Monday, January 3, 2011

Athanasius - Black Dwarf?

Matt is now working on the first illustration for my book on Athanasius, and we are discussing physical features. We don't have many documents to help us with our decision. All paintings and orthodox icons portraying Athanasius were made many centuries later.
There is the common nickname of "black dwarf." I was puzzled when I first found it, because I could not read this description in any original documents. Something else was strange. When I tried the search in other languages ("nano nero" or "nain noir") I couldn't find any results. I asked an Italian expert on that particular time period and on the early Fathers, and he had never heard of it.
Finally I found this site with some explanations.
The fact that Emperor Julian had called Athanasius "a little man" does not necessarily mean that he was physically short, and apparently 20th-century American writers called him black just because he was African. I was later told by an African-American activist that the term "black" in America has a very wide meaning that goes beyond skin color. So an Egyptian could be called black just because he is African, and that could explain the "black dwarf" nickname.
I know this is a debatable subject and I am not interested in starting a discussion here. I just want to solve a practical problem: what did Athanasius look like?
We know that he lived in Egypt. His name is Greek, so he could have even come from a Greek family, which would make him Mediterranean but not dark. To avoid supposition, we can make him look as a typical 4th-century Egyptian. One of the best guidelines in this respect is the Fayum collection of portraits dated about the same time (1st-3rd century A.D.)
According to Philip Schaff (A Select Library of Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church), "later tradition adds a slight stoop, a hooked nose and small mouth, a short beard spreading into large whiskers, and light auburn hair." This is, however, just tradition and not an accurate first-hand description.
I will let Matt decide what to do. His guess is as good as mine, and he is the artist. This post is
just an explanation to anyone who might ask me later why our Athanasius looks like he does


  1. As a doctoral candidate of early Christian and Reformation history, I find it interesting that despite sobriquets that give specific physical descriptions of ancient persons, when those names give reference to color, there is always the tendency to try to rationalize that these people actually did not fit the descriptions they were given. The use of "black" to describe persons of dark complexion is frequently found in an abundance of ancient Christian texts (see Gay Byron's Symbolic Blackness) for example. Being named 'black' also at this time, was not considered a positive attribute. Thus, if his enemies at the time labeled Athanasius thus ("black"), it is highly likely that he had a dark-skinned complexion; indeed, he came from the southern part of Egypt. This revisionist historiography of always trying to make mediterraneans and north africans and even ancient greeks (many of whom were very dark as well as is attested by their own artwork) into white Europeans has got to stop.

  2. Dear Anonymous,
    I have posted an answer to this in another post, "More on the Black Dwarf."

  3. I am 98% certain that Athanasius was not white. I am 90% certain he was not black. He was an Egyptian, most likely bronze skinned. The only white people in the earliest part of Christian history were Romans and some living in the western part of the empire. We have records of bishops from Brittany, the island of Britain in the early third century - these would have most likely been white. You can read more about how this "black" idea of Athanasius is not true by reading the only reports we have of his physical descriptions:

  4. Thank you Dr. Baker. If you look at my other post you will see that I have actually emailed Dr. Justo Gonzales, and he can't remember where he found a reference to a black dwarf. I think you are right. As I said, there is a small chance he was Greek. It seems that bishop Alexander was in fact Greek. In any case, Greeks are still Mediterranean.