The Art of Conversion: Christian Visual Culture in the Kingdom of Kongo

The Art of Conversion: Christian Visual Culture in the Kingdom of Kongo

The Art of Conversion: Christian Visual Culture in the Kingdom of Kongo

The Art of Conversion: Christian Visual Culture in the Kingdom of Kongo

Synopsis

Between the sixteenth and the nineteenth centuries, the west central African kingdom of Kongo practiced Christianity and actively participated in the Atlantic world as an independent, cosmopolitan realm. Drawing on an expansive and largely unpublished set of objects, images, and documents, Cecile Fromont examines the advent of Kongo Christian visual culture and traces its development across four centuries marked by war, the Atlantic slave trade, and, finally, the rise of nineteenth-century European colonialism. By offering an extensive analysis of the religious, political, and artistic innovations through which the Kongo embraced Christianity, Fromont approaches the country's conversion as a dynamic process that unfolded across centuries.

The African kingdom's elite independently and gradually intertwined old and new, local and foreign religious thought, political concepts, and visual forms to mold a novel and constantly evolving Kongo Christian worldview. Fromont sheds light on the cross-cultural exchanges between Africa, Europe, and Latin America that shaped the early modern world, and she outlines the religious, artistic, and social background of the countless men and women displaced by the slave trade from central Africa to all corners of the Atlantic world.

Excerpt

Central African warriors stage a martial dance in the shadow of a church and a monumental cross (see Figure 2, Plate 1). Mourners at a funeral surround a catafalque with incense, Catholic hymns, and animal offerings (see Figure 18, Plate 10). A friar blesses a wedding under a veranda in front of an African crowd dressed in luxurious textiles and garments imported from around the globe (see Figure 56). Early modern Kongo Christianity comes to life in the watercolors of the “Missione in prattica,” an illustrated manuscript composed around 1750 by Bernardino d’Asti, a veteran of the Capuchin order’s central African mission. The friar’s vivid images present unexpected tableaus in which Christian objects, rituals, and symbols seamlessly meld with African imagery, practices, and emblems. The characters in the watercolors inhabit a space that, for friar Bernardino’s audience in eighteenth-century Italy and viewers of his works today, challenges preconceptions about Africa. Instead of a strange land alien to European ideas, objects, and practices, a cosmopolitan, visibly Christian landscape opens up before our eyes. This is the kingdom of Kongo, a realm that at the time of the paintings had professed Christianity and engaged with the visual and material cultures of Europe and the Atlantic world at large for nearly 250 years. From their king’s decision to embrace Catholicism at the turn of the sixteenth century to the time of Bernardino and beyond, elite men and women of the Kongo creatively mixed, merged, and redefined local and foreign visual forms, religious thought, and political concepts into a novel, coherent, and continually evolving worldview that I call Kongo Christianity.

Drawing from a surprisingly broad and rarely published set of objects, images, and written documents, I analyze the advent of Kongo Christian visual culture circa 1500, follow its evolutions for three centuries within the political, religious, and commercial context of the early modern Atlantic world, and finally study its unraveling in the wake of the colonial era, fully inaugurated in Africa with the 1885 Berlin Conference. Explored is the way in which the elite of the kingdom used narratives, artworks, and visual culture at large as conceptual spaces of correlation within which they recast heterogeneous local and foreign ideas and forms into newly interrelated parts of the evolving worldview that was Kongo Christianity. These spaces of correlation demonstrate that the newly minted Kongo Christian discourse did not . . .

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