Images of African Kingship, Real and Imagined


Heinrich Bünting’s Map of Africa from Travel through Sacred Scripture, Magdeburg, Germany, 1597. Courtesy of Dr. Oscar I. Norwich Collection of Maps of Africa and its Islands, 1486 – ca. 1865., David Rumsey Map Center, Stanford Libraries.

Heinrich Bünting’s Map of Africa from Travel through Sacred Scripture, Magdeburg, Germany, 1597 (Courtesy of Dr. Oscar I. Norwich Collection of Maps of Africa and its Islands, 1486 – ca. 1865, David Rumsey Map Center, Stanford Libraries).

The exhibition Balthazar: A Black African King in Medieval and Renaissance Art examines the figure of the Black king, an artistic invention arrived at by Europeans painting during the 1400s. 

Nativity (or crèche) scenes from the Middle Ages to today often include three kings (or magi) bringing gifts to the infant Jesus. Often, these scenes include a Black king, sometimes referred to by the name Balthazar (his two traveling companions are known as Caspar and Melchior).

European Christian tradition often referred to Balthazar as coming from Africa, and maps from the time reveal a combination of fantasy, desire, and lived encounters with Africa and African people.

In 1597, German Protestant scholar and cartographer Heinrich Bünting designed a map of Africa marked by both real and imagined kingdoms. In West Africa, we encounter the realm of the Muslim king Mansa Musa of Mali, who was famous for wealth and piety.

Cite this page as: Dr. Kristen Collins and Dr. Bryan C. Keene, "Images of African Kingship, Real and Imagined," in Smarthistory, June 27, 2020, accessed September 23, 2020, https://smarthistory.org/images-african-kingship/.