Do you know about Balthazar?

Writing about Three Kings Day a couple of weeks ago (and thinking about the Wise Men in general) made me remember the line from the comedy detective show Psych when Dule Hill’s character Gus comments about an all-white Nativity scene, and his sister says, “I thought everyone knew about Balthazar.”

Their knowledge provides a (minor – not a big spoiler) clue in the show, and they’re not wrong: Balthazar is one of the Wise Men, along with Melchior and Gaspar, and he is traditionally African (or Macedonian). (Melchior is elderly and European, and Gaspar is Southeast Asian/Indian – though sometimes depicted as European or African.) I’ve wondered if this was a relatively new innovation to be more inclusive, but it turns out the traditional names and homelands of the Three Wise Men go back at least to the early Middle Ages, being discussed by no less than the Venerable Bede, early English monk and chronicler, circa 700 AD.

Most Medieval European paintings and other art depicting the Wise Men show them all as European, but by the dawn of the Renaissance, we start to see Balthazar as a very dark-skinned African. There were a limited number of Africans in Europe during the Middle Ages, so European artists may not have considered that people from other parts of the world looked much different from themselves, but the Renaissance concern with realism appears to have influenced paintings of the Magi, and today, many Nativity scenes in homes and public places include our friend Balthazar. Now you’ll know to always look for him, whether or not it helps you uncover a murder.

A painting depicting Mary, Joseph, baby Jesus, and the Three Wise Men, one of them Black.
A 15th-century manuscript illumination showing Balthazar as African.
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