Altar Ring

17th–19th century
Nigeria, Court of Benin (?)
Edo peoples
H. 1 5/8 in. (4.1 cm)
Credit Line:
Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Klaus G. Perls, 1991
Accession Number:
1991.17.134a, b
On view at The Met Fifth Avenue in Gallery 352
The imagery of this brass ring relates to human sacrifice. Arrayed along the ring's circumference are three gagged and severed heads and four bound, decapitated bodies; vultures are depicted eating the remains. A much larger head, covered in vertical striations and wearing an elaborate, conical hat, is not gagged and likely represents a ruler rather than a sacrificial victim. Interspersed among these figurative elements are depictions of round pots meant to hold water and herbal medicines. Performed infrequently, such sacrifices were momentous occasions designed to strengthen and protect an entire community or kingdom.

Rings of this kind have been found throughout the Benin kingdom, as well as at Yoruba capitals such as Owo, Ife, and Ijebu. Although largely similar to one another in form and function, such altar rings may be attributed to various brass-casting centers by virtue of their stylistic characteristics. This ring probably derives from a provincial region at the edges of the Benin kingdom. While its slender cross section, large diameter, and high relief recall similar works from Benin, the ruler's striated face and the victim's willowy limbs and thick, hatched eyelids are distinctly non-Edo in appearance.
Augustus Lane-Fox Pitt-Rivers, Farnham, Dorset, UK; [Alvin Abrams, Conneticut and New York]; Mr. and Mrs. Klaus G. Perls, New York, until 1991

Ezra, Kate. Royal Art of Benin: The Perls Collection in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1992, no. 32, pp. 102–103.