Marked Difference: Earrings and “The Other” in Fifteenth-Century Flemish Art

  • Penny Howell Jolly
Part of the The New Middle Ages book series (TNMA)


While extensive scholarship already exists on Rogier van der Wey-dens Columba Altarpiece (Munich, Alte Pinakothek), an influential work from the early 1450s originally in Cologne, two details in the triptych’s central Adoration of the Magi (Figure 11.1) deserve further consideration.1 Visible in the original, but difficult to see in reproductions, are two figures who wear earrings: a black man in the Magi’s entourage, framed behind the stable by the backmost arched window; and a bearded man in a turban standing in the closer archway at the right. Rogier, drawing on newly developing conventions in fifteenth-century Flemish art, uses earrings to mark both figures as outsiders: “others” with regard to the Christian society of fifteenth-century Northern Europe. But rather than motivating rejection of these outsiders by viewers, earrings signal acceptance. By intensifying figures’ outsider status, earrings make their eventual conversion all the more remarkable. Rogier’s black attendant will soon see the Christ Child, and will acknowledge him as Son of God; the turbaned and earringed onlooker, a Jew, is this very moment “seeing the light.” This new use of earrings, which develops in fifteenth-century Flanders, can be called the even he/she topos, meaning even such a non-believing outsider as he/she can experience a revelation and convert to Christianity.The power of being a Christian insider in fifteenth-century Flemish society is reinforced by heightening the otherness of the earringed outsider; Christianity’s universal appeal is reconfirmed; and revelation and salvation are possible for all, because even he/she responds to Christianity and therefore converts.


Fifteenth Century Tres Rich MetropolItan Museum Universal Appeal Face Contrast 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.


Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.

Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.


  1. 1.
    Alfred Acres, “The Columba Altarpiece and the Time of the World,” Art Bulletin 80 (1998). 422, offers an excellent overview of the scholarly literature, and includes a color detail (his fig. 21) of the relevant part of the panelCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. 6.
    Ronald Lightbown, Mediaeval European Jewellry (London: Victoria and Albert Museum, 1992), 293–4, notes the surprise of a Burgundian traveler in Constantinople in 1432, who observed the Empress wearing earrings, and cites the 1352 French royal accounts’ listing of earrings, although those were for the Dauphin’s fool. Otherwise, earrings “seem scarcely to have been worn at all” in Northern Europe in this time. See alsoGoogle Scholar
  3. Joan Evans, A History of Jewellery, 1100–1870 (Boston: Boston Book and Art, 1970), 47.Google Scholar
  4. 7.
    In French Painting in the Time of Jean de Berry: The Limbourgs and Their Contemporaries, 2 vols. (NewYork: Braziller, 1974), I, 219, where Meiss discusses European confusions regarding the land of origin of these and other blacks. Excellent color reproductions of both are in Raymond Cazelles and Johannes Rathofer, Illuminations of Heaven and Earth: The Glories of the Très Riches Hemes du Duc de Berry (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1988), 76.Google Scholar
  5. 8.
    See Margaret M. Manion, “Psalter Illustration in the Très Riches Hemes of Jean de Berry,” Gesta 34/2 (1995): 149–50, regarding these quotes and illuminations.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. 10.
    His Rise of the Black Magus in Western Art (Ann Arbor, 1985), 7–17, explores the development of the black attendant, but without mention of earrings. Early examples of earnnged attendants include the Aragonese altarpiece by Nicolas Solana (1401–1407, Madrid, Instituto Valencia), ibid., fig. 18; and Jacobello del Fiore’s early fifteenth-century Adoration (Stockholm, Museum), illustrated in Liana Castelfranchi-Vegas, Il Gotico Internazionale in Italia (Rome: Editori Riuniti, 1966), pl. 47.Google Scholar
  7. 15.
    Illustrated in Albert Châtelet, Early Dutch Painting, trans. C. Brown and A. Turner (Secaucus: Wellfleet Press, 1980), 77.Google Scholar
  8. 16.
    The first is illustrated in Charles Sterling et al., Robert Lehman Collection, IP Fifteenth- to Eighteenth-Century European Paintings (New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1988), 34–6; the second inGoogle Scholar
  9. John Hand and Martha Wolff, Early Netherlandish Painting (Washington: National Gallery of Art, 1986), 156.Google Scholar
  10. 27.
    Illustrated in Thomas Kren, ed., Margaret of York, Simon Marmwn, and The Visions of Tondal (Malibu: The J. Paul Getty Museum, 1992), fig. 251, and in The John G. Johnson Collection: Catalogue of Flemish and Dutch Paintings (Philadelphia: John G. Johnson Collection, 1972), no. 318.Google Scholar
  11. 29.
    Illustrated in Isolde Lübbeke, Thyssen-Bornemisza Collection. Early German Painting 1350–1550, trans. M. T. Will (London: Sotheby’s Publications, 1991), no. 26–7.Google Scholar
  12. 34.
    New York, Pierpont Morgan Library, M. 917, p. 109; illustrated and discussed in John Plummer, Hours of Catherine of Cleves (New York: George Braziller, 1966), no. 85.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Désirée G. Koslin and Janet E. Snyder 2002

Authors and Affiliations

  • Penny Howell Jolly

There are no affiliations available

Personalised recommendations