a critical revision. And this doesn’t only make sense for reasons of hidden racism, although this should rather be found in a few characters. As we have seen, the schematic depiction of the three kings as representatives of the three continents goes back to a theological tradition of interpretation that is neither the only nor the only correct one. Rather, according to the biblical account, the “magicians” are symbolic figures for various theological statements. The question is whether we want to see a folkloric tradition in the nativity scene that is based on historical models (although, as we have seen, the European art tradition is also not clear). Can we give it some biblical meaning, change it and transform it? The possibilities would be there. If one wanted to illustrate the biblical report, instead of the three kings, a group of „magicians“ (although this term is of course misleading – probably really meant priests of a Central Asian god cult at the time) would appear at the crib. Their number would not be fixed. If one understands the kings more as the representatives of the peoples who are called by God to believe, the division into three continents no longer makes sense today. The “kings” could become representatives of a diverse world society. If one sees them as the first called of the church, as is the tradition in the Eastern Church, the kings are symbolic of all who profess Christ. Those called by Jesus gather at the manger. The skin color of the „kings“ is irrelevant.

For citations and references see the German version of the article

[1] S. hierzu z.B. den Aufsatz von George Yancy, Der zurückgeworfene Schwarze Körper, in: Critical Philosophy of Race – Ein Reader, Berlin 2021, 129-179.





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