The Black Magus, a black King amongst the Magi

Translation, Olivier Maheo

While Epiphany is celebrated in various ways in the Christian world, we take advantage of this day to recall the figure of the Black King, Balthazar, the black Magus. For this, we have chosen to translate an article published in January 2022 in French. By the way, if you want a little “French taste” you can also easily cook this French tart, to follow the tradition of serving a frangipane filled tart known as the ‘galette des rois’ at Epiphany. (You’ll find the recipe HERE).

In the question of the colorization of the Bible, Balthazar, the black Magus, holds a particular place, notably because of his important presence in the pictorial representations which, starting in the 15th century in Central Europe, have never ceased to spread. Originally, the Magi, introduced in the Gospel of Matthew alone, have neither a precise number, nor a name, nor a kingdom, a very vague origin – they come from the East, and above all, no skin tone indicated.

”When Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the east came to Jerusalem, 2 saying, ‘Where is the king of the Jews who has just been born?’ For we have seen his star in the East and have come to worship him. 3 When King Herod heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him. 4 He called together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, and asked them where the Christ was to be born. 5 They said to him, ‘In Bethlehem of Judea’; for this is what was written by the prophet, 6 ‘And you, Bethlehem, land of Judah, are not the least of the principal cities of Judah, for from you a ruler will come forth who will shepherd my people Israel’. 7 Then Herod sent for the wise men secretly, and carefully inquired of them how long the star had been shining. 8 Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, ‘Go and find out exactly what the child is like, and when you have found him, let me know, so that I may go and worship him myself’. 9 When they heard the king, they went. And behold, the star which they had seen in the east went before them, until it came to rest over the place where the child was. 10 And when they saw the star, they were exceedingly glad. 11 They went into the house and saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshipped him, and they opened their treasures and gave him gold and frankincense and myrrh as gifts. 12 Then, having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they returned to their country by another route.”

Mt 2:1-12, trad. Louis Segond

As in many other cases studied in the framework of the ReLRace program, the emergence of Balthazar as a black magus is the fruit of a long exegetical palimpsest, not devoid of interpolations, centered around the fundamental questions posed by this narrative, very popular since late antiquity1, notably around the nature of the gifts brought by the magi and the universalism of Christianity. 2

Royalization. Originally in the Gospel of Matthew, only the term “magi” is used to designate the visitors of the infant Jesus. This choice, associated with the oriental origin of the magi, certainly associates these characters with Zoroastrianism and/or Mithraism and makes the birth of Jesus and, by extension, of Christianity, the event that fulfills the prophecies of all these beliefs.3 With Tertullian4, in the second century, the association of the magi not only with wisdom but also with power appears.5 Tertullian, illustrating a tendency more and more rooted in patristics to see in the Old Testament traces prefiguring the New Testament, draws a parallel, destined to become common, between Mt 2:1-12 and verses 10 and 11 of Psalm 72

“7 In his reign, the righteous will flourish, and there will be great peace as long as the moon shines. 8 He will rule from sea to sea, and from the Euphrates to the ends of the earth. 9 Before him the inhabitants of the wilderness will bend the knee, and his enemies will lick the dust. 10 The kings of Tarshish and the isles shall bring offerings; the kings of Sheba and Sheba shall bring their tribute. 11 All the kings will bow down to him, all the nations will serve him.”

(Psalm 72:7-11, trans. Louis Segond)

Although this tradition is generally accepted in later commentaries, it does not find definitive pictorial implication until around the 12th century in Western Europe.6

Counting. The counting of the magi is probably the point that posed the least exegetical problems. Since the number of gifts was three – gold, frankincense and myrrh – there must have been as many magi. Origen was the first to assert this. Yet despite his authority, depictions of a varying number of magi – from two to twelve – persisted until the turn of the second millennium.7

Localizing. The determination of the number of magi then raises the question of their geographical origin. In connection with the passage from the Psalms in which Tertullian sees a prefiguration of the adoration of the Magi, the locations of the Magi in Persia and Arabia are favored by Justin Martyr and subsequently by many Greek fathers.8 The royal character of the Magi and their number, generally fixed at three, imposes in all cases the attribution of a different location. There is no trace, however, of Ethiopia, the land of black people, in the productions of Antiquity. It is through interpretations with a universalist aim that Ethiopia tends to make a place for itself. Hilaire of Poitiers (c. 315-367-368) associates the episode of the Magi with a prefiguration of Pentecost.9 Augustine of Hippo, for his part, does not hesitate to omit the oriental origin of the Magi, although this is clearly stated in the Gospel of Matthew; he makes them come from the four cardinal points in order to produce through them a symbol of the whole of Gentiles who have come to recognize the universalism of the Christian message.10 Now, in Augustine as in Origen, Ethiopia and its black inhabitants are the most “extreme” of the Gentiles. Their adherence to the Christian message is therefore the proof par excellence of the truth of Christianity.11 Some authors, following Jerome of Stridon, also support these universalist interpretations by comparing the supposed number of magi – three – to the sons of Noah, who are supposed to represent the origins of all humanity.12 It is the case of the Pseudo-Bede, then of Raban Maur, who is the most explicit in the comparison and then gives rise to a multiplication of this type of analogies.13

Naming. The naming of the Three Kings is part of the fixing of their number at three. The first attribution of names to the Magi is found in the Excerpta latina barbari, a late Merovingian chronicle, often considered to be an enlarged translation of a lost Greek original, dated to the end of the fifth or beginning of the sixth century. The names Bithisarea (Balthazar), Melichior (Melchior) and Gathaspa (Gaspard), which were to become canonical, appear in it and are thus progressively imposed, in spite of sometimes divergent translations.14

Characterizing. The individualization of the magi then introduces a tendency to define specific attributes for each of the characters. As early as the eighth century, in the Collectanea and Flores of the Pseudo-Bede, there are mentions of distinct ages for the magi.15 Melchior is the oldest magus, Gaspard the youngest, and Balthasar is in between. This tradition tends to prevail even if Gaspard and Balthasar are regularly reversed.16 This specification in age is then accompanied by rules of pictorial representation that are also found initially in the Pseudo-Bede. The tunics of Melchior, Gaspard and Balthazar are respectively purple, green and red, their cloaks, green, red and white.17 In the 9th century, Héric d’Auxerre prefers to associate the three magi with the philosophical disciplines leading to the knowledge of God: logic, physics and ethics.18

Colorizing. It is in the Collectanea et Flores of Pseudo-Bede that we find the first mention – supposedly – of a skin tone for Balthazar. He is indeed described as fuscus, literally “dark”.

Magi sunt, qui munera Domino dederunt : primus fuisse dicitur Melchior, senex et canus, barba prolixa et capillis, tunica hyacinthina, sagoque mileno, et calceamentis hyacinthino et albo mixto opere, pro mitrario uariae compositionis indutus: aurum obtulit regi Domino. Secundus, nomine Caspar, iuuenis imberbis, rubicundus, milenica tunica, sago rubeo, calceamentis hyacinthinis uestitus: thure quasi Deo oblatione digna, Deum honorabat. Tertius, fuscus, integre barbatus, Balthasar nomine, habens tunicam rubeam, albo uario, calceamentis milenicis amictus: per myrrham filium hominis moriturum professus est. Omnia autem uestimenta eorum Syriaca sunt. Mundorum namque est munda contingere, et sanctorum sancta cognoscere”19

Pseudo-Bède, Excerptiones Patrum, Collecteanea, Flores ex Diversis, Quaestiones et Parabolae

The term itself can be confusing. It is not certain, first of all, that it refers to the skin tone of the magus, and even if it does, it remains of an uncertain nature insofar as it is much less precise than “niger”, being applied, among other things, to describe the skin tone of the “Ethiopian” peoples at the time. Nevertheless, in later texts, in particular in the Irish tradition, within which the Pseudo-Bede is inscribed, and then within Germany, where it takes root at the end of the first millennium, the black complexion of Balthazar and his association with Ethiopia leave no room for doubt.20 On the other hand, there is no trace of a black Magus-King anywhere else in Europe at that time.

Representing. It is through pictorial representations that the black Balthazar leaves the Holy Empire to impose himself throughout Europe. The religious theater that developed from the eleventh century onwards never made reference to a black magician-king before the sixteenth century. However, in the field of Christian pictorial conventions, black characters were for a long time associated with representations of evil in line with Origen’s dualist interpretations.21 Thus, when art historians inventoried the representations of the adoration of the Magi, the first black figure recorded – on the ceiling of the Church of Petit Quevilly in Normandy – was not that of Balthazar but of a henchman of Herod – symbolizing evil through his responsibility for the massacre of innocents.22

Subsequently, a tradition stemming from Italian art imposes the presence of important processions of servants, many of whom are black, but it is not until the 14th century that the first black Magician-King appears with certainty. However, this is not the first positive black figure in European art. This privilege belongs to the Queen of Sheba, present since the twelfth century on the altarpiece of Nicholas of Verdun in Klosterneuburg.23 Its association with Ethiopia and the color black is old24, but, in addition to the introduction of a positive character with black skin, this biblical episode is important in the development of an imagery of a black magician, insofar as it is also often seen through the visit of the Queen of Sheba to Solomon, following Origen25 and Augustine26, as a prefiguration of the visit of the magi to Jesus.

However, the first unmistakable representation of a black magician-king does not occur until 1437 with the altarpiece of Hans Multscher in Wurzach in Swabia.

The Adoration of the Magi. The Wings of the Wurzach Altar
(150×140 cm), 1437, Gemäldegalerie der Staatlichen Museen zu Berlin.

According to Paul Kaplan, these productions, which appeared in the heart of the Holy Roman Empire before gradually conquering the rest of Europe, can be linked to three main causes. Firstly, the reaffirmation of the existence of a black magus in two widely distributed works from the second half of the fourteenth century: the Historia Trium Regum by Johan von Hildesheim, composed between 1364 and 1375, and above all, the Voyages by Jean de Mandeville, whose first preserved manuscript dates from 1371. The first work is directly dedicated to the story of the Three Kings. Johan von Hildesheim affirms the black and Ethiopian origin not of Balthazar but of Gaspard. It is part of a tradition of greater interest in Rhenish Germany for the question of the Magi, explained in particular by the transfer of their supposed relics to Cologne between 1162 and 1164.27 The work of John of Mandeville consists of a series of travel accounts and it is in describing Ethiopia that the author associates not only the Queen of Sheba but also one of the three kings who came to make offerings to Jesus, without naming him. If the Travels are more allusive than Johan von Hildesheim’s work on the subject of the Black Magus, their abundant distribution in many languages – 300 manuscripts preserved – contributes to the popularization of this figure.28 Secondly, the Holy Roman Empire, especially during the time of Charles IV (1346-1378), saw a re-evaluation of the color black in both heraldry and religious figuration.29 Numerous pious black figures, first and foremost Saint Maurice,30 emerge in Germanic art of the time counterbalancing the traditional association of black figures with evil.31 Charles IV himself is very keen on his association with the Magi. For his coronation as king of Italy in 1355, he chose the date of January 6. He also invited the archbishop of Cologne, where the supposed relics of Melchior, Gaspard and Balthazar were kept, to Milan, the place of the coronation but also the old place where the relics were kept. Thirdly, the international context and a better knowledge of Africa play an important role. Following the Crusades, Europeans gradually gained a better knowledge of the black Christian populations. Sources mention the existence of Christian kingdoms in Nubia as early as the twelfth century. Western Christians first met them in Jerusalem (1237) and then brought them to Rome in the second half of the 13th century. In addition, the legend of Priest John emerged. Originally, in the 12th century, Priest John and his powerful Christian kingdom were located in Asia. A supposed ally of the West, supposed to have defeated the Muslim forces in Central Asia, Priest John saw his kingdom gradually move to Africa when the emergence of the Mongols made the existence of such a kingdom in these places hardly tenable.32 The transition is however slow; at the end of the 14th century the Priest John appears on the Catalan map of Abraham Crescas (1375) and he is located in Ethiopia.33 Until the end of the 15th century, in particular after the fall of Constantinople and the new crusade projects,34 many European powers continue to dream of this supposed ally and maintain correspondences with the Ethiopian sovereigns with whom projects of alliance are imagined.35

Disseminating. All these elements contribute to the diffusion of the figure of the black Balthazar in European art from its Germanic center. In Flanders, Hans Memling from Mainz proposed a black Balthazar in 1464 in his adoration.

From Flanders, the motif passed to Spain at the end of the 1460s according to Devisse and Kapla, but the triptych of the nativity by the master of Zarzoso made around 1450 suggests that more direct channels from the Rhine area may have existed.36 In France, artists adopted the black magician between the end of the 1460s and the 1470s,37 but a black Balthazar already appeared as an illustration in an edition of the Speculum Humanae Salvationis in 1449. England adopted him at the end of the century, Italy at the very beginning of the following century,38 and Portugal in the 1510’s.39 If the emergence of a black magus in literature and art resulted from a better knowledge and a more positive apprehension of the “Ethiopian” populations fully eligible for conversion and salvation, the artistic convention of a black Balthazar imposed itself even as the Portuguese slave raids in Africa began in the second half of the 15th century.40 Paradoxically, some of these slaves sold in Europe were used as models to represent Balthazar. Generally speaking, the rise of the slave trade was to once again upset the relationship between Europeans and Africa, including on a theological level.41

The black magician then arrived “in the Indies” and his main vehicle seemed to be iconography, as Alonso de Sandoval testified in his De instauranda Æthiopum Salute (1623). The latter proposes a chapter on Balthazar in which he writes:

“It is certain and proven that this holy king was Ethiopian, as confirmed by paintings, both modern and ancient, because he is painted in black, as a native of Ethiopia. And this is affirmed by the venerable Bede […] whom our doctor Francisco Suarez quotes.” [Francisco Suarez, Disputaciones Metafísicas, Salamanca, 1597].42

Alonso de Sandoval, De instauranda Æthiopum salute (1623)

The Christianized Amerindian populations seize the motif of the Magi to become part of the Christian universal. Thus the Amerindian chronicler Felipe Guamán Poma de Ayala, in his Nueva corónica y buen gobierno (manuscript of 1615) proposes a chapter entitled Nacimiento de Jesucristo en Belen where he reverses Balthazar and Gaspard and makes Melchior the ancestor of the Amerindians:

“It is said that in the time of Cinche Roca Ynga the baby Jesus was born in Bethlehem, where Saint Mary always virgin gave birth to him, and where he was worshipped by the three kings of the three nations that God put in the world, the three wise men Melchior the Indian, Balthasar the Spanish, Gaspard the black […] as the Scripture and experience show. The birth of the Creator of the world was thus venerated.” (f. 91)

Felipe Guamán Poma de Ayala, Nueva corónica y buen gobierno, manuscrit de 1615.

Paradoxically, there is no form of “Balthazar’s pride” among African-American pastors in the nineteenth century, as there is around other biblical characters considered black, such as Sephorah, the Queen of Sheba or Simon of Cyrene. The explosion of new African-American churches at the end of the nineteenth century even led to the emergence of disruptive discourses that the mainstream press generally reported on to criticize them. It is thus often Gaspard who becomes the Ethiopian king as in this play staged in 1959 in a Virginia school. Gaspard the Ethiopian is called Khashabah and if Balthazar finds, under the name of Belshazar, the Chaldean origins that he could have had with certain fathers of the Church, Melchior becomes the Chinese Mei-Kyo; no more magus being associated here with a European descent.43


1. Richard Trexler, Le voyage des mages à travers l’Histoire, translated from English by Marianne Groulez, Paris, Armand Colin, 2009, p 37.

2. Piotr Paciorek, « L’adoration des Mages (Mt 2, 1-12) dans la tradition patristique et au Moyen Âge jusqu’au XIIe siècle », Augustiniana 50, 2000, p. 85-140.

3. Paul H. D. Kaplan, The Rise of the Black Magus in Western Art, Ann Arbor [Mich.], UMI Research Press, 1983, p. 20. Piotr Paciorek, « L’adoration des Mages… », op. cit., p. 91 et p. 97.

4. Tertullien, Contre Marcion, Livre II, chap. XIII.

5. Ibid., p. 100 and following.

6. Paul H. D. Kaplan, The Rise of the Black Magus…, op. cit., p. 21. Mathieu Beaud, iconographie et art monumental dans l’espace féodal du Xe au XIIe siècle : le thème des rois mages et sa diffusion, Dissertation History of Art, Université de Bourgogne, 2012.

7. Hugo Kehrer, Die Heiligen Drei Könige in Literatur und Kunst, vol. 1, Leipzig, 1908, p. 13, 22, 64-74, Gilberte Vezin, L’adoration et le cycle des mages dans l’art chrétien primitif, Paris, 1950, p. 16-17, in Paul H. D. Kaplan, The Rise of the Black Magus…, op. cit., p. 21.

8. Justin Martyr, Dialogues avec Tryphon juif, PG 6, p. 658, in Paul H. D. Kaplan, The Rise of the Black Magus…, op. cit., p. 22.

9. Paul H. D. Kaplan, The Rise of the Black Magus…, op. cit., p. 24-25.

10. Augustin d’Hippone, Sermo CCIII in Epiphania Domini, PL 38, p. 1036, in Paul H. D. Kaplan, The Rise of the Black Magus…, op. cit., p. 22.

11. Augustin d’Hippone, Ennaratio in Psalmum, PL 36, p. 938, in Paul H. D. Kaplan, The Rise of the Black Magus…, op. cit., p. 23.

12. Mathieu Beaud, Le thème des rois mages et sa diffusion…, op. cit., p. 115-119.

13. Raban Maur, Commentaria in Mattheum, PL 107, p 760, in Paul H. D. Kaplan, The Rise of the Black Magus…, op. cit., p. 33.

14. Samuel Berger, « Les noms des Rois Mages », Mélusine. Recueil de mythologie, littérature populaire, traditions & usages, t. VII, 1894, p. 27-33, in Paul H. D. Kaplan, The Rise of the Black Magus…, op. cit., p. 21.

15. Pseudo-Bède, Excerptiones Patrum, Collecteanea, Flores ex Diversis, Quaestiones et Parabolae, PL 94, p. 541, in

 Paul H. D. Kaplan, The Rise of the Black Magus…, op. cit., p. 21.

16. Richard Trexler, Le voyage des mages…, op. cit., p. 7-8.

17. Pseudo-Bède, Excerptiones Patrum, Collecteanea, Flores ex Diversis, Quaestiones et Parabolae, PL 94, p. 541, in Paul H. D. Kaplan, The Rise of the Black Magus…, op. cit., p. 26.

18. Piotr Paciorek, « L’adoration des Mages… », op. cit., p. 94.

19. Pseudo-Bède, Excerptiones Patrum, Collecteanea, Flores ex Diversis, Quaestiones et Parabolae, PL 94, p. 541 ; ” The Magi are those who gave gifts to the Lord. The first one was said to be Melchior, old and stubby, with a beard and full hair, who wore a purple tunic and an orange coat, shoes of two colors, purple and white, wearing a (mitrario?) of a different composition: he brought to the Lord king gold. The second, named Caspar, young and beardless, ruby, wearing an orange tunic, a red hat and purple shoes: he honored God with incense, as a worthy offering to God. The third, black, (bearded?) named Balthasar, wearing a red tunic, white vair and feet covered with orange shoes: it was with myrrh that he confessed the son of man who was to die. All their clothes are Syriac. In fact, it is the role of the ornaments to touch the ornaments and that of the saints to recognize the saints”, translation, Mathieu Beaud, Le thème des rois mages et sa diffusion, op. cit., p. 120.

20. Richard Trexler, Le voyage des mages…, op. cit., p 26-30.

21. V. Vilmain, « Sa peau est-elle noire ? », published on ReLRace – Religions, lignages et « race », le 20/10/2021, https://relrace.hypotheses.org/1708

22. Paul H. D. Kaplan, The Rise of the Black Magus…, op. cit., p. 3.

23. Ibid., p. 37.

24. Sawsen El Jeljal et Mathilde Plais, « Les femmes noires dans le récit biblique », published on ReLRace – Religions, lignages et « race », le 26/11/2020, https://relrace.hypotheses.org/835

25. Origène, Allegoriae quaedam scripturae sanctae, PL 83, p. 113.

26. Piotr Paciorek, « L’adoration des Mages… », op. cit., p. 112.

27. Paul H. D. Kaplan, The Rise of the Black Magus…, op. cit., p. 88., Richard Trexler, Le voyage des mages…, op. cit., p. 73.

28. Paul H. D. Kaplan, The Rise of the Black Magus…, op. cit., p. 62-70.

29. The Magi were given coats of arms at the end of the 14th century. The coat of arms of Balthazar shows a Moor’s head. The coat of arms of Cologne, the “Holy Kings”, the bishop and his vassals. Armorial universel du hérault Glre (Claes Heinen), fol. 28 v°, 1370-1395, Bruxelles, Bibliothèque royale Albert Ier, in Jean Devisse, L’Image du Noir dans l’art occidental, vol.2, t. 2, Paris, Bibliothèque des Arts, 1979, p. 12 ; Paul H. D. Kaplan, The Rise of the Black Magus…, op. cit., p. 91.

30. Jean Devisse, L’Image du Noir dans l’art occidental, vol.2, t. 1, Paris, Bibliothèque des Arts, 1979, p. 149-204.

31. Paul H. D. Kaplan, The Rise of the Black Magus…, op. cit., p. 89.

32. Paul H. D. Kaplan, The Rise of the Black Magus…, op. cit., p. 43-62.

33. Jean Devisse, L’Image du Noir dans l’art occidental, vol.2, t. 2, Paris, Bibliothèque des Arts, 1979, p. 92-93. D’autres exemples sont présentés notamment p. 121-122.

34. Ibid., p. 133.

35. Paul H. D. Kaplan, The Rise of the Black Magus…, op. cit., p. 103.

36. Maestro del Triptico del Zarzoso, Triptico del Nacimento de Jesus, oil on panel (136,5x152cm), c. 1450, Madrid, Musée du Prado. Je remercie Baptiste Bonnefoy pour cette référence.

37. Jean Devisse, L’Image du Noir dans l’art occidental, vol.2, t. 2, Paris, Bibliothèque des Arts, 1979, p. 142.

38. Paul H. D. Kaplan, The Rise of the Black Magus…, op. cit., p. 112-118.

39. Jean Devisse, L’Image du Noir dans l’art occidental, vol.2, t. 2, Paris, Bibliothèque des Arts, 1979, p. 185.

40. Paul H. D. Kaplan, The Rise of the Black Magus…, op. cit., p.

41. Jean Devisse, L’Image du Noir dans l’art occidental, vol.2, t. 2, Paris, Bibliothèque des Arts, 1979, p. 178.

42. Alonson de Sandoval, De Instaurand Aethiopum Salute, Historia De Aethiopia, naturaleça, Policia Sagrada y Profana, Costumbres, ritos, y Cathecismo Evangelico, de todos les Aetiopes, Madrid, A de Paredes, 1647, p. 487. Je remercie à nouveau Baptiste Bonnefoy pour cette référence.

43. Elio, Gasperetti, « The Magi. Were they Kings ? wise Men ? Saints ?Or do legends tell us a higher truth ? », The Catholic Times, 18 décembre 1959, p. 24.




Citer ce billet
Vincent Vilmain (2023, 5 janvier). The Black Magus, a black King amongst the Magi. ReLRace - Religions, lignages et « race ». Consulté le 24 avril 2024, à l’adresse https://doi.org/10.58079/tl8t

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