16th Century Painting Offers Clues That Jews, Africans Were Connected

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In Portugal’s capital city, Lisbon, a painting from the 16th century offers an early depiction of the connection between Blacks and Jews. The anonymous artist captured a typical scene in the busy port city, but careful examination by an art curator in Baltimore revealed an overlooked instance showing the connection between the races, writes the Jewish Daily Forward.

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Joaneath Spicer, the James A. Murnaghan curator of Renaissance and Baroque Art at the Walters Art Museum, was working on a catalog for “Revealing the African Presence in Renaissance Europe” exhibit, when she noticed the heavy presence of Jews in the painting. The photo shows two Jewish policemen seemingly hauling off an African man to jail.

“I was really unaware of the presence of so many Jews in this painting until I began to blow up details of a photo in preparation for installing the work,” shared Spicer. “This is the only image I know of — certainly painting from this period that purports to show Jews from life.”

Blacks and Jews lived in joined neighborhoods near the port, which at the time was considered the poor part of the city. Jews held African slaves in some homes, but were said to treat their servants with respect. Additionally, as written in the Forward piece, children of African slaves were born free and rose to prominence in the coastal European country.

Spicer was careful not to compare slavery in the 1500s in Europe to the ugly occurrences across the seas in the Americas. “The fact that at the beginning of this period most of the slaves were White does go a long way,” she added.

The exhibit runs at the Walters Art Museum until Jan. 21 before heading to the Princeton University Art Museum.

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