Once important enough to be painted; now unknown

On a recent visit to Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum, I sauntered through its lower level rooms. Most tourists prefer its floor with the Night Watch and other Dutch Golden Age treasures. I was exploring its art from the Middle Ages and Renaissance.

You are probably familiar with what happened next. Among all treasures, there is one which catches your eye. There is one which makes you stop and look. There is something which causes you to stand still, stare, study. This time, it was a painting.

At first, I presumed it showed some imaginary person. The usual western idea of King Balthazar. Now I am sure, it is a portrait of a real man. A Renaissance painter called Jan Mostaert painted him somewhere between 1520 and 1530.

So who was this man? What was his history? What was his name? What did he do for a living?

Unfortunately, not much is known. He must have been important for Jan Mostaert to paint him. In the painting, he strikes a very confident posture. One hand on his hip, the other one resting on, or holding or drawing a weapon. Richly dressed – just look at that belt and his clothes: definitely no serf, peasant, or common burgher. It is not just how he stands, but his look: commanding or querying someone.

The Rijksmuseum calls the painting “Portrait of an African Man”.

Several names and histories have been put forward. He might be Christophle le More. This Christopher the Moor was a black archer working at the court of Habsburg Emperor Charles V. Some claim Christopher was no ordinary archer, but may have worked as an imperial messenger or envoy – perhaps even some kind of spy? It would not surprise me.

If this is Mr Christopher, the badge he wears on his cap is linked to a pilgrimage to Halle. Belgian Halle is still known as a pilgrimage site. Its Basilica, has a miraculous “Black Madonna” statue. Was master Christopher drawn to this statue? If so, because of its miraculous healing powers, or because of it being black?

Others think he may have served Archduchess Margaret of Austria, Princess of Asturias and Duchess of Savoy. She ruled part of the Habsburg empire as a fairly independent governor. A small part of her palace at Mechelen still stands.

Mechelen lies between Antwerp and Brussels. Halle lies not far below Brussels. A pilgrimage to Halle would not take days – though there were plenty other pilgrimage places to choose from. More important: one of Margaret’s court painters was Jan Mostaert. He worked nearly twenty years at the Archduchess’ court.

Others claim the man is not Mr Christopher. Perhaps he was a visitor or envoy, or part of the entourage of an important visitor. They squabble about his clothes: definitely European court outfit – no, definitely Spanish or Portuguese court outfit. No, others remark: he is King Balthazar. No, others state: he is Saint Maurice. They agree on one thing: he is a Catholic – because of the badge he wears in his hat.

While the squabbles continue, his portrait hangs quietly in a room at the Amsterdam Rijksmuseum. The occasional visitor stops and wonders.

Once he was important enough (as well as rich and influential enough) to have his portrait painted for posterity by a court painter. Now nobody knows his name, where he was born, where he died, how he paid for the sumptuous clothes and gloves (and this painting), if he went on pilgrimage and if it was once and to Halle, if he was just an envoy, if he was stern or kind (he looks both), if he got married and had any kids.

While the painter’s name is known, this man is now just “an African Man”.

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