Africans in Medieval & Renaissance Art: The Moor's Head

 
Medallion, 1500-1600. Museum no. C.101-1934

Stained glass medallion depicting the arms of Tucher, Nuremburg, Germany, 1500-99. Museum no. C.101-1934 (Roundel)

The objects featured here all include the head of a moor, or black African, in profile. The use of the 'moor's head' as a heraldic device dates from the 13th century. The emblem has connections to the Crusades, reflecting associating individual families with victories over the moors. Heraldic devices and emblems were included on objects like those featured here to indicate ownership.

The device may also have connections with the Hohenstaufan dynasty, which ruled the Holy Roman Empire from 1138 to 1254. The Emperor Henry VI (1165–97) kept black African retainers. His son Frederick II (1194–1250), who was also king of Sicily, took a keen interest in the black Muslim population that had remained in Sicily after the island's return to Christian rule in 1061. He established an enclave for these Muslims near his palace in Lucera in southern Italy, and recruited his musicians and elite bodyguard from the community.

Frederick's use of black Africans can be explained by his desire to present himself as a 'world ruler'. Their presence symbolised the extent of his power. Other families may have adopted the moor's head on their arms to associate themselves with the Hohenstaufan dynasty.

By 1400 a moor, as a crowned head in profile, or occasionally as a full figure, was relatively common in German heraldry. In time, its usage spread to almost every European country.

Bookbinding (detail), about 1520. Museum no. AL.287-1883

Bookbinding (detail), about 1520. Museum no. AL.287-1883

By the 16th century, when the stained glass medallion above was made, the moor's head had become a conventional motif. The medallion features the arms of the Tucher, a large prosperous German family from Nuremberg. They had acquired wealth and power through trade with Italy in the early 14th century, later expanding their operations to France and the Low Countries.

The moor's head device was also used in Italian heraldry, especially by families in the north and centre of the peninsula. The earliest known example appears in the 11th century. Its use by families such as the Saraceni of Siena, the Morandi of Genoa, the Morese of Bologna, the Negri of Vicenza and the Pagani of Saluzzo suggests that the device was intended as a pun on surnames similar to the Italian words for moor, negro and saracen. However, the Pucci family also used it. The moor in Italian art was usually depicted wearing a white band tied above the eyes, instead of the German imperial crown, to represent victory over the moors during the Crusades. These families may have originally acquired their surnames from crusader ancestors.

The binding shown to the right, on a book of Seneca's Tragedies , was made for a member of the Pucci family of Florence. Their adoption of the moor's head was probably influenced by their claim to be descended from Jacopo Saracino, a Florentine nobleman.

Originally, the white band worn by the Pucci moor was decorated with three hammers, perhaps symbolising an ancestor's membership of the carpenter's guild.
The hammers were later reduced to the form of three letter 'Ts' and the Latin motto Tempore tempora tempera, meaning 'Time is a great healer', was added. An older Pucci motto, Candida praecordia ('White at heart'), probably reflects the meaning of  the Italian proverbs Viso nero, cuore candido ('Black face, white heart') and Il bruno il bel non toglie ('Dark skin does not beauty remove'). Variations of these proverbs appear in the mottoes of other Italian families with moor's heads in their arms. They reflect an ancient belief, later adopted and expanded by Christian theologians, that the blackness of Africans was only skin-deep and could conceal the whitest of souls.

Plate (detail), about 1540-44. Museum no. 1693-1855

Plate (detail), about 1540-44. Museum no. 1693-1855

Tin-glazed earthenware plate, Siena or Deruta, Italy, about 1500. Museum no. C. 2059-1910 (Plate)

Tin-glazed earthenware plate, Siena or Deruta, Italy, about 1500. Museum no. C. 2059-1910 (Plate)


In the upper left section of the plate above, Cardinal Antonio Pucci's (1483–1544) shield is displayed. Antonio was created Cardinal in 1531 and adopted by Pope Clement VII (Giulio de' Medici) at the urging of his uncle, Cardinal Lorenzo Pucci. This explains why the shield contains the Medici balls on the left and the Moor's head device of the Pucci family on the right, surmounted by the cardinal's hat.

The plate to the right has a shield with a Moor's head as its centrepiece. Set against a yellow background, the dark colour of his skin contrasts with the white headband and kerchief he wears around his neck. As any number of families used the device, perhaps as a pun on their surnames, it is unclear who may have commissioned the plate.

The moor's head motif is still in use today. The coat of arms of the current pope, Benedict XVI, features the profile of a black man wearing a crown and gold earring.

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