From the accession of Afonso I to the Kongo throne in 1509 to its final dissolution in 1914, the Kongo in central Africa was a Christian kingdom whose status was recognized throughout the early modern Atlantic world. Remarkably, Christianity developed there at the demand and under the control of the Kongo crown itself, outside the context of colonization (but not apart from European contact). After adopting the new religion, the Kongo underwent a major redefinition of its visual culture: local and foreign forms were brought together to create a distinct expression of Kongo Christianity, one that helped ensure the Kongo’s place in the realm of Christendom. This process of visual inculturation is the topic of Cécile Fromont’s new book, The Art of Conversion: Christian Visual Culture in the Kingdom of Kongo (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2014).
The book contains ninety-three halftones, thirty-seven of which are duplicated as color plates in a center insert. Disappointingly, the majority of these images are paintings by Europeans—mostly Italian missionaries from the Capuchin-Franciscan order, who arrived in the Kongo in 1645 and created didactic watercolors with glosses that describe their work there; scenes include missionaries performing wedding and funeral ceremonies, hearing confessions, blessing courtly performances, and leading processions. Other European images include oil paintings of Kongo ambassadors by a Dutch court artist (as pictured on the cover), observational drawings and prints by visitors from various countries, and imported devotional objects, such as statuettes of saints.
Indigenous objects pictured in the book include crucifixes, swords, staffs, pendants, carved tusks, mpu caps, textiles, and minkisi minkondi (nail figures). Fromont discusses how these objects functioned in Kongo society.
Christianity Takes Root in Kongo
The kingdom of Kongo was founded around 1390 in what is now northern Angola and western Democratic Republic of Congo. It wasn’t until nearly a century later, in 1483, that European explorers first arrived—Portuguese, led by Diogo Cão.
In the first decade of contact, Kongo and Portugal dispatched embassies and established a cordial diplomatic relationship. Nzinga a Nkuwu, the Kongo king, even requested that the Portuguese send specialists to train his people in Christianity, which the Portuguese of course obliged. In 1491, King Nzinga converted to Christianity—as did the queen, the prince, and several other Kongo nobles—taking the name of João I after the king of Portugal. (While not ruling out the possibility that these conversions arose from a sincere change of heart, Fromont speculates that they may have been for political reasons, an attempt to establish friendly terms of trade.)
After King Nzinga’s death in 1509, his son Afonso I Mvemba a Nzinga succeeded him. One of Afonso’s first acts in office was to declare Christianity the kingdom’s official religion. “If João I was the first king to receive baptism,” writes Fromont, “it was his son Afonso who initiated the crucial symbolic reformulation that naturalized Christianity into a central African religion while integrating the Kongo into the larger realm of Christendom” (70). Because he so greatly changed the historical fabric of the Kongo, Afonso is credited as being the kingdom’s “second founder.”
Afonso’s accession to the throne was not without conflict: he was opposed by his younger brother, Mpanzu a Kitima, who refused conversion and insisted on his own right to be king. Mpanzu raised an army and attacked Afonso and his followers. On the verge of defeat, Afonso invoked the help of Saint James the Apostle, after which an army of horsemen was said to have appeared in the sky under a resplendent white cross, led by Saint James himself, and secured victory for Afonso.
Afonso’s story of accession was formalized by the design of a Kongo coat of arms, which a Portuguese artist created in response to a written account Afonso had sent to Europe. (It’s unclear whether Afonso commissioned the design or whether it was a gift from Portugal.) Interpreting its symbolism to his vassals, Afonso said that the scallop shells symbolize Saint James; the five swords, the five wounds of Christ. The cross in the middle recalls the miraculous appearance in the sky on the day of the battle and therefore God’s grace and favor on the Kongo. The two broken, toppling figures at the bottom, which flank Portugal’s own coat of arms, represent the idols that the kingdom used to vest power in before its conversion.
Kongo Manufactures Its Own Christian Art
My only knowledge of Kongo Christianity prior to reading this book had to do with the crucifixes that were produced during the kingdom’s flourishing. What I didn’t know about these crucifixes—and this impresses me—is that they came out of metalworking shops that were established by Kongo artists of their own initiative solely to produce Christian devotional objects. There is no record, Fromont writes, of European laymen or missionaries being involved in these operations.
Fromont devotes a whole chapter to “the sign of the cross” in the Kongo—a sign that predates European contact, having been a central motif in rock paintings, textiles, and engravings in the Kongo long before the Portuguese arrived. When the Portuguese came in the late fifteenth century, they brought crucifixes with them, as did the Italian missionaries who came in the sixteenth century. These imports provided models for Kongo artists, on which they innovated by adding ancillary figures (kneeling on the transverse beam, for example), geometric designs, and etched borders.
Stylistically, Kongo crucifixes are a hybrid of traditional African and European Baroque. Whereas the European tendency at the time was to depict figures naturalistically (that is, true to life), Africans tended to stylize their figures, to abstractify. The result of this mixing was a crucified Christ figure that is only moderately stylized—a bit more realistic looking than other African forms but still “primitive.”
One distinctive feature of many Kongo crucifixes is, as mentioned before, the inclusion of secondary figures—usually Mary and some anonymous pray-ers. In the crucifix pictured here, the figure directly under Christ is identifiable as the Virgin Mary by the crescent moon under her feet, a standard iconographic element in representations of the Immaculate Conception, derived from Revelation 12:1. Her hands are folded reverently in prayer.
Beneath Mary is a figure that lies lifeless, arms wrapped around the upper body, legs crossed, and head tilted to the right. This dead body might have referred to some deceased member of the elite, Fromont suggests, or it may be a metaphor of being at rest with Christ.
Above Christ are three praying attendants and two bodiless heads.
I was a little underwhelmed by this chapter; I expected a more diversified selection of crucifixes—which are extant in the hundreds—as well as greater clarity as to the significance of the cross symbol in Kongo prior to the kingdom’s conversion to Christianity (Fromont alludes to it having been a representation of local beliefs about supernatural forces, the otherworld, and immanence but does not articulate what those beliefs were).
Kongo Is Granted Status in Christendom, Until . . .
One point of emphasis in the book is Kongo’s independent, uncoerced adoption of Christianity, as well as the respect the Kongo was given by the European powers:
It is crucial to understand that the cross-cultural interactions between the kingdom of Kongo and Europeans were not ruled by colonialism or unfolding under dynamics of oppression and resistance. Instead, owing to the successful intervention of Afonso and his successors, the Kongo enjoyed a rare status among non-European polities in the early modern era, one defined by its independence and its standing as a Christian land. Until well into the nineteenth century, when attitudes toward Africa dramatically changed under the influence of the pseudoscientific racial and social theories of the time, no European government seriously questioned the status of the Kongo as an independent Catholic polity. Ambassadors from the kingdom received a sumptuous welcome in European courts, and their visits occasionally warranted the commission of celebratory artworks, such as the bust of António Manuel still standing today in Rome’s Santa Maria Maggiore. The Kongo’s position in Christendom may also be judged by considering the full page in the 1548 Godinho manuscript on which the arms of the African kingdom appear alongside the emblems of other Christian nations, such as Poland and Bohemia. (31-32)
Fromont points out that Christian imagery didn’t enter the Kongo through missionaries only; it came also through Kongo’s diplomatic relations with Christian rulers from Europe.
Kongo’s relations with Portugal were amicable until the 1620s, at which point their alliance began to unravel. Ultimately Kongo was annexed into colonial Angola by the Portuguese, a process that unfolded gradually over a span of decades, from 1859 to 1914.
Evaluation of the Book
Fromont’s The Art of Conversion is an academic sweep through Kongolese history and the role the kingdom played in the Atlantic world, as evidenced by its visual and material culture. I wish that the author had gone deeper into the two belief systems at play; her discussion of the kimpasi society, a central African religious association that coexisted with Christianity and whose initiation rite involved a symbolic death and resurrection, was interesting but brief, as was her discussion of minkisi minkondi, “fetish” figures that were pierced through with blades, nails, and other sharp objects as a way to summon divine intervention. (Fromont observes their partial similarity to Catholic images of saints.) For all the book’s mentions of the merging of traditional Kongo beliefs with Christianity to create a new hybrid faith, very few specifics are given.
Instead of exploring the theological underpinnings of the kingdom’s art, the book focuses mainly on how Christianity influenced Kongo’s political, economic, and social systems, and especially how it elevated them to an honored position in the eyes of the Western world. Because of the emphasis on Kongo–European relations, much of the art in the book is, as I said, not indigenous to Kongo, though it does of course portray the Kongo people, giving us a picture of how they dressed, how they interacted with missionaries, what their villages looked like, and so on. Regalia and insignia are discussed at length.Read this book if you’re interested in learning the rise-and-fall history of a Christian kingdom in Africa as told through object and image. If you’re looking for an example of how a non-Western people group authentically embraces Christianity and successfully indigenizes it, don’t bother.