Images of the Catholic Congo

Congolese ambassador Don Miguel de Castro, on a delegation to Brazil, attributed to Jaspar Beckz, ca. 1643-50.
Soon after the miraculous victory of Afonso Mvemba a Nzinga at the Battle of Mbanza Kongo in 1506, the Kingdom of Kongo established itself as a Catholic monarchy that maintained ties with the Pope and was recognized as a peer by the rulers of Europe.

The art of the Kongo has garnered considerable attention, particularly in the nail-studded nkondi so common in museum collections. The sacred arts of the kingdom, unfortunately, have not been as well studied, perhaps due to an earlier tendency to dismiss them as mere inferior copies of European models. But thankfully, that is now beginning to change, and since this is still a largely unknown part of history to many Catholics, it is worth reviewing some notable examples.

Among the most notable Christian artifacts from the region are the nkangi kiditu (Christ the protector), popularly called Congo crosses. Though clearly based on the European crucifix, the corpus of Christ is typically depicted in a traditional African fashion, and very often there are praying figures (angels?) perched on each arms of the cross, and saints or other figures affixed to the central post.

Kongo. Crucifix (Nkangi Kiditu), early 17th century. Copper alloy, 13 1/2 x 6 x 1 in. (34.3 x 15.2 x 2.5 cm). Brooklyn Museum, Gift of Jean C. and Raymond E. Britt Jr. Collection, by exchange , 2011.74.
Kongo ivories, carved from the tusk of the local forest elephant (Loxodonta cyclotis), were justly prized all over Europe for their exquisite craftsmanship. The World Museum in Liverpool has a particularly fine example:

Another ivory, this one from the 16th century and now in the Museo Nazionale Preistorico Etnografico in Rome shows intricately detailed diamond and diagonal patterns; similar patterns are seen often in Congolese textiles made of raffia cloth (and also once highly prized in Europe).

TOP: Oliphant, 16th century, inventoried 1887, Republic of the Congo, Angola, Kongo peoples, Ivory, L. 23 1/4 in. (58 cm), Diam. 2 5/8 (6.5 cm), MIBACT–Polo Museale del Lazio, Museo Preistorico Etnografico Luigi Pigorini, Rome
BOTTOM: Luxury Cloth Cushion Cover, 16th–17th century, inventoried 1674, Angola, Republic of the Congo, Kongo peoples, Raffia, 20 7/8 x 9 in. (53 x 23 cm), British Museum, London. 
Among the most ambitious and monumental examples of Congo artistry was the Cathedral of São Salvador do Congo, built in the royal capital of Mbanza Kongo in 1549. It is now unfortunately in ruins, but it at one time served as an episcopal see, with a bishop of Kongo consecrated in 1596.

There is even a fascinating example of native heraldry. The Congolese royal coat of arms is associated closely with the Battle of Mbanza Kongo. According to Afonso's account, the battle against his pagan brothers was won thanks to the appearance of the cross in the sky and the miraculous appearance of five heavenly horsemen led by St. James the Greater. The cross, flanked by St. James's scallops, is shown on a field of blue; below are five sword arms on a red field. The arms of the Portuguese House of Aziz also appear, and at bottom are shown remnants of broken statues, symbolizing the victory over pagan idols. In memory of the event, St. James's Day on July 25 continued to be a Congolese national holiday throughout the life of the kingdom.

Coat of Arms of the Kingdom of Kongo.  "Manicongo" as written on the bottom is a Latinization of the Kikongo phrase Mwene Kongo, "Lord of Kongo".
The Catholicism of the Kongo region had a much wider impact than its immediate surroundings—it is estimated that as many as a quarter of the Africans brought as slaves to the New World came from the region, and scholars are continuing to investigate how their pre-existing religious traditions manifested themselves throughout the diaspora.

While there has been much talk of "inculturating" sacred art over the last few decades, unfortunately the discussion has too often revolved around inventing novelties rather than actually preserving and developing a pre-existing Catholic culture. Concrete examples of art such as these—simultaneously indigenous and traditional in their style and symbolism—can ground this discussion on much more solid historical footing.

Join in the conversation on our Facebook page.