More than 20 figures crowd around a laden banquet table, with fine silks and glittering tableware adding to the abundant scene. Those in the foreground of this imposing painting are roughly lifesize. They are largely white European in appearance, but one exception is the young boy prominently positioned just right of the centre, who is shown as Black African or Afro-Hispanic.

The Marriage Feast at Cana

The Marriage Feast at Cana c.1672

Bartolomé Esteban Murillo (1617–1682)

The Barber Institute of Fine Arts

Murillo's 1672 work The Marriage Feast at Cana is one of the few known paintings from early modern Spain to depict a Black figure. Yet his presence seems to have been of little scholarly interest; instead, the identities of the bride and groom at the picture's centre have been energetically debated (perhaps they are the artist's patrons, the Flemish silk merchant Nicolás Omazur and his wife Isabel Malcampo).

Seville was an important centre for the slave trade in the early modern period, and it is likely that this boy was domestically enslaved. Enslaved people were often dressed in expensive clothing, like the boy's red tunic and gold fastenings, to signify the wealth of the households in which they lived. However, his key position, individualised features and transfixed expression suggest that he is fundamental to Murillo's depiction of the biblical story. This is the tale of Christ's first miracle, when he transforms water into wine, revealing his divine identity and inspiring faith in his witnesses.

Race, social standing and religion were inextricably linked in the social consciousness of early modern Spain. Does the boy's inclusion reflect Spanish preoccupation with conversions to Catholicism? Enforced baptism was central to the Christianisation of Africans and Afro-Hispanics in Seville, and the water pots in Murillo's painting could arguably allude to baptism. This would frame the work as a positive image for seventeenth-century white Christians, who would regard the boy's soul as innately sinful, but one which could be purified (even whitened) by conversion. Was the boy therefore used to reference and promote conversion, a practice central to societal control in early modern Seville?

Helen Cobby, Assistant Curator and Rebecca Randle, Learning and Engagement Coordinator at the Barber Institute of Fine Arts

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A version of this article was originally published by The Guardian as part of The Great British Art Tour