1. Portrait of an African Nobleman, Jan Mostaert. Netherlands, c. 1525. Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.

2. Pilgrim Badge of Saint Mary of Hal. Belgium or Netherlands, c. 500-1500. Gilded Silver, 1.51 cm.

This gilded Pilgrim’s Badge is the one featured in the portrait above. From the British Museum Curator’s Comments:

St Mary of Hal was an important pilgrim site for the Hapsburgs, especially Charles V, who visited several times, and the Valois kings. Two silver versions of this token survive, another in Munich and one on the binding of HRE Ferdinand’s Book of Hours.

One is shown worn as a hatbadge in Mostaert’s Portrait of a Black African in the Rijksmuseum. See Jos Koldewej, FOi et bonne fortune, parure et devotion en flandre medievale, Arnhem 2006, p. 46 fig. 3.3 and 3.4, for Munich badge and portrait and p., 55 for analysis of its importance in the picture.


1. Annibale Carracci: Italian servant of African ancestry (1580s).
The Tomasso Brothers, Leeds, England.

2. Jan Mostaert: “Portrait of an African man” (1525-30). 
Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, The Netherlands.

3. Workshop of Bronzino: “Alessandro de’ Medici” (1550s).
The Uffizi Museum, Florence, Italy.

4. Alessandro Allori: “Giulia de’ Medici” (alt. Ortensia de’ Bardi) (1559).
The Uffizi Museum, Florence, Italy.

Showing that people of African ancestry in Renaissance Europe was not limited to slaves and servants. The Medici examples are a bit debated, as no-one really knows who duke Alessando de’ Medici’s mother was. But already in his life time she was said to be a Moor (North African, or Muslim Spanish). Giulia de’ Medici was Alessandro’s daughter.

Jan Mostaert, Landscape with an Episode from the Conquest of America c.1535

Painted almost 40 years after the discovery of ‘America’ (by Columbus in 1492), this work of art was one of the earliest attempts by an artist to give an impression of the new continent. One striking detail is that the procession of indigenous people is depicted completely naked. There is fairly conclusive evidence that the indigenous people did not live naked at all, but that Mostaert portrayed them as such to contrast the violent Spaniards and the peaceful, heavenly landscape with its ‘unadulterated’ inhabitants.

Jan Mostaert

Portrait of Moorish Nobleman

Oil on panel, 31 x 21 cm
Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

A lot of people have been asking for more information on sources for paintings I’ve been posting in this thread, so I thought I’d add some info on artists and subject, as such is available.

The striking portrait to the right of a black African man dressed in the rich garb of a courtier, his visage composed and dignified, his elegantly gloved right had resting on the handle of his sword identifies him as a member of a court. It is a shame that at this point the contour of his figure is all that we know about this sixteenth century black man. Some context will at least bring us closer to knowing more about the particular individual who sat for Mostaert’s now famous Portrait of a Moor.

Nobles of the Bakongo began travelling to Portugal as early as 1485, to meet and mingle with the court of the king of Portugal. King Nzinga a Nkuwu received baptism in May of 1491, taking the name of João (John).The reign of his son as King Nzinga Mbemba Afonso (1506-1543) is of interest to us. Though not likely the subject, his son’s story is instructive. Before he himself became a king, Afonso sent his son, Henrique (ca. 1495-ca.1526), along with other sons of noble Bakongo families to receive their educations in Lisbon at the College of Elói.  

Henrique became the first African bishop of the Catholic Church. He was by far the best student of those who came to study at Elói. After fifteen years of study in Lisbon as an excellent student in Latin and Theology, Afonso, on the advice of King Manuel  l of Portugal (1495-1521), sent an embassy of Henrique as well as some Portuguese clerics of noble families, to Rome in March 1514 to request a dispensation from Pope Leo X that would allow Henrique to be made a bishop. At nineteen he was below the officially required age of thirty to be eligible for appointment to the office. Nonetheless, Leo granted the dispensation. Henrique then returned to Lisbon as Bishop of Utica (near ancient Carthage in North Africa) but never went there.  He remained in Lisbon until 1521, when he returned to Kongo as its bishop. The clergy, and bishops among them, were the highest order of Portuguese society.

Since Henrique was a man of the cloth rather than of the sword by the estimated period of Mostaert’s execution of the

Portrait of a Moor, he was not likely the subject, although he would have been the best known African at court.  But, I would argue that Henrique’s story demonstrates that Bakongo nobles were treated as honored equals at the Portuguese court at this time. Mostaert’s portrait then is arguably of a Bakongo noble.


"Landscape with an episode from the Conquest of America", 1535, Jan Mostaert (1475-1555), Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

I saw this in the Rijksmuseum in July, very soon after that magnificent place’s reopening, and also soon after the acquisition of this Middle Ages masterpiece.

It depicts the disruption of an “idyllic” native life in “America” by violent Spanish invaders. It is unusual for its time for its clear sympathy for the Indigenous peoples, even though they are not depicted, er, at all accurately. For a start, they weren’t white, and they did not hang around in the nude.


Jan Sadeler I, after Gillis Mostaert
Flemish, 1550–1600; Flemish, c. 1534–1598
Landscape with Three Nude Men and a Dog
Not currently on view

The title of this work is certainly very enticing, but the image doesn’t quite live up the title’s spicy promise. The scene shows three men, probably shepherds (or maybe itinerant beggars; their staffs and bowls could indicate either profession), in a state of undress and idling on a wooded hill. Their dog sits nearby, scratching himself.

The Sadeler family, of which Jan I was a prominent member, was the largest and most successful of the dynasties of Flemish engravers that were dominant in Northern European printmaking in the 16th and 17th centuries, as both artists and publishers.  (Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sadeler_family.) I’m not sure which painting by Gillis Mostaert Sadeler used as the inspiration for this engraving.

The Latin verse below the scene is attributed to the 16th-century jurist and writer Andrea Alciato. He is most famous for his Emblemata, published in dozens of editions from 1531 onward. The collection of short Latin verse texts and accompanying woodcuts created an entire genre, the emblem book, which attained enormous popularity in continental Europe and Great Britain. (Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Andrea_Alciato.)

The verse is:

Quisquis iners abeat. Nam in choenice figere sedem,
Nos prohibent Samii dogmata sancta senis.
Surge igitur, duroque manus adsuesce labori,
Det tibi dimensos crastina ut hora cibos.

Let the idle man take himself off —the holy pronouncements of the old sage of Samos [Pythagoras] forbid us to sit tight on the bushel-box. Get up therefore, get your hands accustomed to hard work, so that tomorrow’s hour may give you your due measure of sustenance.

The saying, a proverbial expression of idleness, is quoted in various ancient sources. A bushel was a day’s ration of corn, and “to sit on the bushel-box” (a container holding a bushel measure, and convenient in size for sitting on) meant to be idle and improvident, leaving tomorrow to take care of itself, since today was provided for. (Alciato at Glasgow, http://tinyurl.com/lwy728r.)

In this image, the dog is an embodiment of laziness—rather than doing anything useful or productive, he’s just sitting around and scratching fleas. Still, this cute little spaniel no doubt had a busy afternoon of rummaging around in the underbrush, taking stock of all the good smells and chasing squirrels. He deserves a rest!

 I believe that  the didactic message of this image and verse is not particularly relevant to modern American society; we all spend too much time at work and not enough time enjoying life. So on this Friday (a lovely one here in Washington, D.C.) , we should all follow the example of the men and the Very Good Dog in this engraving and make time for a little idleness. Clothes optional!