Reading: Gude Suckale-Redlefsen — Mauritius Der heilige Mohr / The Black Saint Maurice

Awesome book arrival yesterday. Two in fact! Gude Suckale-Redlefsen’s Mauritius Der heilige Mohr / The Black Saint Maurice is the one I’m talking about here.

Ever since I discovered The Image of the Black in Western Art, Volume II, Part 1, and that the deservedly famous cover image  was of the 13th century Saint Maurice sculpture residing to this day in Magdeburg (in Dom zu Magdeburg St. Mauritius und Katharina, yes I went there), a mere 90 minutes south-west of Berlin, and Mechthild von Magdeburg, Gertrude von Helfta, you know, all this mediæval Germanic stuff I seem to have gotten rather preoccupied with in  recent years, ever since all of that, and when I discovered this book, I’ve wanted to have it.

And now I do.

Cheap as chips. A mere 14,-€, ex-library copy with the dust jacket, in remarkable good condition, save for the flouro-green highlighting of someone (sometimes I love people’e highlighting and marginalia; often though I just think, “You’re kinda picking the simple bits, no?”). Not so big either, Slightly larger than trade paperback size, hardcover, nicely bound with good paper stock, so despite its cheap price it’s a score.

I started reading it over breakfast — well, dinner really, but I was cross-eyed and started again this morning. I did not know it was sponsored by the Menil Foundation, responsible for The Image of The Black in Western Art, and it’s something of a companion work to Volume II, Part 1, which is probably the most accessible and in-depth work currently available on representations of Saint Maurice in mediæval European art.

The book is split into facing pages of German and English, the latter translation by Genoveva Nitz, Given German’s tendency to run on and use half a dozen words where English gets away with abbreviation, the two keep remarkably good pace, making comparison easy.

Highly pertinent is the publication date: 1987, two years before the Berlin Wall came down, and when the majority of churches, museums, historical records, people consulted were in East Germany. On this point alone, I think it’s important to see this work within that historical context. When I was reading The Image of the Black, and comparing there to what I saw in Wrocław, Kraków, Budapest, Prague, I noticed a marked lack of works from the former Eastern Bloc.

Along with that, some of the language choices sound awkward and dated, like the use of words such as Mohr/Moor, Neger/Negro (that’s German/English), though equally and contextually in certain cases they might be the most accurate choice, for example referencing historical documents. Making broad generalisations here, I find German language lags by comparison to English on diction and semantics when it comes to issues of representation, equality, language reclamation, which is often in contrast to the tendency of the language to be intellectual and precise on these same issues. I started writing this paragraph thinking I could make a fairly simple, easy to understand summary of word choice, but turns out I can’t. An addendum here after finishing reading it: I rewrote some of this as I thought maybe I came across a little flippant when in fact I’d written multiple paragraphs trying to get to what was bothering me here. I think it comes down to context — which is often a subject I return to when discussing museums. My discomfort with the language is a question of how would the word choice have sounded thirty years ago; would it have read as awkward or old-fashioned then, in the context of an art-historical work. in museums, in broader society? And that language changes, not over the course of a millenium, but in decades or years.

Beyond the introduction and a bit of the first chapter, The Black St. Maurice of Magdeburg and its Historical Background I haven’t read much; enough anyway to say this is one of the clearest and most succinct summaries to the history of black representation in European mediæval art, in Christianity, in the 13th century shift which led to that sculpture of Saint Maurice in Magdeburg (and its accompanying Saint Katharina), to Wolfram von Eschenbach’s Parzifal written between 1200 and 1215, the preceding images of the Queen of Sheba in the early 12th century, the subsequent representation in the Adoration of the Magi, and the loss of Saint Mauritius from the canon of Saints — despite still having his day on September 22nd.

I’ve read enough back and forth to know the idea of Saint Maurice and his Thebian Legion being martyred in Switzerland in the 3rd century is a contested one, even before the idea he was black. Suckale-Redlefsen does a good synopsis of this and if we’re going to be all ‘balance of evidence’ and ‘objective’ about it, then Saint Maurice as at least North African (if not North-East African, given the proximity of Thebes to Sudan along the Nile route, or east to the Red Sea) is a reasonable conclusion to make. And she documents the presence of Africans in the courts of Frederick II in Mainz in the 13th century, so it’s not as though Saint Maurice in Magdeburg came from nowhere.

There’s a lot of excellent images of works from across central Europe, plus a small selection of colour plates, of which I’ve personally gawked at two, and which naturally get me all excited about what strange little towns in this part of Germany I can bolt to for more. The second half of the work is a catalogue, arranged approximately chronologically, so it starts with that sculpture in Dom zu Magdeburg. This section is all in German, though if anyone had gone so far as to buy this, running the text through Google Translate scrubs up fine. It’s also — I want to say lavishly illustrated, black and white photographs on most pages, sometimes three or four even.

Suckale-Redlefsen I haven’t found out much of, presuming she’s around the same generation as Caroline Walker Bynum, though Bynum is a superior writer (fully partisan here), and I believe is based in Berlin. One of the few (and incomplete thanks to academic journal paywalls) reviews I’ve come across calls this a “less than satisfactory treatment” compared to Jean Devisse’s work in The Image of the Black, which is a not invalid criticism. But let’s remember The Image of the Black costs at a minimum 50,-€ if you were lucky like me and my favourite bookseller happened to snag a complete unopened set, and more usually Volume II, Part 1 sells for around US$100 or 90,-€. So honestly, who can afford that? And Suckale-Redlefsen’s The Black Saint Maurice? Amazon UK has it for £16. Even me as a poor student could scrape that up if I really had to, and for the price it’s worth far more than that. If this kind of thing’s your gear — and it’s totally mine — irrespective of its shortcomings it’s worth it.

Gude Suckale-Redlefsen — Mauritius Der heilige Mohr / The Black Saint Maurice
Gude Suckale-Redlefsen — Mauritius Der heilige Mohr / The Black Saint Maurice