'The Root' Reveals the Black Wife of Moses

4798In an artistic period known for its overpowering assertion of religious orthodoxy, certain works stand out for their simplicity and frankness of presentation. Jacob Jordaens, an associate of the greatest Flemish master of the 17th century, Peter Paul Rubens, certainly created his share of complex dogmatic statements. Occasionally, however, he felt compelled to make a more personal rendering of these public assertions of divine authority. His modestly scaled painting of Moses and his Ethiopian Wife is a prime example of this other side of his work.

Jacob Jordaens, Moses and his Ethiopian wife, circa 1650. Oil on canvas, 46 1/16 x 41 3/4 inches. Antwerp, Rubenshuis.
The stone tablet held by the patriarchal figure in the painting makes his identification as Moses clear enough, but the relationship between him and the black woman standing some distance behind has not been so easy to interpret. Modern scholarship has now convincingly identified her as the Ethiopian wife of Moses. Because the wife of Moses rarely appears in art, the long process of recovery of her identity is understandable. Jordaens had no clear iconographical tradition to draw from when he depicted the wife of Moses as black.

The conflation of remarkable qualities possessed by the Ethiopian wife: Her royal status, race and distant origins led to her association with other great women associated with blackness in the Bible -- notably the queen of Sheba and the bride in the Song of Songs. In Christian interpretation (particularly Origen), these women symbolized the establishment of Ecclesia, the Church of the Gentiles, fulfilling the prophecy in Psalm 67 (Latin Vulgate version): "Ethiopia shall soon stretch forth her hands to God." In Christian typology, Moses becomes Christ, his wife the church. Implicit in this representation as well is the notion of racial and social equality.

Source: The Root | Image of the Black in Western Art Archive 
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