English Pre-Grad Intern Jimmy Hammond
My intention in joining the Pre-Graduate school internship was twofold. First, I wished to have an avenue through which to conduct research that I found interesting and important. Second, I wished to assess whether or not my interest in research was conducive to a further pursuit of education in graduate school. The subject I selected for my research through the English Department was the emergence of artistic tradition of the black Saint Maurice of Magdeburg, Germany in the 13th century and also an interrogation of the importance of such a tradition to citizens of Magdeburg today. The black Saint Maurice is an artistic enigma that has puzzled scholars of Race, Art History, and the Medieval Ages for centuries. Why would Magdeburg begin depicting its patron saint, heretofore ethnically white in all extant iconography, with Africanoid features? The revolutionary 13th century sandstone sculpture of Saint Maurice from Magdeburg is generally considered to be among the first positive, non-servile depictions of a racial "Other" in Western Art, and as such, understanding the nature of its iconographic emergence has a particular importance in explaining the role of race in religious artwork of the Middle Ages. My interest in the subject extends to the present day, because a work of art exists not merely synchronically at the time of its creation, but also diachronically, changing in its reception from year to year and reflecting the interests and perspectives peculiar to those who view it. An examination of the statue's contemporary importance for members of the Magdeburg Cathedral in which it is housed, as well as for citizens of Magdeburg in general, is interesting for the way in which it reveals not only the statue's contemporary religious importance for the city's populace, but also for the way in which it reflects the role and reception of history and race in Magdeburg today. To this end, I visited Magdeburg this past summer and conducted a series of interviews that sought to uncover its public's opinion and knowledge of Maurice. This semester in the Pre-Graduate Internship, I have endeavored to translate the responses of those I interviewed into English, and to cogently analyze the information provided in those responses. Additionally, I acquired a few manuscripts during my visit to Magdeburg that are topically relevant, most interestingly a children's book that serves as an introduction to the Magdeburg Cathedral guided visually by an infantilized racially black Maurice.
Conducting my research under the supervision of a graduate student mentor and professor was helpful to me both because doing so provided me with valuable tools for producing the best work possible and because it gave me an indication of the type of work that is undergone in graduate school. Through interaction with my mentors my project has become more sharply focused - many useful sources have been shared with me and my work has been taken in new and interesting directions. The guidance afforded by my mentors has been immensely useful, considering the interdisciplinary nature of the topic I selected. I am new to the study of Race Theory and came into the Pre-Graduate internship with next to no knowledge of Art History, and while I have some understanding of Medieval History and culture, I am by no means an expert. Having recourse to April Morris, my Grad Mentor, and Professor Geraldine Heng, a Medievalist in the English Department, has proven invaluable in setting my work on the right track. Also, I have gained a greater working knowledge of the university's various libraries. Prior to this internship, I had not visited the Fine Arts Library and was unaware of what information could be found there. Now I view the Fine Arts Library as a valuable resource and can navigate it with relative ease.
Although I came into the internship with only a very rudimentary understanding of the artistic traditions concerning race in the Middle Ages, I have since learned much about them. For instance, I have learned that for centuries prior to the emergence of the sandstone sculpture of Maurice in Magdeburg, the only roles afforded to artistic subjects with dark skin or phenotypically African features were negatively inflected. For instance, demons and slaves were sometimes depicted as dark skinned, usually also with grotesquely distorted features. By tradition, the executioner of John the Baptist was depicted as black. Although the Queen of Sheba, a major religious figure of the Old Testament often associated with the "black bride" Solomon sings about in the "Song of Songs", appeared as dark skinned as early as 1181 in a work in Klosterneuberg, Austria, she is depicted as having European facial features, and because of this, her dark skin might be a visual allusion to her association with the "black bride" Solomon sings about in the "Song of Songs" rather than an attempt to depict her as a racial Other. The sandstone Saint Maurice is perhaps the earliest extant artistic work rendered as dark skinned with an African phenotype and that is also positively inflected rather than reviled. It seems, however, that the blackness of Saint Maurice appears not for the purpose of portraying Africans more humanistically, but instead for signifying the political reach of the ruling dynasty of the Holy Roman Empire (the Hohenstaufen) into foreign countries and continents. Around the time of the commissioning and production of the sandstone Maurice, the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II had become renowned for his inclusion of African subjects in his retinue. These Africans were used by Frederick as a means of insinuating the universality of his control, and portray his territorial holdings as extending to the far corners of the earth. In this way, the trope of blackness becomes a signifier for the power of the Holy Roman Empire, and, more specifically, of the Hohenstaufen dynasty. Magdeburg had been the imperial capital under the first Holy Roman Emperor Otto the Great, and, as such, retained a strong cultural connection to the empire. It is significant that Maurice had been selected as the patron saint both of the Holy Roman Empire and for Magdeburg, for when Maurice is depicted as black in the mid-13th century, blackness is again utilized as a deliberate signifier for empire and for Frederick II, recapitulating Magdeburg's connection to that emperor. Because of its political contextualization, the tradition behind the depiction of Saint Maurice as black in the middle of the 13th century is something of an isolated occurrence, and it is around a hundred years before another dark skinned and phenotypically African Maurice appears. The fact that the iconography of Maurice as black only reemerges when the Holy Roman Emperor Charles IV wanted to style himself as the political successor of Frederick II is a good indication that such an iconography only emerged for political reasons in the first place. My understanding of the political developments that made depicting St. Maurice as black possible has been accomplished in large part through my involvement in the Pre-Graduate school internship and through the guidance provided by my mentor and professor.
The contemporary reception of the sandstone Maurice in Magdeburg proved to be equally fascinating. Several factors have conspired to alter the way Maurice is seen by the public. First and foremost, the spread of the Reformation to Magdeburg in the 16th century shifted the focus of the city's Cathedral away from saints, and from Maurice more specifically. Perhaps more obviously, the dissolution of the Holy Roman Empire entailed the deemphasizing of Maurice as a symbol of imperialism, thereby stripping him of much of his cultural significance. Today, his race serves merely as a signifier of foreign exoticism and German history, and it seems through analysis of the interviews I have conducted that a more important property of Maurice in his contemporary veneration is his iconographic relation to militarism. The originary legend of Maurice casts him as a leading officer of the Theban legion, a band of Copts commissioned by the Roman Empire. Maurice's connection to the military was an early reason for his appropriation by the Holy Roman Empire, and it would appear that this value has again become activated.
In addition to improving my knowledge of campus resources and my knowledge of my topic, participation in the Pre-Graduate Internship has helped me to hone my skills as a researcher and writer. Perhaps the most significant skill I have acquired through my involvement in the Pre-Graduate school internship has been something I am almost embarrassed to admit I did not learn earlier - that beginning to write a research paper is crucial in exposing what information still needs to be researched. Once I started writing up my research, the blind-spots and omissions in my studies were made very clear to me, and I was able to much more effectively pursue information relevant to historicizing or fleshing out my subject. More generally, however, I have learned to write more clearly, and my experiences in conducting research have helped me to improve my ability to focus on scholastic tasks. Because of the positive impact this course has had on my work ethic and performance, I am continuing to view Graduate school in English as a viable and desirable track for my future. Hopefully, with this in mind, I will be able to continue improving as I approach my senior year and the future that lies beyond it.