Why on earth is there a statue of a black African saint in a cathedral in Germany?

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Statue of the Black St Maurice of Magdeburg. Magdeburg Cathedral, Germany, 1220-1250. The Menil Foundation, Houston; Hickey and Robertson, Houston; and Harvard University’s Image of the Black Project, reproduced from The Invention of Race in the European Middle Ages.

This article features the research of Dr. Geraldine Heng, Associate Professor of English and Comparative Literature at the University of Texas at Austin.

Imagine you’re a white, Christian pilgrim traveling in eastern Germany during the 13th century. You arrive at the Magdeburg Cathedral and kneel in supplication. As you look up, you realize there’s something different about the statue in front of you compared to the other statues you’ve seen on your journey. Instead of a European figure, there’s a black African dressed in the prestigious garb of a Roman knight. You take in distinctly African facial features combined with clear physical cues of sainthood. Perhaps you respond with astonishment—early medieval art often demonized black Africans, portraying them as heathens responsible for torturing Christ and executing John the Baptist. Or maybe you find the African patron saint intriguing.

Dr. Geraldine Heng’s The Invention of Race in the European Middle Ages explores the idea of race in the Middle Ages through examples like St. Maurice. By discussing his position and potential contemporary responses, Dr. Heng complicates our modern understanding of race centuries before the word “race” existed.

Within the chapter, Heng describes how Maurice led the Egyptian Theban legion in the 3rd century. When the Emperor Maximian demanded the legion attack fellow Christians in Gaul or sacrifice to pagan Roman gods, Maurice and his troops refused. So the Emperor ordered the entire legion be executed. The martyrdom was first chronicled in the Passion of the Martyrs of Agaunum (443-450 A.D.) by Eucherius, bishop of Lyon. On the Roman calendar, his feast day is September 22.

In the 11th century, St. Maurice became the patron saint of Magdeburg under Emperor Henry II. For the emperor, Maurice likely represented a militarized Christianity, “blessing” the German offensive against Slavic pagans. His representation changed over the next two centuries. When the Fourth and Fifth Crusades failed to target Egypt, Maurice morphed into proof that “Christianity once triumphed [in Egypt] among its people.”

Since his institution at the Magdeburg Cathedral, St. Maurice has been depicted in over 300 pieces of art (catalogued by historian Gude Suckale-Redlefsen) located in Poland, Scandinavia, Austria, the Czech Republic, and Italy. Today, St. Maurice’s statute is faded and incomplete, having survived a fire and nearly a millennium. While it is difficult and uncertain work to ask the questions St. Maurice provokes, looking at his figure reminds us of the long-term value of overturning preconceptions.