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In the spring of 2015, I found myself standing outside the walls that led to a courtyard in front of a local church. The doors were supposed to be open according to the hours provided by the tourist office; after waiting a while, I went in search of help. Around the corner was a municipal library, where a librarian offered assistance. As he attempted to find more up-to-date information about the church (which was in the custody of a confraternity), he asked: “Why do you want to go inside the church?” I told him that I was writing a book about black saints and that I wanted to see the image of Benedict of Palermo inside. Before I finished talking, the man began shaking his head: “No, no, no, there is no black saint in that church.
The memory of black confraternities has faded into obscurity in both Spain and Portugal. The surviving images, like the history of peninsular slavery itself, have gone largely unseen and unevenly studied, particularly in Portugal; parishioners worshipping in churches containing black sculptures often do not see them, let alone venerate them. Even when an image is recognized as being black, local traditions sometimes emerged to explain away the saint’s blackness. In northern Portugal, for example, a church in the town of Fão houses a sculpture of Efigenia in a small museum, which also sold a guide to the church’s sacred art. The author of this guide knew nothing about the saint – even misspelling her name (“Frigénia”) – so he appealed to local residents for information, which resulted in the following account: The saint had been a beautiful young woman, pursued by many men, but she wanted to become a nun instead of getting married.
In 1618, Philip III, king of both Spain and Portugal, arrived in Lisbon as part of a royal visit throughout his kingdoms. During his stay in Lisbon, the city observed one of its most important feast days. Feast days were festivals celebrated throughout the Catholic world with the highest degree of sumptuousness, including processions that traversed the major thoroughfares of the city, elaborate decorations, games, poetry contests, and fireworks. Accounts of this particular feast were repeated throughout the Hispanic world and included one striking feature: a description of black members of a confraternity, free and enslaved, who participated in the procession, carrying with them several devotional images, including those of several black saints. Subsequent hagiographers described the black confraternal members as having “brilliant simplicity and sincere piety,” carrying the standard of St. Benedict of Palermo, who was “their special patron and protector.” This festival marked an early period of devotion to black saints in Lisbon, which persisted for well over a century. In the middle of the eighteenth century, another visitor to the city, the British traveler William Beckford, witnessed a feast in honor of Portugal’s patron saint, Anthony of Padua.
From the sixteenth to the eighteenth centuries, Spanish and Portuguese monarchs launched global campaigns for territory and trade. This process spurred two efforts that reshaped the world: missions to spread Christianity to the four corners of the globe, and the horrors of the transatlantic slave trade. These efforts joined in unexpected ways to give rise to black saints. Erin Kathleen Rowe presents the untold story of how black saints - and the slaves who venerated them - transformed the early modern church. By exploring race, the Atlantic slave trade, and global Christianity, she provides new ways of thinking about blackness, holiness, and cultural authority. Rowe transforms our understanding of global devotional patterns and their effects on early modern societies by looking at previously unstudied sculptures and paintings of black saints, examining the impact of black lay communities, and analysing controversies unfolding in the church about race, moral potential, enslavement, and salvation.