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New Medieval Books: Balthazar: A Black African King in Medieval and Renaissance Art

Balthazar: A Black African King in Medieval and Renaissance Art

Edited by Kristen Collins and Bryan C. Keene

J. Paul Getty Museum
ISBN: 9781606067857

According to the Gospel of Matthew, magi from the East, following a star, travelled 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.

This book is based on a 2019 museum exhibition of the same name, examining manuscript illuminations, paintings, and sculptures of the Black magus from the Getty and other international collections. There are over a dozen essays here, which examine the works and what it tells us about depictions of Black people in the pre-modern era.



Although portrayals of Balthazar are now widespread – appearing in museum galleries, churches, Nativity scenes, and on holiday cards – questions about the origins and development of the Black magus linger. At the heart of this volume is the question: Who were the medieval and Renaissance people who inspired depictions of the biblical king? And how much more can be learned about our shared past by asking this question?

Artistic representations of Balthazar offer glimpses of the people – real and imagined – who influenced dignitaries, courtiers, tradespeople, mercenaries, or enslaved people, Black Africans moved throughout premodern Europe and the Mediterranean. Their stories can be pierced together from archival materials and from artworks that serve as primary documents of forgotten histories. In addition, because each depiction of the Black magus is specific to its time and place, these images reveal a complex chronicle of how premodern Europeans understood race and Blackness. 


The original Getty exhibition was held from 2019 to 2020. Click here for some details and images.

Who is this book for?

This book has a potentially wide audience, with much to offer. People interested in art history can find hundreds of images within these pages. Those interested in Africa during the Middle Ages, or the Global Middle Ages, will want to read the chapters focusing on trade and religious links. The issues of Race in the Middle Ages and crafting museum exhibitions for diverse audiences are also thoroughly covered. Many of the articles are not particularly lengthy, but they do offer introductions to these topics.

The editors:

Kristen Collins is curator of manuscripts at the J. Paul Getty Museum. She has published on German, English, and Byzantine manuscript illumination and icon painting.  Bryan C. Keene 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 book will be released in March 2023 – you can learn more about it from Getty Publications.


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