17 July 2015

The black saint of the Holy Roman Empire

St. Maurice (detail) 1520-25.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art recently published a monograph about an addition to the collection, a panel by Lucas Cranach the Elder (and his workshop) showing St. Maurice who is wearing the most gorgeous clothes in the whole world.

Here is the whole St. Maurice panel, and below, a second St. Maurice whose panel is still attached to his altarpiece in the Marktkirche, Halle.

Both of these panels are based on this drawing of a reliquary statue of St. Maurice.

Both drawings from the Liber ostensionis, 1526/27.

According to an account written about 450 AD, St. Maurice was a member of the Egyptian Theban Legion which was composed of Christians. Sent to France and ordered by the Emperor Maximian (ca.250-ca.310) to persecute Christians, they refused, and eventually were all executed. Another version of the story written a little later says that they were martyred for refusing to worship the Roman gods.

By 515 the ruler of Burgundy built a basilica and monastery in Valais for the throngs of pilgrims who were coming to visit Maurice's relics. In the 10th century Maurice's cult was promoted by Otto the Great who ultimately pronounced Maurice patron saint of the Holy Roman Empire.

Statue of St. Maurice, ca.1240-50.
Cathedral of St. Maurice and St. Catherine. Magdeburg.

St. Maurice and the Theban Legion. 

South German Master (early 16th C).
Private collection, NYC.

This panel painting of the Theban Legion dresses them in the spirit of the Vatican's Swiss Guards. The feathered headdresses look as if the painter knew of the tradition that produced. Ag. Alexandros from Kastoria in northern Greece.

The Meeting of St. Maurice and St. Erasmus.
 Matthias Grünewald, ca. 1520-24. Alte Pinakothek, Munich.

Finally, this Grünewald panel of St. Maurice who gives him the most extraordinarily luminous armor.


  1. The little exhibition around the monograph is still up for a little longer: http://metmuseum.org/exhibitions/listings/2015/cranach-saint-maurice

  2. Beautiful. I had never heard of St. Maurice.

  3. Amazing. I never knew St. Mauritius (in German) was considered a black man so I just checked my bunch of issues of 'Legenda aurea'. There is no record of his colour, and German Wikipedia says he sometimes (not always) was depicted black after 1250 according to the Halle sculpture.

    NOW after all these years I understand why the town of Coburg has a black man in her city arms: their patron saint is (the black) Mauritius...!

    Thanks Diana for this one.

    1. There is alot more surprises of the black race and Germany which will shock alot of people... Some of us blacks living in Germany have unearthed alot of information which will definitely not be very welcomed by those feel that black ausländer muss raus... What a time to be alive...

  4. Fascinating, the date. I wonder if that would have something to do with the 7th Crusade, led by Louis IX, to Egypt when NW Europeans might have actually seen their first blacks.

  5. 3 weeks later... finding this with my mail newsletters:

    conference (too late) and exhibition in Florence: http://www.blackportraitures.info/. Maybe you are interested to watch the conference's videos http://www.blackportraitures.info/?page_id=1365

  6. Thanks, Brigitte. That must have been a terrific conference. I have also just learned that old St. Peter's in Rome had an altar to St. Maurice where the Holy Roman Emperor was crowned.


I will not publish Anonymous comments.