The Redeemed Redeemer: Captivity and Ransom of Images of Christ across the Early Modern Mediterranean

By Daniel Hershenzon

In recent years, scholars have explored the multiplicity of human and material exchanges between Spain, Morocco, and Algiers in the early modern period. They have convincingly argued that the massive circulation of Muslim and Christian captives was a salient feature of this exchange. They have also demonstrated that the volume of commerce between Spain and North Africa continued to grow throughout the period. While we know a great deal more about captivity and commerce, the circulation and exchange of noncommercial objects across the Mediterranean has hitherto remained little studied.

This paper follows the crossings of one type of such objects-religious and sacred images that traveled back and forth across the western Mediterranean between Iberia and North Africa in the early modern period. More specifically, it focuses on two sculptures and a print of another. 

The first is a sculpture of Baby Jesus known as El Santo Niño Cautivo and attributed to the Sevillan artist Juan Martínez Montañez. The Santo Niño Cautivo received this name because it was held six years as a captive in Algiers. In 1622, corsairs captured Francisco Sandoval de Zapata, the prebendary of the cathedral of Mexico, in charge of bringing the statue from Seville to Mexico. By the time the ransom money sent from Mexico arrived in Algiers, the prebendary died and the only thing remained to be ransomed were his restos and the statue. The statue, originally naked, was dressed up with clothes from the colonial period, and in order to commemorate Zapata's past experience, it was made to hold cuffs. Until the year 2000, the statue was known to liberate drug addicts and alcoholics (cautivos del alcohol o de las drogas) of their addiction. Around 2000, Baby Jesus became the "saint" of families of secuestrados, victims of the mafia kidnapped for purposes of ransom.  

Cristo de Medinaceli en su paso. Posted to Flickr by Agustín Hormigo Valencia. CC BY-SA 3.0.The second sculpture is the famous Cristo de Medinaceli created in Seville by an anonymous artist at the beginning of the 17th century and presently held at the Basílica de Nuestro Padre Jesús de Medinaceli, Madrid. Around 1655, Minor Capuchin friars carried it from Spain to la Mamora on the Atlantic cost of Morocco, half a century after the Spaniards conquered it. When in 1681 Moroccan Sultan Muley Ismail reconquered the city, the sculpture was taken captive but soon ransomed by Mercedarian friars who returned it to Spain.   

Biblioteca Nacional de España, Varios Especiales 60‐43. The third object is in fact a print of a sculpture of Baby Jesus. A Portuguese renegade and slave of the former governor of Tetouan gave it as a gift to his owner, who then gave it to his children. Mercedarian friars ransomed the statue, taking it to Spain with them and donating it to the Convent of Santa Barbara in Madrid.

Reconstructing the images' pathways, the transformations in their meaning and function, their exchange, and the memories that these processes imbued them with teach us a great deal about biographies of religious objects. This presentation, however, asks how such objects mediated social relations between Muslims and Christians, captors and captives, and by extension how we can use material objects and their spatial trajectories to write a connected history of the early modern Mediterranean.  

Daniel Hershenzon Daniel Hershenzon is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Literatures, Cultures, and Languages at the University of Connecticut. He is currently completing a book manuscript titled "Early Modern Spain and the Mediterranean: Captivity, Commerce, and Communication." Hershenzon has published articles in the Journal of Early Modern History, African Economic History, Philological Encounters, and in edited volumes. He held fellowships from the SSRC, the Mellon Foundation, the Humanities Institute at the University of Michigan, and the European University Institute in Florence.