Academic journal article The Catholic Historical Review

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

Academic journal article The Catholic Historical Review

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

Article excerpt

AFRICAN

The Art of Conversion: Christian Visual Culture in the Kingdom of Kongo. By Cécile Fromont. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press. 2014. Published for the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture, Williamsburg, VA. Pp. xx, 283. $45.00. ISBN 978-1-4696-1871-5.)

In 1491, only eight years after the Portuguese first visited the Kingdom of Kongo in 1483, Kongo King Nzinga a Nkuwu (r. 1470-1509) converted to Christianity, changing his name to João I. With his conversion, a centuries-long relationship commenced among the Kingdom of Kongo, the Iberian Peninsula, and the Catholic Church. João's son Afonso I Mvemba a Nzinga (r. 1509-42) strengthened these close connections when he made Christianity Kongo's state religion. Christianity continued to be an important part of Kongolese religious, social, and political life until it slowly began to decline in the nineteenth century due to European colonization in the region.

In her book The Art of Conversion: Christian Visual Culture in the Kingdom of Kongo, Cécile Fromont argues that the Kongolese elite did not just adopt Christianity; instead, they made it distinctly Kongolese, which Fromont calls Kongo Christianity. Fromont reveals how Kongo Christianity manifested itself in swords, crosses, clothing, regalia, architecture, rituals, and celebrations. Through examination of these cultural objects, Fromont shows that Kongolese engagement with Christianity transformed their beliefs, political discourses, and social organizations. She argues that these cultural objects became "spaces of correlation" (p. 1) in which deliberate cross-cultural interactions were mutually transformative for both Christendom and the Kongo worldview.

Due to the Kongo elite's close connections with Europeans and the frequent visits of missionaries, such as Jesuits and Capuchin Friars, to the region, a large body of written sources describes precolonial Kongo. Over the years, several scholars, including John Thornton, James Sweet, and Richard Gray, have used these documents to examine Christianity in the Kongo Kingdom, but thus far scholars had not thoroughly examined Kongo's material and visual culture. Through analysis of these materials, Fromont provides new insights into the development of Kongo Christianity. In particular, her examination of Kongo-produced art and material culture shows how Kongolese elite reshaped Christianity to fit their religious thought, political concepts, and visual forms. …

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