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Christian Influence on Kongo Religious and Royal Arts

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The influence of Christianity on African history and culture is usually thought of as an outgrowth of colonialism, but in the case of the Kongo integration of Christianity with the indigenous religion, European influence led to the decline of Christian tradition after 1850.(1) Kongo Christianity took a "distinctly African form, widely accepted both in Kongo and in Europe as being the religion of the country. This was possible because Kongo, as a voluntary convert, had considerable leeway to its particular form of Christianity.(2)" In addition to local convention in ritual, the art forms influenced by the imported religion have a completely different formal and symbolic character than the indigenous religious sculpture. Additionally, the regalia of the Kongo court placed emphasis on the display and use of both traditions.

Christianity came to the Kingdom of Kongo via the Portuguese in the 15th century; the king was among the first converts. According to Thornton, "Kongolese were proud to call themselves Catholics—Christianity set true Kongolese aside from their neighbors, and in their view made them superior to the 'heathens,' even those who spoke dialects of the same KiKongo language.(3)" A famous revival movement was led by Dona Beatriz Kimpa Vita in the 18th century introduced 'Antonianism,' a sect based on St. Anthony as the source for Kongo salvation. In the nineteenth century,

a host of travelers also crossed Kongo, saw the religious paraphernalia, but their reaction varied from patronizing amusemement to scorn. As they saw it, Kongo's Christianity was simply 'fetishism' nad if they felt that Kongo had once been Christian, it could no longer be called such.(4)

The paradigm shifted from an 'inclusive' to 'exclusive' view of Kongo religious practice, and Kongo Christianity was sharply undermined.

Christian objects made by the Kongo retain a strongly European character despite local reworking of formal elements. The cross, for instance, was an indigenous symbol of transition between earthly and otherworldly realms and took on new meaning with the spread of Portuguese Christianity.(5) A Crucifixion plaque, collected in 1874, now in the Museum für Völkerkunde, Berlin (fig. 165), shows a uniquely Kongo representation of Christ. The ivory plaque is carved in medium-depth relief in a naturalistic style; were it not for the local conventions displayed, it could almost be taken for a Romanesque carving. A Christ figure, shown with flowing beard and raised arms, is flanked by two kneeling figures touching the hem of His's cloth garment. Its simple composition, however, is enriched by a wealth of symbolic additions and modifications to the Portuguese model. The figure of Christ "shows indigenous attributes in the treatment of the hair, physiognomy, and body type, as well as in the deeply cut eyes and navel.(6)" The treatment of face and hair connote authority and wisdom, and the two figures kneeling at the feet of Jesus grasping his cloth wrap serve to point out the importance of Kongo textiles, while also showing their respect for Him.

A more overt image equating Jesus to a Kongo leader can be seen in a 19th century wood sculpture of St. Anthony, also in the Musuem für Völkerkunde (fig.166). The naturalistic, frontal pose of the saint doesn't look 'African' at all. It, again, could pass for European. The small figure of Christ held by St. Anthony might as well be a portrait of a Kongo king; it displays many traditional symbols of royalty and power.

Jesus is seated on a box throne, similar to those used in royal Kongo ceremonies; this replaces the book that supports Jesus in European versions. The asymmetrical posture of Jesus is also characteristic of Kongo art. In his right hand, Jesus holds a royal fly-whisk, and his other hand crosses over to touch his shoulder, a place where medicine bundles were sometimes secured.(7)

This, and other so-called toni malau sculptures, performed the function of safeguarding users from ill health. As in many African traditions, the art form is primarily created to perform a function, insead of being created "for art's sake." Here it is particularly startling as we see familiar (to Western viewers) subjects and forms used in a functional context. As if to emphasize his intimate relationship with the Kongo people, this figure's face has been anointed with red palm oil, in keeping with local cosmetic practice.(8) This treatment somewhat recalls the local minkisi power-figure use of materials: a wooden structure painted/anointed and added to. The St.Anthony, is of course not so dramatically adorned as a nkisi, but the connection seems to be present.

Originally thought of as "fétishes" or "rémèdies," Kongo minkisi (sing. nkisi) are a general category of religious object used to invoke supernatural power, a "personalized force from the invisible land of the dead.(9)" As such, they take varying form and incorporate a myriad of bizarre materials, added to or collected about a central object as "medicines" which aid the functionality of the object (see figs. 182,183). Most commonly, this functionality includes

ending a dispute, making an agreement permanent, creating a mutual aid pact, healing oneself of an affliction, distancing or disempowering an enemy, protecting oneself against or finding out thieves, and assuring security when traveling away from home.(10)"

The importance of minkisi is so great that the KiKongo term for the Christian concept holy is nkisi.(11) They are the most startling of Kongo religious objects, sometimes with iron spikes driven into them and open-mouthed figures staring menacingly at the viewer. Symbolic context is conveyed through materials as well as use. For example, kala zima (charcoal) is a medicine used to "strike all who are evilly disposed(12)" and luhemba (chalk, clay) is added so "that the eyes of the nkisi are the nganga may be 'brightened,' which is why when they are preparing medicines, chalk is always the first(13)" These objects require the intervention of an 'operator,' the nganga, to conduct the rituals and maintain the objects. So important were nganga to religious practice, that Christian priests called themselves nganga as well.

The most successful integration of local and imported art forms is the regalia of the royal court. Pieces like a "bag of brocade with silk strap [that] contained many papal indulgences given to King Diogo I, and were worn around the kings' necks as a sign of their being very religious.(14)" Additionally, carpets, chandeliers, and Latin-inscribed, red velvet thrones echo the syncretism of religion, and follows its fall from 'magnificence,' as this decline was "matched in many cases by an increasingly impressive set of regalia in the hands of the provincial authorities.(15)" In a mid-nineteenth century engraving of the king and his court (fig. 164), the local royal symbols aer displayed alongside the Portugese-influenced objects. Ivory tusks and horns, iron staffs and fly whisks are pictured with textiles, chairs and candelabra. A description of an altar used for Pedro II's coronation on 27 May 1622 depicts the king wearing "his crown, the white, cap-like mpu, which was placed on his head, then the simba, an ron chain with iron tassles hanging from it, placed around his neck.(16)" Here, two traditional materials, raffia textile and iron are jusxtaposed with "a bag of brocade with silk strap commonly called the 'Santissimo Sacramento' was placed on his neck as well. This bag was said to contain a grat many papal indulgences given to King Diogo I and were worn around the kings' neck as a sign of their being very religious.(17)" Here, the weight of both traditions is carried by the king, and the wildly different materials of silk and iron are treated with equal reverence.

One of the more interesting aspects of Kongo art is the influence of Christianity; the resolution of European aesthetic as well as religious conventions with conventional Kongo religion is interesting as a historical and artistic issue. For quite a number of years, the Kongo have effectively retained their identity in the face of a potentially overpowering influence. In art objects, Kongo traditionalism is subtly integrated with European tradition to create startlingly beautiful objects rich in symbolic convention, tradition and functionality.


All figure numbers correspond to illustrations in Blier, The Royal Arts of Africa

Thornton, John K "The Development of the African Catholic Church in the Kingdom of Kongo," Journal of African History 25 (1984) 148.

2 Thornton (1984) 167

3 Thornton, John K. The Kongolese Saint Anthony: Dona Beatriz Kimpa Vita and the Amtonian Movement, 1684-1706 (Cambridge: University Press, 1998) 17.

4 Thornton (1984) 166.

5 Blier, Suzanne Preston, The Royal Arts of Africa (New York: Prentice Hall/Abrams, 1998) 207.

6Blier 208.

7 Blier 209.

8 Blier 209.

9 MacGaffey, Wyatt, Art and Healing of the Bakongo Commmented By Themselves: Minkisi from the Laman Collection (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1991) 4.

10 Blier 226.

11Thornton (1984) 152.

12 MacGaffey 5.

13 MacGaffey 10.

14 Thornton, John K. "The Regalia of the Kingdom of Kongo, 1491-1895" The Kings of Africa (Utrecht, Netherlands: Foundation Kings of Africa, 1992) 58.

15 Thornton (1992) 59.

16 Thornton (1992) 58.

17 Thornton (1992) 58.