Kongo Crucifix


Early 16th – 17th century
Democratic Republic of Congo
Brass; H. 10 in. (25.4 cm)

In this work, Christ’s facial features and hair are that of a Kongolese subject. Below Christ and above his shoulders are four small, highly stylized orant (praying figures) whose role and identities are thought to be mourners, ancestors, angels, saints or even apostles. Considered an emblem of spiritual authority and power, the Christian cross was integrated into Kongo ancestral cults and burial rituals, and was believed to contain magical protective properties that could intervene in matters ranging from illness and fertility to rainfall.

Although most Americans are comfortable with the idea of Muslim Africans in the slave trade period, they seem much less comfortable with Christian Africans. A literate elite, drawing partially in European clothes, bearing Portuguese names, and professing Catholicism seem somehow out of place in the popular image of precolonial Africa. (John K. Thornton. The Kongolese Saint Anthony [UK: Cambridge University Press, 1998], 1).