Christian and African Iconography in the Kongo Kingdom
Both of the crosses pictured above are products of about the 15th century. They are extremely distinct in terms of style, but share many thematic concepts. The cross on the left comes out of the Kingdom of Kongo in Western Africa, while the right came from Europe. Most of us probably relate fairly closely to the Western take on the cross, so what makes the Kongo cross so distinctive?
The integration of Christianity into the Kongo Kingdom brought about a uniquely Africanized religion, one that took preexisting Kongo belief systems and brought in elements of European Christianity to form something new. Taking a look at the Kongo crosses help us see how these cultures mingled and culminated into material goods.
The Kongo Kingdom
The Kingdom of Kongo has far-reaching origins, beginning with Bantu migrations around the West coast and interior of Africa. This area of the continent, now in present-day Angola, was attractive for its wealth of resources such as copper and other minerals. With its location near the coast, it held an important trade position, allowing for a flow of resources from further inland to the coast.
It was a densely populated area, allowing for the formation of a larger political body that resulted in what resembled a feudal state. The king was able to hold control through tribute and the high density of people close to the capital allowed for easy organization and centralization.
The Four Moments of the Sun and Existing Kongo Beliefs
Obviously, people of the Kongo Kingdom had their own religion and iconography before the arrival of Christian faith in the 15th century. Before this integration, people of the Kongo believed in many gods and in the power of ancestors in interacting with the present.
One of the most interesting aspects of their spiritual system is the preexisting use of cruciform symbolism in Kongo religion. According to the Kongo Cosmogram (Four Moments of the Sun), life is in a constant cycle of birth and rebirth, and it is represented by the cross like figure as seen in the slideshow below. A group called the Kimpasi used the cross for a ritual that signified the entrance of an elite member into a new society, mirroring death and rebirth. Diamond shapes and crosses were used widely in rock art, headstones, and textiles.
Statues and other artwork created by the Kongolese show representations of this cross even in subtle ways. It is fairly easy to assume that their crosses, though not crucifixes as used in European Christianity, were strikingly familiar to the Portuguese who arrived there. Christian iconography presented by the Portuguese was probably so easily integrated into Kongolese artwork because crucifix-like icons already existed in this region.
Arrival of the Portuguese
The Portuguese arrived in 1483 with explorer Diogo Cão and kidnapped a few Kongo citizens before returning to Europe. They returned again for more extensive traveling in 1491 and brought supplies and gifts with them (including crosses, priests, and other religious professionals and artwork), suggesting to the people of Kongo that they could be valuable partners in trade. It was then that King Nzinga converted to Christianity and his son, who adopted the European name Afonso, was baptized. With the support of the Portuguese, Afonso succeeded the throne and made Christianity the official religion of the Kongo Kingdom. Eventually, the Portuguese became integrated into the Kongo community through marriage. However, the tides of power were shifting towards the Portuguese as the slave trade ramped up and Kongo’s power declined.
Alfonso I made Christianity the official religion in the Kongo Kingdom-- but it was “Africanized.” Crosses were used in a European way (worn as a sign of devotion, put on tombstones, etc.) but were also used as amulets for protection and good health, a distinctly Kongo idea.
People in the Kongo began making their own crosses in the 16th-17th century using wood, gold, copper, and other metals. Jesus, when on the cross, is depicted as an African, his loincloth made from raffia with traditional Kongo designs. In European processional crosses, saints are often displayed on each arm of the cross, and was strikingly interpreted by Kongo artists; little figurines sit on top of some of these crosses, bowed in what seems to be prayer or submission.
Another interesting feature of many Kongo crosses is the placement of Saint Anthony on some crosses. This is not something that showed up on European crosses, though Saint Anthony was an important figure, especially in Portuguese and Italian faith. In the cross displayed below, Saint Anthony holds a book with the baby Jesus standing on it. The sculpture has a loop on the back, which suggests before its placement on the wooden cross, it was worn as a pendant.
Saint Anthony became particularly important among the Kingdom of Kongo because he represented good fortune and prosperity, eventually becoming an insignia of Kongo chiefs. An 18th-century cult called the Antoniens, lead by a woman named Dona Beatriz Kimpa Vita, who purported she was the reincarnation of Saint Anthony. After spreading an Africanized message of the church throughout the kingdom, she was eventually burned at the stake by the church and the government, which may help us understand why Saint Anthony was depicted on the cross in some instances.
Conversion and Africanization
The Kongo Crosses exemplify how interesting the interaction between Portuguese Catholicism and existing Kongo culture was. Though the relationship with Europeans eventually turned into one of exploitation, it started off as a relatively peaceful integration of culture and iconography. The cross became a point of connection, a sort of bridge between two fairly different cultures. In both groups, crosses symbolized life, death, and resurrection, though the background behind these beliefs is quite different. For a while, these different uses of the symbol coexisted at the same time, suggesting a fluid relationship between them.
It is too simple to say the kingdom was converted to Christianity. As the crosses exemplify, the people of Kongo brought together existing beliefs and complementary Catholic ideas into a cohesive whole.
(Cosmology diagram) http://www.webarchaeology.com/html/kongocos.htm
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