Art of Africa

angola cross

Crucifix, ca. 16th–18th century
Democratic Republic of Congo or Angola
12 1/2 x 6 1/4 inches
Gift of Richard J. Faletti Family Collection 2001-16-21

This Christian-influenced Kongo cast-brass crucifix (a cross bearing the figure of Jesus) represents two political empires, two religious systems, and two aesthetic preferences. Such crucifixes were originally venerated as religious and political icons, but with the decline of Christianity they became emblems of rank used by Kongo chiefs.

The southwest-central African Kingdom of Kongo was founded about 1400. The arrival of Portuguese explorer Diego Cão at the mouth of the Congo River in 1483 initiated a centuries-long trade relationship between Portugal and the Kingdom of Kongo. Within two months of Cão's arrival, the Kongo king Nzinga was baptized; other dignitaries and titleholders followed his lead, understanding that adopting Christianity as the state religion was a diplomatic rather than a religious gesture.

The adaptation of Christianity within the kingdom was facilitated by the fact that the symbol of the cross already represented a major existing philosophical ideology. Iconic representations of a cross correspond to the Kongo belief that life and death are continual. Known as the "Four Moments of the Sun," the endpoints of a cross within a circle mark sunrise, noon, sunset, and midnight, which represent the trajectory of a human life as it traverses the realms of the living and the ancestors, and then begins again.

Initially, Kongo artists adhered to the European prototypes of the crucifix introduced by missionaries. As time passed, however, artists began to incorporate additional figures and details into their crucifixes, giving them a decidedly Kongo character. The small abstract figures kneeling on the arms of this cross probably represent mourners in a traditional Kongo pose of respect. The figure at the bottom of the cross may be a Kongo representation of Mary, the mother of Jesus. The facial features on the figures are clearly African, and the wide-open eyes of Jesus may suggest a possessed person in touch with the supernatural world.

Text by Dana Rush, from Krannert Art Museum: Selected Works, 2008

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