Christianity has an extensive history in Africa. It was first introduced in the fourth century to the ancient and prosperous Axumite kingdom in present-day Ethiopia. The Axumites traded far and wide, exporting incense, ivory, rhinoceros horn, tortoiseshell, apes, and slaves through the port of Adulis on the Red Sea and importing goods and ideas from Syria, Egypt, and other lands. St. Mark (or Frumentius), a Syrian from Alexandria, Egypt, is usually credited with introducing Coptic Christianity to the Axumite king Ezana, who established the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. During the period between the late twelfth and early thirteenth centuries, King Lalibela desired to build a new Jerusalem. The churches in the capital of Lalibela were cut out of rock and are the largest monumental structures in Africa.(5)
Portuguese navigators in the late fifteenth century took Roman Catholic priests on their exploratory voyages to coastal West, Central, and East Africa. Initial efforts to convert the king (oba) of the Benin kingdom failed but mutually beneficial commercial trade-the trafficking of European luxury goods, firearms, and brass in exchange for salt, pepper, and slaves-was established. During the early sixteenth century the reigning Edo king also refused to be baptized, but he allowed his son to do so and to learn Portuguese, thereby enhancing diplomatic relations. Missionary efforts had ceased by 1540, probably as a result of unprofitable commercial transactions, and were not attempted again until the seventeenth century.
The first Christian state in sub-Saharan Africa was the Kongo kingdom in present-day northern Angola. João I and his nobles were baptized in 1491,(6) and hundreds of Kongo subjects and Portuguese carpenters built a Catholic church. By the time João died in 1509, he had lost interest in Christianity. His son and successor Afonso I Mvemba Nzinga (reigned 1506-1543) was a devout Christian, however, and re-founded the Kongo kingdom with Christianity as its state religion.(7) Although Afonso thought the Portuguese partners were not adhering to Kongo laws governing the slave trade, he sent his son Henrique Kinu a Mvemba to Portugal to be educated. Henrique eventually became a bishop.
The Dutch seized Portuguese trading establishments in the early seventeenth century and supplanted the Portuguese in the Atlantic slave trade. The Dutch were followed by the Danes, and they by the British. Each reintroduced European Christianity to Africa as part of their commercial and colonial agendas. During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, repatriated Christian slaves helped spread the Word. When European powers divided sub-Saharan Africa among themselves and created colonies in the late nineteenth century, conversion to the Christian religion availed one of Western education and with access to the requisite skills for survival in a changed world.
Representing the crucified Christ, crosses are the most important symbol of Christianity. Artists made them in different sizes for use in different contexts. For example, large elaborately decorated crosses are mounted on poles that raise them above the heads of the worshippers in processions during feast days (fig. 59). During worship, processional crosses are used to bless the congregation, baptismal water, sacraments, and the four corners of the church. They are commonly made of copper alloys and cast by the lost-wax process (cire perdue), which makes each one unique. Processional crosses made of iron and silver are more uncommon.(8)
The Dallas Museum of Art's collection of over two hundred examples also includes handheld crosses made of wood or metal and small metal pendants for necklaces. Kenneth Redden, a founder of Ethiopia's first law school in the late 1960s, assembled the collection. Haile Selassie, emperor of Ethiopia from 1930 to 1974, allowed Redden to export the crosses on the condition that they be displayed publicly.(9)
Tradition-based artists in West and Central Africa also found new patronage in the Christian church.(10) In addition to crucifixes and other devotional objects, they carved figures of religious. The Dallas figure posed in prayer may depict a monk or a nun wearing a pith helmet or a veil. Because both men and women wore habits that concealed their bodies from head to toe, gender identification is difficult. The observant artist carefully depicted the knotted leather or fiber belt with ends that terminate in a cross, the folds of the garment, and the shoes.
The Arts of Africa at the Dallas Museum of Art, cat. 99, pp. 264-267.
5. Grierson, Roderick, ed. African Zion: The Sacred Art of Ethiopia. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, in association with Fort Worth: InterCultura; Baltimore: Walters Art Gallery; and Addis Ababa: Institute of Ethiopian Studies, 1993. p. 8.
6. Pigafetta, Filippo. A Report of the Kingdom of Congo. 1881. Repr., trans. Margarite Hutchinson. London: Cass, 1970. pp. 70-78.
7. MacGaffey, Wyatt. Kongo Political Culture: The Conceptual Challenge of the Particular. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2000. p. 214.
9. Louise Cantwell to Anne Bromberg, personal communication, 14 August 1992.
10. Lips, Julius E. The Savage Hits Back. New Hyde Park, N.Y.: University Books, 1966. pp. 164-188.
For the most noteworthy examples of African Christian art found among the Yoruba of Nigeria and various peoples of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (the former Belgian Congo), see Carroll, Kevin. Yoruba Religious Carvings: Pagan and Christian Sculpture in Nigeria and Dahomey. New York: Praeger, 1967. pp. 137-153.
Lehmann, Arno. Christian Art in Africa and Asia. St. Louis: Concordia, 1966.
National Museum of African Art. The Stranger Among Us. Exh. broch. Washington, D.C.: National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution, 1982.