Throughout the history of western art there has been piece after piece which marginalized, shoved into the background, or exploited the black people. Piece after piece reflects the ever-present black servant, fading into the background or the one black face which is lost in a crowd of white. This history cannot and should not be hidden or overlooked, however even in the midst of un-monitored racism and prejudice, a select few pushed against the system. These artists and their pieces shook the cultural norms and lies of their time. Although only a drop in the bucket, these pieces restored a piece of the dignity that white western culture attempted to rip away. These pieces do not all express the dignity deserved, however in the context of their culture they were potent political statements, working to elevate the status of the black in a sea discrimination and racism.
Resurrection of the Dead, Ca 1220-1230
Fragment of a carved tympanum. Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris, Musee de Cluny
Even in the midst of twelfth century France, this relief carving was included in the central portal of the west facade on the Cathedral of Notre Dame. The central black man is found among those being raised from the grave at the Last Judgement. Although it is not a grand statement or protest, this man in expressed as a genuine equal member of the human race. In the context of that time, this would have been a stepping stone towards equality and even if it is not a perfect picture of the respect entitled, it paved a way for future artists to walk in.
Lucas Cranach the Elder and Workshop, Saint Maurice, Ca. 1520-25
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art
Saint Maurice, a Roman legion commander, is revered as the martyr who chose to die at the hand of the king rather than to denounce his faith. Although the legitimacy behind much of the story has been called into question, the impact Saint Maurice made on the culture is evident and this piece represents the hundreds of works including Saint Maurice. In its original state, this piece would have been connected to a much larger altarpiece, and displayed in a church. The development of St. Maurice was pivotal in Western culture. As the first saint to be portrayed as a black man, his image worked powerfully against social norms on his time.
Rembrandt van Rijn, Two Africans, 1661
The Hague, Mauritshuis
Although this piece is not a grand political statement, Rembrandt taps into an empathy and honesty that is before his time. He portrays these men as humans with emotions, thoughts, and feelings and in doing so, builds a bridge for the audience to connect with the people past the biases and quick judgments of their culture.
Velázquez, Juan de Pareja, 1650
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art
When making its first debut in Rome, this piece was unanimously applauded by onlookers and critics simply because of the skill and technique it portrays. However, because of the fame it received, this piece also worked to elevate the status of the black in western culture. Again, Velazquez was not intending to make a grand social claim. He painted this portrait of his slave, Juan de Pareja, to practice for an upcoming portrait of the pope. However, this piece was first put on display in the Parthenon and did challenge the cultural norms of its time.
Juan de Pareja, The calling of St. Matthew, 1661
Madrid, Museo del Prado
After being granted freedom in 1654, Pareja goes on to make art of his own. This is a grand statement, which continues to raise the status of the black in western art. There are obvious references to Caravaggio's earlier version of this piece, which in many ways, displays a bold confidence. Pareja also includes a self portrait of himself on the left hand side of the piece. This is a reference back to the influence of Rome and conveyed that Pareja was also impacted by the revered artistic culture of Rome.
Rembrandt van Rijn, The Baptism of the Chamberlain, 1626
Utrecht, Museum Catharijneconvent
A depiction of the only bible story with an African as the main character--Rembrandt's choice of topic in and of itself is a powerful statement. The black man is portrayed with dignity and honor as a white prophet baptizes him into Christianity. There is very little if no sense of inequality in this scene and there is a definite idea of shared religion. Unlike his peers, who so often paint black men and women fading into the background, Rembrandt puts great emphasis on the chamberlain in the foreground; highlighting his cloak with light. This piece is a beautiful portrayal of Rembrandt's untainted vision which extends far before its time.