Race and the Medieval Consciousness: Perspectives on St. Maurice

By Kiran Williams

No other figure has captured the attention of scholars working towards a more diversified understanding of medieval Europe, and a more sophisticated apprehension of medieval conceptions of race, than St. Maurice, the Theban soldier-saint whose corporeal features have been extensively scrutinised in both written and visual interpretations. In particular, the 13th-century statue of him at Magdeburg Cathedral, which shows him with phenotypically African features, has been widely discussed. The singularity of this depiction compared to other medieval artistic representations of Maurice—which previously had shown him as a white Roman soldier—seems to have been analyzed and discussed through two major lenses: Maurice’s status as a foreign soldier, one with sufficient strength of arms to command a Theban Legion; and as a martyr, with sufficient strength of purpose in devotion to Christ to restrain those arms and be killed for his faith. 

Despite a considerable body of scholarship focusing both on artistic representations of Maurice and his cultural and religious legacy, there has yet to be a deep dive into how these scholars have chosen to write about Maurice, nor any critical examination of the specific language used by these authors to describe those visual characteristics which so evidently distinguished the saint from his contemporaries. In this paper, I will analyse several pertinent pieces of scholarship from the past two decades, considering commonalities and discrepancies in the authors’ descriptions of St. Maurice, his origins, and his place in the paradigm of European sainthood from the 11th to 15th centuries. In conducting this historiographical review, I seek to understand contemporary scholarship examining the relationship between race and sanctity, as well as the ways that historians have attempted to define “race” in Maurice’s historical milieu. 

Runoko Rashidi’s 2016 essay “The Black Saint Maurice: African Saint in Early Europe” is perhaps the most idiosyncratic work considered in this review. Rashidi, a Pan-African anthropologist, historian, and novelist, does not attempt to defray image through analytical writing, instead composing a photo essay which includes images of both the Magdeburg Cathedral statue alone and photographs with Rashidi standing next to it. The article also takes a first-person approach, with Rashidi describing the Magdeburg Maurice in terms that relate to his own experience of viewing. He begins the essay with a summary of the etymology of Maurice’s name, his personal view of Maurice within the larger canon of Catholic saints, and the genesis of his depictions in literature and art. Rashidi immediately refers to St. Maurice as “like a Moor,” distinguishing him as “The Black St. Maurice.” He summarises the events that led to Maurice’s martyrdom in his own terms, using short sentences which recount the number of soldiers in Maurice’s legion and the date of his martyrdom. This section outlines both the early history of St. Maurice’s veneration across Europe and the ways in which this veneration often referenced the influential Holy Roman Emperor Charlemagne. Immediately after, Rashidi inserts two close-cropped photographs—watermarked with his name to identify him as the photographer—of the Magdeburg Maurice’s face at frontal and oblique views. 

In the text that follows, he strongly affirms both the importance of Maurice’s associated symbols in representing the virtues of the Carolingian dynasty and his symbolic potency as a much relied-upon saint across class levels, a ubiquitously relevant and powerful intermediary. Throughout this section, Rashidi concretises his historical narrative with exact dates, like the (oft-disputed) 1240 C.E. installation of the Magdeburg statue, and traces the international diffusion of Maurice’s iconography, emphasizing how Maurice came to be widely revered and worshipped. Rashidi then moves to quote Gude Suckale-Redlefsen’s 1987 article of the same name, “The Black Saint Maurice, ”which highlights the heavily clad nature of Maurice’s silver mail, its contrast with his dark skin, and his indisputably non-European features. Another of Rashidi’s photos, with the statue, is included between the two text blocks in which this quote is included. Moving on to the use of Maurice’s imagery, Rashidi touches on the cultural importance of the “Moor’s head” as an iconographic motif employed in battle and religious processions before concluding with a statement underscoring the exceptional nature of a black saint being worshipped in a predominately white culture. 

Rashidi concludes his essay with twelve reproductions and photographs of what he claims are the most notable images of St. Maurice, with Rashidi’s name watermarked over a reproduction of Matthias Grünewald’s Saint Erasmus and Saint Maurice. These images depict the primary icons, all done in contemporary styles of the 16th and 17th centuries, associated with Maurice in his capacity as soldier-saint: a red-cross shield, golden sword, and elaborate silver-gilt armor.. From Rashidi’s article emerges a picture of St. Maurice as a crucially important, and near-universally esteemed, historical figure. Rashidi’s emphasis on the intricacy of the icons created and sublimity of monumental religious spaces erected in Maurice’s honor, effectively affirms Maurice’s importance and recognizability in the canon of saints, but does little to explain why Maurice was such a popular saint, or to consider how the veneration of the Black St. Maurice, in a culture deeply steeped in white supremacy, might have differed from that of any other saint. He simply presents a basic, accessible, holistic picture of Maurice that affirms the crux of his recognisability and fame on his race, while intimating that the Black St. Maurice is a figure separable from St. Maurice as a whole, a distinct interpretation [1].

In 2014, Anu Mänd, an art historian studying the semiotics of the Middle Ages, produced “Black Soldier – Patron Saint: St. Maurice and the Livonian Merchants,” which focuses on the iconography of St. Maurice in Livonia, a historical region in present-day Latvia. Mänd begins by introducing the phenomenon of using a black saint’s head as an emblem above mercantile establishments, emphasising the peculiarity of a black figure being chosen over a white one. Like Rashidi, she then summarizes the narrative of Maurice’s martyrdom.  However, unlike Rashidi, she attributes the decision to refuse Emperor Maximian’s order to attack Christians, the decision which precipitated the martyrdom of the Theban Legion, not to Maurice himself but the Legion as a whole. Mänd then moves to provide a short summary of relic translations associated with Maurice in Europe, the use of the Holy Lance as a symbol for him, his iconographic place in the Crusades, and his immense popularity as the patron saint of Magdeburg. She establishes this historical foundation with strings of dates and places that focus on the “cult of St. Maurice,” rather than St. Maurice as a purely human figure. 

It is here that Mänd analyses the blackness of St. Maurice’s iconography in the shifting ideological milieu of 12th century Europe, arguing that attitudes towards Black people, long characterized by conceptions of blackness as “the ugliness of evil and sin,” were beginning to shift. Mänd suggests that an increasing familiarity with Black individuals at court and in popular writing led to devotional practices which transcended racial discrimination and “othering,” pointing as evidence to the increased frequency with which “positive” Biblical figures (largely St. Maurice, St. George, and the Virgin) were depicted as Black. Mänd further suggests that Maurice’s oscillating racial depictions across Europe might correspond to shifting views of blackness in positive and negative terms. While she does not explicitly identify the causality and exact nature of this dynamic, her inclusion of this theory suggests that she perceives both black and white depictions of St. Maurice as representing the same figure fundamentally, rather than distinguishing the black images—as Rashidi does—as a distinct epithet. She frames her discussion of the Virgin and St. George in this physiognomic framework, arguing that the negativity typically associated with dark skin might be ignored if sufficient piety was evident in the given figure. This system of values introduces an interpretation of medieval race-making which positions St. Maurice’s blackness as an oppositional force to his sainthood, and which positions his enshrinement in the Catholic canon of saints as happening despite his blackness rather than in conjunction with or apart from it. Mänd argues that, while saints with black skin were no longer completely atypical by the 15th century, black saints were often mistakenly identified as St. Maurice, testifying to the enduring power of blackness as an identifying characteristic.

Mänd continues to delineate the history and practice of the Black Heads’ Guild, describing their function as a discrete social group in Livonia, their veneration of St. Maurice, and the iconographic link between the cult of St. George—another vastly more popular soldier-saint who was, occasionally, depicted as Black—and the cult of St. Maurice. She suggests that the Black Heads’ Guild’s use of St. Maurice’s iconography was largely a function of his status as a soldier-saint, and that this iconography had additional cultural resonance in light of Livonia’s history as the target of predominantly German-led crusades. Mänd’s interpretation of St. Maurice as a figure whose blackness was subordinated to his role as warrior and martyr, and which became ancillary to his worship in Livonia, directly contrasts with Rashidi’s positioning of Maurice as exceptional because of his blackness. Where Rashidi emphasizes the ideological contradictions associated with the veneration of a dark-skinned saint on a predominantly white, Christian continent, Mänd seemingly argues that these contradictions did not exist when the Magdeburg statue was erected in the 13th century, thus excising issues of racial differences and blackness from her piece. She is then able to use the term “black” without having to deal with the meaning of blackness in a medieval setting or the importance of blackness to devotional practice. As such, she presents a St. Maurice who is similar to Rashidi’s, but whose emblematic prowess is generic and whose corporeal form is an accessorial rather than defining characteristic. Mänd opens her piece in much the same way as Rashidi closes his—by questioning the worship of black saints alongside white saints, but neither fully delve into the medieval practises which would seem to make exalting a black person as a holy martyr atypical, surprising, or objectionable [2].

In contrast to Mänd, who contends that imagery of Maurice proliferated in a (mostly) racially tolerant 12th century setting, Geraldine Heng, a medieval literary scholar and critical race theorist, suggests, in “An African Saint in Medieval Europe: The Black Saint Maurice and the Enigma of Racial Sanctity” (2014) that black depictions of St. Maurice were borne out of a culture deeply steeped in animosity towards black Africans. Like Rashidi and Mänd, Heng first summarises Maurice’s martyrdom and the spread of his iconography across Europe, emphasizing the exceptional nature of his blackness as a holy figure, noting the ways in which his relics served as exoticized objects with the power to create an imagined Africa in European consciousnesses. Unlike Mänd, Heng also suggests that the acceptance of his blackness by white society was less a function of his holiness than it was his historicity and authenticity as an antique figure. Heng analyses Maurice’s martyrdom and iconographic connection to that of contemporary crusader kings through the lens of comparative literature, juxtaposing 13th-century literary fantasy with Eucherius’ Passion of the Martyrs to illustrate the ways in which Maurice’s idiosyncratic popular image synthesized conceptions of the chivalric lord knight and the Christian soldier. She further argues that Maurice is defined by four primary characteristics: his blackness/Africanness, his elevated social status as a knight, his devotion to Christianity, and the earliness of artistic depictions of him as black.

While Heng, like Rashidi, distinguishes Black Maurice as a distinct figure, she argues that this blackness was not, as Rashidi seems to suggest, of mysterious origins, but instead reflective of the multiethnic composition of the courts of the Holy Roman Empire in the 12th century. Critically, Heng refutes the idea put forth by Mänd that blackness had purely negative connotations before the 12th century. Instead, Heng suggests that, in the Germanic kingdoms in which the Black Maurice first appeared, his blackness served as a sort of expansionist symbol –  one which reflected both the universality of the Christian faith and the secular scope of Frederick II’s empire. She does incorporate the discussion of physiognomic values present in Mänd’s piece in considering the sinfulness attached to black bodies as an expression of “universal salvation.” Put simply, where Mänd argues that sanctification wards off the sin of blackness, Heng argues that blackness itself, when acknowledged as a sin, and forgiven, begets piety; black bodies, too, might be saved. The Magdeburg Maurice is, in Heng’s estimation, both subversive of sanctified value systems and, as an affirmation of the universal redeeming power of Christ, an implicit affirmation of them. Heng concludes by considering the Magdeburg statue in light of two key art historical developments in the early-to-mid 13th century: the creation of increasingly life-like and dynamic statues which encouraged interaction with the viewer, and a broader trend towards idealised artistic representations of “pure [whiteness].” She suggests that the latter development hindered the creation of other artistic representations of Maurice past the late 13th century, affirming Kaplan and Devisse’s view of the Magdeburg statue as a singularly successful representation of a black African. Further, while Mänd and Rashidi centre their studies primarily on historical data, Heng largely focuses on the intersection of visual analysis, literary comparisons, and her own inferences to construct her analysis [3]. 

The last piece of scholarship considered here is Effrosyni Zacharopoulou’s 2015 article, “The Black St Maurice of Magdeburg and the African Christian Kingdoms in Nubia and Ethiopia in the Thirteenth Century.” Like Heng, Zacharopoulou begins by affirming the importance of the statue as indicating a transformation in “racial identity” before summarising the statue’s history, its connection to Otto I, and its contemporary symbolic significance to crusaders. Zacharopoulou suggests that the blackness of the Magdeburg Maurice is particularly notable in light of the fact that the Christianised kingdoms around Thebes, the Egyptian city from whereMaurice and his fellow legionaries are thought to have originated, were incredibly ethnically varied, precluding an interpretation of the statue’s blackness as solely rooted in historical authenticity. Instead, Zacharopoulou suggests that the Magdeburg statue is best considered in light of critical 13th century political developments which preconfigured its creation: continued European contention with Arab and Egyptian Muslims in the form of the Fifth Crusade (1217-1221), the intensification of Papal military and ideological campaigns against heresy, and changes in European relations with eastern and African Christians. Zacharopoulou argues that the creation of the Magdeburg statue, and associated societal acceptance of the iconography of a black Maurice, stemmed in part from increased contacts with African Christians in and around Egypt during the Crusades, suggesting that the Magdeburg Maurice is best seen as symbolizing the scope of imperial power and the integration of African Christians into Christendom, though Zacharopoulou also argues that the statue must be understood in its localized geographic context [4].

Turning to consider the commonalities and discrepancies in the authors’ approaches to evaluating St. Maurice’s blackness and Africanness, all four draw extensively on historiographic and primary sources to establish the historical account of Maurice’s martyrdom, the development of his cult, and the proliferation and use of his iconography. All of the articles seem to agree on four core characteristics of a black St. Maurice: he appeared in the mid-13th century and was closely associated with European kings; his Magdeburg statue is the most unique and noteworthy likeness of him; his blackness and sanctity are in conversation with medieval associations of colour with good and evil; and he was accepted by medieval Christians for veneration. Yet despite these fundamental similarities in structure (and, it should be stressed, in sources), comparing these articles reveals four distinct portraits of St. Maurice. That Rashidi’s St. Maurice— a symbol of a sort of proto-Black Power, universally venerated for his decisiveness and courage—exists besides Heng’s St. Maurice—whose blackness primarily testifies both to the salvatory power of Christ and the geographic extent of German imperium—clearly demonstrates both the enduring historiographic ambiguity around Maurice and the ways in which, as a singularly notable black saint, he retains contemporary resonance. 

What is remarkable about these comparisons is not their summation of Maurice as a historical figure—in the context of other 3rd century saints, a historical Maurice seems plausible, if not likely—but the extraordinarily different settings in which they situate him. Rashidi’s narrative centres him as a legendary hero at the intersection of the modern and medieval, emphasizing his perennial relevance in a European culture which was, and continues to be, deeply biased against blackness. Indeed, Rashidi’s emphasis on Maurice’s personal virtues in the nexus between his iconography and contemporary regal iconography testifies to the extent to which Rashidi has gone to restore to him what we might call historical agency. By contrast, Mänd and Zacharopolou, both of whom largely focus on rigorous historical accounts of the saint’s iconography and cult within a more localized geographic context, situate Maurice in a society both familiar and accepting of his “difference” by virtue of exposure. But while Mänd suggests this iconographic acceptance through the fifteenth century indicates the prioritisation, by European Christians, of Maurice’s piety over his blackness, Zacharopoulou argues that that such an acceptance is all of the more exceptional because of the enduringly hostile climate towards blacks in much of Europe, similar to Heng’s situation of Maurice within a disturbingly racist “discourse on blackness… of vicious black African[s].” This fundamental contention between the authors over the nature of antiblackness at the time of the creation of the Magdeburg Maurice suggests the existence of a relatively nuanced racial environment, one in which blackness was neither entirely accepted nor outright rejected. 

As to the specific language the authors use in explaining the “difference” found in various depictions of St. Maurice, there seems to be minimal regularity or standardization in the vocabulary employed. The nearly interchangeable use of African, black, Africoid, and Negroid throughout the Rashidi, Mänd, and Zacharopoulou pieces raises interesting questions about the definition of these terms in a medieval context. In outlining the variability in skin color of other artistic representations of Maurice, Mänd notes that some artists took a middle ground, opting to depict his blackness but not his African phenotype, an interpretive decision which suggests, in turn, that the two were not seen as one and the same. Heng and Zacharopoulou, too, choose to present the two characteristics as distinct, often describing Maurice as a “black African.” Heng is deliberate in specifying blackness as “epidermal race”—skin colour used to identify place of origin—while Rashidi seems to align blackness with a state of being, a cultural phenomenon accompanied by expectations of inferiority which Maurice, exceptional as he is, surmounts. Zacharopoulou explicitly refutes the notion that St. Maurice of Magdeburg’s blackness was solely rooted in his specific geographic origins in literature, pointing to a 13th-century belief in the correlation between dark-skinned people and anti-papal heretics, which would imply an interpretation of racial identity as a systemic, morally-derived, man-made label rather than an indication of Theban heritage. 

Additionally, Rashidi and Mänd both describe the Magdeburg statue as an important image in the development of Maurice’s cult, but do not describe the actual image beyond the features that make it identifiably African. Heng and Zacharopoulou, however, describe or allude to the statue’s qualities—the properties which evoke empathic responses from the viewer—but do not choose to explicate which physical characteristics, precisely, contribute to the statue’s Africanness. The radically different approaches to documenting the characteristics of the statue raises a critical question: are a defined set of traits for African bodies necessary in this context? Do Heng and Zacharopolou see Africanness as self-explanatory, as so obvious as not to warrant description? Or do they see a list of physical features as inherently exclusionary, restrictive to a more expansive and diversified vision of Africanness? Reciprocally, Rashidi and Mänd’s particular identification of full lips and a broad nose as distinctly African traits bears consideration, especially in the context of whether these would have been the defining characteristics of an African man in the 13th century. Though Rashidi and Mänd, unlike Heng and Zacharopolou, do not use the terms “race” or “racialised,” the apparent consensus that St. Maurice’s blackness affects his interpretation naturally implies that the environment in which he emerged was involved in practices of discrimination between pictures of dissimilarly coloured and shaped bodies, practices which potentially bear resemblance to ideas of race-making. 

Our comparative analysis of these articles also raises the question of how interpretations of a black St. Maurice fit—or are impelled—into 21st-century racial discourse. Both Rashidi and Mänd employ a particularly contemporary lens in their study of Maurice. Mänd’s analysis of the historiography of the Black Head’s Brotherhood makes extensive mention of contemporary issues of racism in the production of scholarly texts, while Rashidi’s photo essay format, accessible writing style, and emphasis on Maurice as a singularly exceptional black figure in non-African Christendom aligns his piece more closely with a public history angle. Indeed, Rashidi’s inclusion of photographs of Maurice marked with Rashidi’s name, as well as photographs of himself in front of the Magdeburg statue, striking the same pose and expression, seem to invite comparison between the attested African features of the statue and those of Rashidi, thereby subverting accusations of anachronism and presentism in applying racial language to St. Maurice. Rashidi suggests, then, that the presentation of blackness and Africanness in a medieval context has profound bearing on modern conceptualisations of race. 

It is clear that, even in those articles not explicitly focused on the Black St. Maurice of Magdeburg alone, the statue is still centred as the predominant visual reference for the meaning of a dark-skinned likeness of Maurice, a focus evident in the inclusion, in all four article titles, of phrases like “The Black St. Maurice” and “black St. Maurice”. Further research might aim to provide deeper analyses of works of art depicting St. Maurice as black outside of the immediate space of Frederick II’s reign [5]. Such work might provide additional context for how black depictions of St. Maurice were received over time, and might reveal critical discrepancies in styles of artistic representation across temporal and geographic space. Additionally, scholars might further emphasize the ways in which Maurice’s iconographic blackness affected his hierarchical position and functionality within the cult of saints, looking to how, if at all, the specific acts including gift giving, the decoration of altar spaces, and processions, which constituted the interpersonal relationship between worshipper and saint were affected by the way in which Maurice was racialized, and whether there exists a clear emphasis among worshippers on one of his core attributes; black, African, soldier, martyr. 


[1] Rashidi, Runoko. “The Black Saint Maurice: African Saint in early Europe.” Journal of Pan African Studies, vol. 9, issue 7 (2016).

[2] Mänd, Anu. “Black Soldier – Patron Saint: St Maurice and the Livonian Merchants.” Nordic Review of Iconography, no. 1 (2014): 56-75.

[3] Heng, Geraldine. “An African Saint in Medieval Europe: The Black Saint Maurice and the Enigma of Racial Sanctity.” In Sainthood and Race: Marked Flesh, Holy Flesh,” ed, by Molly H. Basset and Vincent W. Lloyd, first edition, (Oxfordshire: Taylor & Francis, 2014): 18-44.

[4] Zacharapolou, Effrosyni. “The Black St Maurice of Magdeburg and the African Christian Kingdoms in Nubia and Ethiopia in the Thirteenth Century.” Southern African Journal of Medieval and Renaissance Studies, vol. 25, (2015)

[5] See Maryan Ainsworth, Sandra Hindriks and Pierre Terjanian’s “Lucas Cranach’s ‘Saint Maurice’” for an example of such a work, with a focus on visual analysis.


Heng, Geraldine. “An African Saint in Medieval Europe: The Black Saint Maurice and the Enigma of Racial Sanctity.” In Sainthood and Race: Marked Flesh, Holy Flesh,” ed, by Molly H. Basset and Vincent W. Lloyd, first edition, (Oxfordshire: Taylor & Francis, 2014): 18-44. 

Mänd, Anu. “Black Soldier – Patron Saint: St Maurice and the Livonian Merchants.” Nordic Review of Iconography, no. 1 (2014): 56-75. 

Rashidi, Runoko. “The Black Saint Maurice: African Saint in early Europe.” Journal of Pan African Studies, vol. 9, issue 7 (2016): 150-166. 

Suckale-Redlefsen, Guda. Der heilige Mohr /The Black Saint Maurice. First edition, (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1987): 19. 

Zacharapolou, Effrosyni. “The Black St Maurice of Magdeburg and the African Christian Kingdoms in Nubia and Ethiopia in the Thirteenth Century.” Southern African Journal of Medieval and Renaissance Studies, vol. 25, (2015): 77-110.

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