Coinciding with Black History Wales’ activities launched at the beginning of October, we look at one of the few representations of black people in the holy art at St Mary’s, and the place played by a North African family in the growth of Christianity in the first few decades.
Three black people stand next to and under and near the cross of Jesus. This is a painting at St Mary’s Church by local artist Kenneth Smitham of the fifth Station of the Cross. It’s a glimpse from the gospel which sets Simon of Cyrene on the stage, compelled as he is to carry the cross of Jesus.
We know, too, the names of the two younger people who colour the canvas. They are Alexander and Rufus, the sons of Simon, and named as such by Mark in his gospel account. It’s an important mention, for it means that, at the time the gospel was written, Simon and his family were known to the wider church.
These are not three passing encounters. They aren’t people who just walked on and off the stage never to be seen or known again. This chance encounter between Jesus and a (possibly) Jewish pilgrim from North Africa (present day eastern Libya) had deeper repercussions – for Simon and his family become believers.
There is no indication that Simon, at first, is moved by pity or compelled by compassion. Rather the Roman soldiers force him from the crowd and place the crossbeam on his shoulders. And yet, in a word, Mark reminds us that Simon carries the cross behind Jesus, calling to mind the words of Jesus that “Whoever wants to be a disciple of mine must take up his cross and follow me.” Simon, in a very particular and precious way, has been drawn into the passion (the suffering) of Jesus, and his life is changed for ever.
We may assume that Simon was a Jew, since he had come to Jerusalem at Passover time – and Cyrene, at the time, was a centre for dispersed Jews, 100,000 of whom had been forced to settle there during the reign of Ptolemy Soter, 300 years before the birth of Christ.
Fly forward, fifty days or so from Simon’s maiden appearance, and it’s Pentecost Sunday. The festival has drawn pilgrims from across the known world, and the Apostles are about to hit the streets after receiving the gift of the Hoy Spirit.
The Acts of the Apostles (2:9) delivers a cacophony of countries from where these travellers hailed, to create a bubbling mix of cultures and traditions: Parthians and Medes and Elamites and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabians.” All of these, so the Acts of the Apostles tell us, can hear, in their own language, the teaching of the apostles. We are told that, from among these widely drawn pilgrims, 3,000 believe in Peter’s message, and are baptized. Perhaps Simon and his family were amongst these. (Acts 2:41)
Likewise, too, later in the Acts of the Apostles (11:19-20) we read of people from Cyrene who preached to the Greeks. “Now those who were scattered because of the persecution that arose over Stephen travelled as far as Phoenicia and Cyprus and Antioch, speaking the word to none except Jews. But there were some of them, men of Cyprus and Cyrene, who on coming to Antioch spoke to the Greeks also, preaching the Lord Jesus.” We can only conjecture that Simon may have been among these!
And the mention, again in Acts, that in the church at Antioch, “there were prophets and teachers, Barnabas, Simeon who was called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen a member of the court of Herod the tetrarch, and Saul” can only again lead us to conjecture and what tradition tells us: Lucius became the first Bishop of Cyrene but there is no actual proof that “Simeon (Simon) who was called Niger” can be identified with Simon of Cyrene. But perhaps we can be forgiven some fanciful thinking which places him there in Antioch!
And yet this isn’t the last we hear of Simon’s family. It is thought by some scholars that one of his sons is the Rufus mentioned by St Paul in his letter to the Romans, along with his mother who, says St Paul, has been like a mother to him too. “ Greet Rufus, eminent in the Lord, also his mother and mine.” (Romans 16:13)
The gospel of Mark, which initially names Rufus, was written to the church of Rome, perhaps some time after Peter’s death, around AD 64-6. Perhaps, then, there is some credence to identifying Mark’s ‘Rufus’ to the one who settled in Rome with his mother!
Although there is no proof of the colour of their skin, tradition and art more often than not portrays them as black skinned, and in so many churches where there are Stations of the Cross, their representation may be the only artistic and architectural portrayal of a black person.
As Black History Month continues, Simon and his family continue to stand tall in the part they play in the history of Christianity from its very beginning. Perhaps we need a little more black representation in our holy art here at St Mary’s. But, for now, Simon and his boys sit quite happily here, guiding us through the Stations of the Cross, shedding light on what it means to be a disciple of Christ, and how being drawn into the passion and death of Jesus transforms us.
For more information about Black History Wales visit: https://bhmwales.org.uk/