Angola/Democratic Republic of Congo; Kongo
H. 41 1/2 in. (105.41 cm)
Gift of Ernst Anspach, 1999 (1999.295.2)
In the late fifteenth century, the Kongo kingdom, an immensely powerful state that at its height controlled parts of modern-day Angola, Democratic Republic of Congo, Gabon, and the Congo Republic, adopted Christianity as its official religion. By the early eighteenth century, however, the kingdom was in an advanced state of decline. Christian imagery assumed fresh importance as Kongo peoples looked to religion for solutions to the kingdom's social and political troubles.
The Portuguese-born Saint Anthony was adopted as the figurehead of Antonianism, a movement initiated in 1704 by a Kongo visionary known as Dona Beatriz, or Kimpa Vita. Through direct consultation with the saint, Kimpa Vita determined that the means of saving the Kongo state lay in the more thorough Africanization of the local Catholic church. Items incorporating the image of Saint Anthony, known locally as Toni Malau ("Anthony of Good Fortune") and considered the patron of mothers and children, relate to this movement and served to protect their owners from illness and misfortune.
The finial of this wooden staff is a cast brass image of Saint Anthony. The quality of the carving and the obvious expense of the metal figure indicate that it was an item owned by an individual of significant importance and authority. The iron spike at the bottom is characteristic of Central African staffs of rulership and suggests that the piece was driven into the ground for public display while its owner sat in state or performed spiritual functions. At the top, the figure of Saint Anthony is portrayed standing on a small round dais, carrying a cross in one hand and the Christ Child in the other. The accurate, detailed depiction of the saint's tonsured head, monk's habit, and knotted cord belt reflect the Kongo artist's obvious familiarity with the appearance of Capuchin monks, who ministered to the Kongo church at this time.
A small loop appearing between the saint's shoulder blades suggests that the figure was originally created as a pendant. This conclusion is confirmed by the existence of a seam along the back of the figure where a separate piece of metal was fused to the original to form a socket for the staff's wooden shaft. Such modifications demonstrate the deep social and spiritual significance of works like this one, which were reused and reworked to fit a variety of sculptural contexts as a result of their immense value and continued significance.