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Imogen Tedbury (Frankfort and Sondheimer Fellow): 'Between Naples and Nubia: The Earliest Surviving Depiction of Black Africans in Italian Panel Painting'

In a small but sumptuous panel, today held by the Robert Lehman Collection, three small Black figures witness the Magi’s adoration of the Christ child. Wearing richly coloured robes embellished with gold, red shoes and white turbans, their long white sashes striped with red recall John Mandeville’s descriptions of Saint Thomas Christians, believed to be the subjects of Prester John, the legendary Christian ruler and descendant of one of the Magi. These figures make this panel a unique – and uniquely early – surviving representation of Black Christians present at the Adoration of the Magi. Painted by an itinerant artist working between Avignon and Naples around 1340-50, the panel is one of a group of three surviving panels that once belonged to the Clarissan convent at Aix-en-Provence, perhaps a gift from the convent’s patron Queen Sancia. How should its unique iconography be understood? With this project I intend to interrogate the panels’ authorship, date, patronage and purpose, and explore Franciscan – and Clarissan – attitudes to race, inclusion and exclusion in the 1330s and 1340s, a period of crisis and expansion for the order as Angevin rule extended the Franciscan occupation of the Holy Land.

Tea Time Talks are a forum for research fellows and other members of the Warburg community to introduce their current projects. The talks are designed to generate discussion about each scholar’s research questions and particular research problems. Fellows new to the institute introduce the projects that form the basis of their Warburg fellowships, while Warburg academic staff present on their research interests and current projects.Links to the online sessions will be circulated each week to all Warburg staff, fellows and students. 

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Image: Neapolitan follower of Giotto, Adoration of the Magi, 1340s. Tempera on wood, gold ground. Robert Lehman Collection, 1975, The Metropolitan Msueum of Art, New York, 1975.1.9.