Race and Gender in de Benabarre’s Saint Michael Angel (c. 1470)

Recently my Decolonizing Museums seminar (Boston University) had a fascinating visit with the interpretive staff at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. The team shared their innovative approach to engaging visitors with Pedro García de Benabarre’s magnificent painting Saint Michael Archangel (c. 1470), which hangs over a large fireplace in the second floor Tapestry Room. I must admit that I had never really looked closely at this startling and compelling work.

Pedro García de Benabarre (active Catalonia, 1455 – 1480)
Saint Michael Archangel, about 1470

In their excellent website text and online audio guide, the Gardner’s interpretive team offers a layered approach to the painting, starting with a conventional art historical appreciation, explaining the various elements of the image: Archangel Michael seated on a throne in Heaven weighs souls (two white clothed small beings on scales) and subdues with his lance two-faced Lucifer, who lays prostrate on the tiled floor. (The catalogue notes, “This painting was originally a side panel of a large altarpiece dedicated to John the Baptist, installed in the church of Sant Joan del Mercat in Lleida, Catalonia.:)

The visitor next accesses a thoughtful extended audio commentary by multimedia artist Elisa Hamilton, part of her 2019 recorded artist’s walk through the Palace galleries. Hamilton begins by noting that she has long been drawn to the painting; towards the end she notes that as she came to learn more about the work, she was troubled, especially as a person of color, by the work’s “ugly historical trope,” associating evil with black skin

Following our class discussion of the image, I have been pondering the imagery of Lucifer as multi-faced and black-skinned. Dante’s The Inferno, although written around 1320, was first published in 1472, so it is possible that de Benabarre was influenced by Dante’s vision of the Devil as possessing three mouths of sharp teeth devoted to chewing on sinners. The association of the demonic with blackness or darkness can be traced back to antiquity. In the New Testament, 2 Corinthians 6:14-15 contrasts the lightness of Christ with the darkness of the demon Belial (at times taken as a synonym for Satan). Fra Angelico’s painting The Last Judgement, created in 1431, four decades before the de Benabarre image, depicts the Devil as black skinned, with white horns, munching on his victims in a boiling cauldron.

Africa Connections?

Having said that, it seems likely that the specific figuration of Satan by de Benabarre is related to the Iberian peninsula’s complex relationship with African-descent populations across the centuries. John Thornton notes that under the Almoravids, West Africans from the polities of Tarkur and Ghana (corresponding, roughly speaking, to the area of modern Senegal) were incorporated into Muslim armies in Iberia. Israel Burshatin (1985) in his exploration of the often subtle and complex depictions of Moors in Medieval Iberian letters, references the overt equation of Moorishness, blackness, and the Devil in the 13th century Castillian epic poem, Poema de Fernan Gonfalez (written c, 1250-1266), which recounts the Count of Castille Fernán González’s campaign against Moorish adversaries, described as: “Uglier than Satan and his conventicle [coven] combined / When he comes out of hell, dirty sooty”” (Footnote 1)

By 1462, Portuguese slave traders were established in Seville, and by the 1470s, when de Benabarre created the work, African slaves were increasingly common throughout Christian Spanish realms. In 1460, Portuguese had landed on the shores of what is now Sierra Leone. By 1471, the Portuguese had a presence between the mouths of the Ankobra and Volta rivers, a region they termed A Mina (“the mine”), today’s Elmina, in the area that would be known as the Gold Coast, now Ghana; the next year, Fernão do Pó landed on the island that would bear his name, now known as Bioko in the vicinity of modern day Cameroon. It seems likely that de Benabarre had heard or read reports of extremely dark skinned African people, even if he had not met any directly. Satan’s upward thrusting fangs, perhaps modeled on the tusks of a wild boar, his webbed feet, tiny tail, and sharp talons presumably signal the imputed animality of Africans in Christian Iberian imagination of the period.

It would appear that de Benabarre has chosen to depict Lucifer in a rather sexually ambiguous manner, with curving, alluring hips, perhaps all the better to seduced wayward souls. In contrast, Michael’s elongated phallic lance plunges from between his legs towards Satan’s midsection, in a way that might signal both domination over and disambiguation of an inter-sexed being. All of this would be consistent with emerging 15th century Christian conceptions of reimposing gendered dichotomies on the ostensibly sexually ambiguous bodies of non Christians, on the eve of the completion of the Reconquista and the expulsion of Jews and Muslims from Spain.

I am equally fascinated by Satan’s second face, a large orange visage that stretches from the demon’s upper torso to his groin area. Speculatively, might the image have been inspired by a masked form of a West African masquerade, potentially encountered by Portuguese explorers in coastal regions? I am reminded a bit of Temne masks, from the region that is now northwestern Sierra Leone, where Portuguese sailors did in fact land during the 1470s. It is also possible that the principal inspiration is from grimacing Catalan and other Iberian festival masks (which may themselves have emerged out a long history of trans-Mediterranean cultural exchanges.)

In any event, I do wonder if the visual organization of the painting, with the triumphant white Archangel high above the prone dark Devil, might have geographic referents, evoking growing (or hoped for) Christian Iberian economic and military power over Muslim states and over African polities. It is possible that the curving shape of Lucifer’s body was inspired by the North African coastline, which was depicted in early maps of period, such Grazioso Benincasa’s 1482 chart (below). Alternately. Satan’s body might signal the West African coastline north of the equator, with which Christian Iberians in the 1470s were increasingly familiar. Perhaps the gold with which Michael’s breastplate is adorned signals the gold wealth of the Akan region, with which Portuguese and Spaniards of the 1470s were deeply fascinated. In that sense, this image of a resplendent white Christian saint directing a lance towards the dark figure below, may be said to anticipate the coming era of vast Iberian extraction of mineral and agricultural wealth as well as human capital, from West and Central Africa.

Grazioso Benincasa. Biblioteca Universitaria, Bolonia.1482.

Footnotes

1, Poema de Fernan Gonfalez, ed. C. Carroll Marden [Baltimore, 1904], p. 56, st. 11. 3-4., quoted in Burshatin 1985: fn26. Burshatin suggests that the the imagery in the Poema, unusual for Iberian writing of the period, echoes the racialist figurations of the French epic poem Chanson de Roland.

Resources

Israel Burshatin,1985, The Moor in the Text: Metaphor, Emblem, and Silence Critical Inquiry. Vol. 12, No. 1, “Race,” Writing, and Difference. (Autumn, 1985), pp. 98-118.

For an overview of emerging Medieval depictions of Satan, see Marina Montesano, Horns, Hooves, and Hell: Images of the Devil in Medieval Times. National Geographic, 2 November 2018.

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