Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History

Mangarevan Sculpture

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Located some 900 miles southeast of Tahiti, the tiny volcanic islands of Mangareva were home to a unique tradition within Polynesian sculpture. Like other Polynesian peoples, such as the Hawaiians or the Maori people of New Zealand, the Mangarevans believed in a broad pantheon of different gods, a number of whom were represented with wooden images. On Mangareva, such images formed the focal point of rituals during which the priests, or taura, sought to communicate with the gods on behalf of the community. For each new ceremony, a structure was built on the grounds of the temple, or marae, to house the image of the god during the rituals that followed. During some rituals, the figures were dressed with headdresses and loincloths made from barkcloth, a textile made from the inner bark of certain species of trees.


The Mangarevans believed in a broad pantheon of different gods, a number of whom were represented with wooden images.

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Cited Works of Art or Images (3)

  • Figure of the God Rao
  • Figure of the God Tupo
  • Figure of the God Tu

Primary Thematic Essays (2)

Index Terms (6)

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On Mangareva, images in human form were collectively known as tiki and were created by specialist carvers, known as taura rakau, who worked under the patronage of the gods Motu-ariki and Te Agiagi. When their services were needed, carvers underwent a ritual initiation, which brought them under the influence of their patron deities. A semi-professional class of craftspeople, carvers were paid in food and other goods for their work. The initiation of the carving process itself was sometimes the direct result of divine inspiration. According to one oral tradition, it was said that an image would be carved after a new god had spoken through the mouth of a priest. Most of the surviving images from Mangareva depict Tu, god of the breadfruit trees, which provided the Mangarevans with their most important staple food. Other images represented Rogo, a god of rain and agriculture, Rao, a god associated with the planting of tumeric (a root crop that yielded a yellow pigment used to decorate the body and clothing), and other gods.


Wooden images on Mangareva were originally fairly abundant, representing a variety of gods and deified ancestors. However, following the adoption of Christianity by the Mangarevans, virtually all of these figures were burned in 1835 at the behest of Christian missionaries. Today, only roughly a dozen examples survive, making them among the rarest of Polynesian sculptures. These examples, ironically, were saved by the missionaries themselves and sent back to Europe as evidence of their success in bringing Christianity to the Mangarevans.


Department of Arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas, The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Figure of the God Rao
Mangareva, Mangareva Islands
Wood; H. 104 cm
Musée National des Arts d'Afrique et d'Océanie, Paris

While most of the surviving images from Mangareva are relatively naturalistic, this figure of the god Rao is highly stylized. With the exception of the legs, the body is reduced to a series of interlocking geometric forms. On Mangareva, Rao was a relatively minor god, associated with the planting of tumeric, a root crop that yielded a yellow pigment that was highly valued for the decoration of the human body, clothing, and as food coloring. As the people planted the tumeric, the priest stayed at the temple and observed a vow of chastity to ensure a bountiful and healthy harvest.

Figure of the God Tupo
Akamaru, Mangareva Islands
Wood; H. 85 cm
Pontificio Museo Missionario-Ethnologico, Rome

This forked stick image, or eketea, is said to depict the god Tupo. It was used by priests at rites held in honor of Tu, god of breadfruit, which was the staple crop of the Mangarevans. During the ritual, the priests held the eketea images while they recited the following chant in honor of Tu: "Eketea! Eketea for us. Eketea for the gods. O, Tu, your festival is being observed." The upper portion of the image resembles the long, forked sticks used to harvest the breadfruit, while the figure's anthropomorphic legs are similar to those of other Mangarevan god images.

Figure of the God Tu
Mangareva, Mangareva Islands
Wood; H. 90 cm
Pontificio Museo Missionario-Ethnologico, Rome

This unique four-legged image represents Tu, the principal god of Mangareva. In many Polynesian cultures, Tu was a god of war. However, on Mangareva, Tu played a more peaceful role, being the god of breadfruit, the most important staple food in the Mangarevan diet. In former times, the priests of Tu were chosen only from chiefly families and the rituals associated with him performed in temporary structures erected at the village temple, or marae. If Tu was pleased, a bountiful breadfruit crop would be assured, but if he was displeased, famine could result.