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Balthazar: A Black African King in Medieval and Renaissance Art

Available January 2023

Edited by Kristen Collins and Bryan C. Keene
With an introduction by Henry Louis Gates Jr.

This abundantly illustrated book examines the figure of Balthazar, one of the biblical magi, and explains how and why he came to be depicted as a Black African king.

According to the Gospel of Matthew, magi from the East, following a star, traveled to Jerusalem bearing precious gifts for the infant Jesus. The magi were revered as wise men and later as kings. Over time, one of the three came to be known as Balthazar and to be depicted as a Black man.

Balthazar was familiar to medieval Europeans, appearing in paintings, manuscript illuminations, mosaics, carved ivories, and jewelry. But the origin story of this fascinating character uncovers intricate ties between Europe and Africa, including trade and diplomacy as well as colonization and enslavement.

In this book, experts in the fields of Ethiopian, West African, Nubian, and Western European art explore the representation of Balthazar as a Black African king. They examine exceptional art that portrays the European fantasy of the Black magus while offering clues about the very real Africans who may have inspired these images. Along the way, the authors chronicle the Black presence in premodern Europe, where free and enslaved Black people moved through public spaces and courtly circles. The volume’s lavish illustrations include selected works by contemporary artists who creatively challenge traditional depictions of Black history. 

Kristen Collins is curator of manuscripts at the J. Paul Getty Museum. Bryan C. Keene (he/él/they/elle) is assistant professor of art history at Riverside City College and a former associate curator of manuscripts at the J. Paul Getty Museum. He specializes in codex cultures of a global Middle Ages and fantasy medievalisms.

“This gorgeously illustrated volume gathers together cutting-edge articles to probe the image of the Black magus in European art. As a marker of real historical contacts, imaginary kingdoms, and known Christian princes, the presence of the Black king at the scene of Christ’s Nativity is here read within a diverse range of possible interpretations. The book’s strength is its polyvocality: no one story is put forward to explain the Black Balthazar. Rather, it tells the complicated history of the early modern period, in which connections among a whole variety of sub-Saharan African communities and western Europe were on the rise. Balthazar: A Black African King in Medieval and Renaissance Art is required reading for those curious about how the past informs current debates about race in the West.”
—Sarah Guérin, Assistant Professor, History of Art, University of Pennsylvania

“This beautifully illustrated book on Balthazar, the African king believed to be one of the “wise men” who traveled from afar to acknowledge the divinity of the infant Christ, is a real gift. The range of related topics covered spreads out into the early modern world—the rise of African kingdoms as well as pertinent aspects of the slave trade—something readers today are looking for. The authors, experts all, know how to write concisely and to be enjoyed as well as impart insight.”
—Joaneath Spicer, The James A. Murnaghan Curator of Renaissance and Baroque Art, The Walters Art Museum, Baltimore 

152 pages
8 1/2 x 10 1/2 inches
121 color illustrations
ISBN 978-1-60606-785-7
paperback

Getty Publications
Imprint: J. Paul Getty Museum

2023