Is That a Moor's Head?
Schmalz, Mathew N., Commonweal
There is a curious image on Pope Benedict XVI's coat of arms. It is not the scallop shell--a symbol associated with baptism and pilgrimage--or the bishop's miter, which occupies the place traditionally reserved for the papal tiara. It's not even the bear wearing a saddle. Instead, the image that draws the eye is a profile of a crowned African man, with bright red lips and a gold earring.
This emblem is called the "Caput Aethiopum" or "Moor's Head." Specifically, the image of the African king is the "Freising Moor" that has long adorned the coat of arms of the archdiocese of Munich-Freising.
Some might associate the Moor's head with the Magi, the African martyr St. Maurice, or even with Munich-Freising's patron, St. Corbinianus. But the Moor's head, as encyclopedias of heraldic emblems tell us, is generally a sign of law, authority, and power. Indeed, taking the head of a Muslim "moor" was a particularly potent symbol of triumph in the days when Islam and Christianity battled in Europe and the Holy Land. Some contributors to a very earnest discussion on the American Heraldry Society's Web site suggested that the Moor's head is a potentially explosive image. In response, others observed that even though the features of the Moor were "stereotyped" to the point of resembling a "cartoon," the image itself was most certainly a bust with a red collar, not a severed head.
The potential to read the Moor's head as a rather unfortunate anachronism is implicitly acknowledged by Web sites that cite Joseph Ratzinger's gloss on its symbolic meaning. In his Milestones, then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger acknowledges that he does not know the origin of the Moor's head. Instead, Ratzinger reflects that, for him, the Moor's head evokes the "universality of the church." In this way, a symbol that might seem to be aesthetically and politically ill-considered becomes infused with an unconventional and perhaps even bold meaning, pointing not only to the church's embrace of all peoples, but also to its engagement with other religions beyond the Western world.
The symbol of the Moor's head serves as an appropriate backdrop to Benedict XVI's speech on June 10 welcoming South African bishops during their ad limina visit. South Africa has the highest incidence of HIV/AIDS in the world, and the Catholic Church is deeply engaged in responding to the crisis through its wide network of hospitals and dispensaries. …