Democratic Republic of Congo; Kongo peoples
H. 10 in. (25.4 cm)
Gift of Ernst Anspach, 1999 (1999.295.4)
This Kongo cross, like earlier related works, is based on European prototypes. Earlier Kongo renditions of this subject depict Christ with naturalistically modeled arms, legs, and torso that emphasize musculature. Additionally, his face is rendered in the throes of an arduous death. However, later examples of this style suggest a more profound assimilation of the cross with local idioms.
In this work, Christ's hair is that of a Kongolese subject and his facial features have been reduced to stylized abbreviations that are less detailed in their descriptiveness. His hands and feet are flattened and the feet are joined into a single five-toed limb, which, according to interpretations of Kongo gestures, affords heightened spiritual power. The wrap and ribs are rendered as simplified to geometric linear abstractions. Christ is depicted with large protruding oval eyes, a common motif in Kongo art representing the supernatural vision of a human who is possessed by an ancestor or deity. Below Christ and above his shoulders are small, highly stylized praying figures. Their role and identities are unknown, but they may be mourners or ancestors.
Considered an emblem of spiritual authority and power, the Christian cross was integrated into Kongo ancestral cults and burial rituals, and was believed to contain magical protective properties. In Kongo culture, crosses were believed to intervene in matters ranging from illness and fertility to rainfall.