Brass Jesuit or Saint Toni Malau Figure
Kongo People, Angola & Congo
height: 17cm, weight: 880g
This brass figure of an African wears a frock coat, rosary beads with a prominent crucifix and what appears to be a biretta, the square cap traditionally worn by the Roman Catholic clergy. It appears to be a figure of a Jesuit, some other clergyman or perhaps a saint. (The biretta is tuftless, similar to the type adopted by the Jesuits.)
Christian imagery has a long history in Kongolese art. The once powerful Kingdom of Kongo was spread across what today forms the Republic of Congo, its neighbour the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Angola. The Kingdom had a long and complex relationship with Portugal. Cast bronze and brass crucifixes (known as
n’kangi kiditu – ‘cross of Christ’) and other bronzes prominently cast with crucifixes such as the example here provide testament to the early influence of the Portuguese. Often Christian imagery is mixed with local characteristics. Brass images of Jesus sometimes were cast with overt Negro features for example. The images typically were cast with an open mould using metal obtained from brass units of currency shaped as armlets known as manillas.
Small brass religious images, such as the example here, were known as
toni malau sculptures and performed the function of safeguarding the owner from ill health.
The Catholic Church arrived in the Kingdom shortly after the first Portuguese explorers in 1483. After some fraught negotiations, the ruling king, Nzingo a Nkuwu permitted missionaries to come to the kingdom. The king ultimately was baptised after some of his advisors claimed to have had visions or dreams in which the king was urged to be baptised and after another reportedly found a cross-shaped stone at an auspicious location near a river. On his baptism, the king took the new name of Joao in honour of the then Portuguese king.
His son Afonso was instrumental in developing the Church in the Kingdom. But it was not a precise replica of the Church in Portugal. It incorporated many local beliefs and practices. Catholic saints were identified with local spirit entities and so on.
Jesuits played an import role between the years 1548–1555, but a dispute with a subsequent local king brought their role to an end until 1619 when they were able to re-establish their activities in the Kongo Kingdom. The Jesuits founded the College of Sao Salvador which educated many of the Kongo elite in the seventeenth century.
Seventeenth & eighteenth century engravings of Jesuit travellers, showing their headwear & dress.
The Kingdom had a highly centralised monarchy and a powerful noble class. The nobility sustained its luxurious lifestyle via heavy taxes levied on the rural peasant class and from trade. The wealth of the Kingdom derived from trade in copper, salt, hides, ivory, cloth and later, slaves. The early and voluntary conversion to Christianity of the Kingdom’s elite helped solidify trade ties with Europe.
Bronzes featuring Portuguese or Portuguese dress are known in sixteenth century Kingdom of Benin bronzes. These bronzes were produced at a time when the Kingdom experienced a surge in prosperity from trade with foreign trade, much of which was with Europe. (The Portuguese were the first Europeans to come to Benin, arriving by sea in the fifteenth century.) The European figures shown wear tunics of similar length with similar buttoning and similar collar forms.
Le Fur, Y. (ed.),
Musee du Quai Branley: The Collection: Art from Africa, Asia, Oceania, and the Americas, Flammarion, 2009; and Levenson, J. (ed.), Encompassing the Globe: Portugal and the World in the 16th & 17th Centuries, Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, 2007.
Inventory no.: 952
Note: This item comes with a custom-made stand.
The figure as it appears on its stand.