The Image of St Maurice
The History of St Maurice
The renowned figure of the black African St Maurice from the statue in Cathedral of St Catherine and St Maurice in Magdeburg and commemorated in the name exclusive Swiss ski resort of St Moritz, was perhaps not black and probably never existed. We do know the approximate dates he became a saint and when he first became depicted as black.
According to the saint’s history, in 287 there was a Roman legion of Christian soldiers led by Maurice based in Thebes in Egypt, they were known as the Theban Legion. Maurice’s legion was commanded by the Roman Emperor Maximian Hereculeus (c. 250 – c. 310) to march to Agaunum, now the modern day St-Maurice en Valais in Switzerland
Exactly what Maurice’s Legion was ordered to do by the Emperor is disputed: they were either required to participate in pagan rites or to harass and kill some local Christians. As a good Christian Maurice instigated the Theban Legion’s refusal to obey the Emperor’s command. In response The Emperor tried to intimidate the Legion into obeying him by decimation: Maurice’s men were divided into groups of ten, then lots were drawn to select the legionnaire to be killed. Despite being decimated, to a man they still refused to do the Emperor’s bidding, so again they were divided into groups of ten, lots were again drawn and again one in ten was killed but still they refused to do carry out the Emperor’s orders. The Emperor, in his frustration and by way of example, had the entire Legion killed. The earliest written accounts appeared 100 to 150 years later, by which time he along with other officers in the Theban Legion had become a saint
Today his story is disputed, some even argue St Maurice never existed, a pure fabrication of a Medieval Christian mind. Nevertheless the image of a Christian solider refusing to denounce his faith, standing up to the pagan Emperor struck a chord with the Medieval Christian mindset; the leader of Theban League became a saint venerated by the Church and becoming the patron Saint of the Holy Roman Empire, having a altar in the Vatican dedicated to him.
Up until the mid thirteen century St Maurice is portrayed as a white Roman solider in full battle dress however following refurbishment of Magdeburg’s Cathedral in 1240-1250 he became the black African in that famous portryal. His life-size sandstone image by an unknown artist, almost certainly sculptured from life, is unique as it is the only realistic, sympathetic depiction of a black African in Medieval Europe.
Why the switch from a white St Maurice to a black one, is not clear, some argue it was at the command of the emperor as the patron of the newly built Cathedral where St Maurice’s relics are enshrined, the emperor certainly had the authority.
Clues to his possible blackness are found in his name and his origin. Maurice either sounds like or has its origins with the word black or Moor in many European languages. He came from Thebes which was close to Ethiopia and Ethiopians were black, in fact there is a proverb from the time: to wash an Ethiopian white is to labour in vain. So there was a prima-fascia case for actually portraying Maurice as Black. Nevertheless this did not happened until middle of the 13th Century up until that time Maurice had always been portrayed as white.
The black of St Maurice iconography spread throughout the German states over which Magdeburg had political power and influence. That historical and geographic diffusion of the black image is visible in churches in Europe today as the St Maurice in Switzerland, France and Italy remains white while in Germany he is depicted as black.
Gude Suckale-Redlesfen, (1987) The Black Saint Maurice, Menil Foundation, Huston
Ladislas B., Devisse J. and Courtes J.M. eds (1976), The Image of the Black in Western Art, Volume II, Part 1, From the Demonic Threat to the Incarnation of Sainthood, Menil Foundation,Cambridge, Mass