It is traditional for newly elected popes to adopt a new coat of arms, displaying heraldic imagery symbolizing their heritage or their attitudes toward the church. It has been widely noted, for instance, that a bishop’s hat, or miter, sits atop Pope Benedict XVI’s new coat of arms, and not a crown. That is viewed as an expression of the new pope’s humility, that he comes not to reign over the church but to continue his work as one of God’s servants.
Another prominent feature of the pope’s new crest has also attracted attention: the picture of the ”African king" facing left on the coat of arms. For one thing, the portrait is practically a caricature of an African male, with exaggerated lips painted ruby red. ”It’s not good," says Holy Cross professor of religious studies Matthew Schmalz, who has written about the crest for the Catholic magazine Commonweal.
Why am I not surprised that a professor at a Catholic school would be upset about the Pope’s crest. Definitely not surprised that the article will appear in Commonw
There is little doubt why the image of the African king appears on the crest. It symbolizes the Pope’s commitment to rallying Catholic worshipers in Africa, the fastest-growing province of the church. (In June, Benedict said he would summon a special synod of African bishops, the first since 1994.) ”For me, [the African king] is an expression of the universality of the Church," the then-Cardinal Ratzinger wrote in his 1998 book ”Milestones: Memoirs 1927-1977." He also wrote that he did not know where the African image, which appeared on his coat of arms when he was archbishop of Munich-Freising, came from.
First they say there is no doubt that the image was chosen by the Pope to rally worshipers in Africa and then they mention it was on his original crest as a Bishop. I guess they are saying that the Pope was a prophet when he choose it. The fuller quote from his book is actually "I do not know its meaning. For me it is it is an expression of the universality of the Church, which knows no distinctions of race or class since all are one in Christ (Galatians 3:28),"
He is not alone. No one really knows who the African king might be. ”It probably strikes people as being really odd," Schmalz says. ”They look at it and think, ‘What is going on here?’ "
Mario Valdes, a researcher for WGBH’s ”Frontline," strongly believes the black king can be one of only two people: Balthazar, one of the three kings from the ”Orient," who brings myrrh to the newborn Jesus Christ; or Prester John, the mythological king of the ”three Indias," or, alternatively, Ethiopia. Prester John, who in some versions of his legend is white, was supposed to have ruled over a land where spiritual and temporal powers coexisted in perfect harmony. Pope Alexander III is said to have written a letter to Prester John in 1177, although the Catholic Encyclopedia casts doubt on this event.
But there are two other possible identities for the unknown Moor. He could be St. Maurice, a Roman commander from Africa whose Christian soldiers refused to sacrifice to the pagan gods after an important victory, and were themselves massacred. (Valdes discounts this, noting that Maurice is usually depicted wearing a centurion’s helmet.) And there is a more grisly possibility. At the time of the Crusades, some Christian kings displayed a severed Moor’s head on their flags or crests to symbolize victories over their Islamic enemies. It is conceivable that the king, known as the ”Moor of Freising," evolved from such an image, although the figure shown on Benedict’s coat of arms is wearing a collar and has suffered no violence. ”It’s certainly one of the possibilities," Schmalz says. [Source]
Well there are also some other possibilities such as it being Saint Corbinian, founder of the Diocese of Freising, mistakenly thought to have been a Moor especially since this image is known as the Moor of Freising or the "caput ethiopicum." Since this image was mainly used for Bavarian heraldry I would think that it likely had a local connection instead of it being one of the wise men from the East.