Saint Maurice

From New York to Germany, Saint Maurice appears as a person of colour portrayed as a traditional knight in shining armour. Such representations of Maurice as an African man in medieval armour are among the most captivating aspects of Christian iconography. One notable example is the painting of Saint Maurice by Lucas Cranach the Elder (and workshop), completed ca. 1500 and now hanging in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.

“A commander of the Roman legion, Maurice was martyred near Agaunum (in present‑day Switzerland) in 280 or 300 CE for refusing to slaughter Christians. He was from North Africa, and in the thirteenth century in Germany he began to be portrayed as Black, influenced by the reign of the Holy Roman Emperor Friedrich II (1194–1250). Friedrich's vast territories comprised a diverse community of individuals, and his court in Sicily included Black advisors, soldiers, and musicians. However, Cranach’s representation of Maurice is most likely not based on an actual individual but instead on the life‑size reliquary statue of Saint Maurice housed in the Dominican church in Halle.”

For a thorough analysis of this painting and its broader visual and cultural context, see the Met publication: Maryan Ainsworth, Sandra Hindriks, and Pierre Terjanian, “Lucas Cranach's Saint Maurice,” The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 72, no. 4 (Spring, 2015).

It is known that the veneration for Maurice intensified during the Ottonian period. Shortly after his monumental victory at the Battle of Lechfield in AD 955 AD over the Magyars, Otto I (912–973) began a building campaign to fortify the newly secured eastern frontier of his realm. He focused his efforts on a previous Carolingian site called “magadoburg” (mighty fortress) to establish not just a military stronghold but a cultural one as well: the Archbishopric of Magdeburg.

One of the most exquisite medieval objects is an ivory carving that was created in the 960s AD commemorating Otto’s building project. The Plaque with Christ Receiving Magdeburg Cathedral from Emperor Otto I is among one of the best preserved and oldest examples of medieval art that depicts Saint Maurice. This artwork has further significance because it is one of the earliest artistic representations of Maurice with non-European features. One of the most prominent artistic devices apparent in this image is the ‘woolly’ or tight curly hair he features, which contrasts with the linear hair or the iconic tonsure of the other figures.

It is possible that Otto was more interested in Maurice’s representation as a powerful foreign warrior embracing both him and Christ, regardless of skin tone or ethnicity, used as a potent cultural symbol in his wars against the pagan Magyars. Although the Magdeburg ivory depicts one of the very first representations of Saint Maurice as an African man, the meaning is more about the power of Germanic Christendom over foreign peoples and an acceptable diversity within Christian conversions.

But it is not the ivory but an almost life-size sculpture now in the Cathedral of Saint Maurice and Catherine in Magdeburg that offers the most iconic representation of Saint Maurice, in the guise of a Norman knight.

To learn more about this celebrated but still enigmatic medieval figure, check out Galen Ford, "The Colour of Chivalry: The Transformation of Maurice," 14-17 in issue 5 of Medieval World: Culture & Conflict.

Additional key sources include:

  • Bindman, D., and H. L. Gates, Jr. The Image of the Black in Western Art, Volume II: From Early Christian Era to the “Age of Discovery”. Cambridge, 2010.
  • Grimm, Reinhold. “Two African Saints in Medieval Germany.” Die Unterrichtspraxis / Teaching German 25, no. 2 (Autumn 1992): 127–133.
  • Kaplan, P. H. D. “Black Africans in Hohenstaufen Iconography.” Gesta 26, no. 1 (1987): 29–36.
  • Mendola, L. Frederick, Conrad and Manfred of Hohenstaufen, Kings of Sicily: The Chronicle of Nicolas of Jamsilla 12101258. Rome, 2017.
  • Seiferth, Wolfgang S. “Saint Mauritius, African.” Phylon 2, no. 4, 4th Qtr. (1941): 370–376.
  • Voragine, Jacobus de. “Saint Maurice and His Companions.” In The Golden Legend: Readings on the Saints, translated by William Granger Ryan, 574–577. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2012.

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