16 January 2019
… There is no doubt about Andromena’s race, according to Professor McGrath. “It’s as clear as mud,” the historian tells BBC Culture, almost three decades after the publication of her article.
Yet Renaissance art repeatedly depicts Andromeda as white. In Piero di Cosimo’s Perseus Freeing Andromeda from the 1510s she is actually whiter than all the figures around her, including a black musician and her parents, who are considerably darker and in exotic costume. We do know that there was active debate about her skin colour, a debate that would certainly seem racist to modern eyes. McGrath references Francisco Pacheco, a Spanish artist and writer, who asks in one passage of his book Arte de la Pintura why Andromeda is so often painted as white-skinned when several of the sources say she is black. …
So Ohajuru was shocked to discover that many paintings of the Old Testament’s visitor to King Solomon, the Queen of Sheba – another word for Saba – depicted her as a white woman. He references Claude Lorrain’s Seaport with the Embarkation of the Queen of Sheba, hanging in London’s National Gallery. “She’s shown in detail at the edge of the painting, but she’s white. But the Queen of Sheba I knew came from Saba that was in Ethiopia, and the black king was from Saba. So the Queen of Sheba had to be black in my mind.”
But those who depicted the Queen of Sheba – or indeed Andromeda – had a handy excuse. Ethiopia, for both the writers of the classics and students of the Bible, could mean very different things. As an Arabic speaker I’ve always understood that the Queen of Sheba was called Queen Belqis and came from Yemen. The etymology of Ethiopia comes from the Ancient Greek for ‘scorched faces’. To them, it was a byword for anyone from hotter, further climes than their small known world. “It’s quite unstable,” McGrath says. “It could be anywhere in Africa, even India, these vague places, sunburnt places at either end of the Earth. Ethiopia can almost be like a magic land where strange things happen.
In contrast, non-Europeans were incredibly sensitive and thoughtful in their depictions of what Westerners actually looked like, such as this Japanese history of America published in 1861 (Note: I don’t actually have any evidence that this Japanese book is about American history other than the word of Some Guy on Twitter):
And here is George Washington straight-up punching a tiger. 7/ pic.twitter.com/gM1BwRahEa
— Nick Kapur (@nick_kapur) November 14, 2018
Perhaps European artists didn’t paint many sub-Saharan blacks because they didn’t know many? For example, Albrecht Durer is in the running for most talented ever at drawing. But his drawing of a rhinoceros, while hugely influential from the 1500s into the 1800s, wasn’t very accurate because he’d never actually seen a rhinoceros because the only one in Europe sank in 1516 on its way to the Pope:
Durer’s conception of a rhinoceros as covered in armored plates like a medieval knight is pretty awesome, but, technically speaking, it’s not as accurate as his drawings of European animals, such as his young hare: