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Relief plaque showing a junior court official
Edo peoples, Benin kingdom, Nigeria
Length x width: 46.4 x 33 cm (18 1/4 x 13 in.)
Medium or Technique
Benin Kingdom Gallery (Gallery 172)
A figure stands in the center of the bronze plaque, holding a sword and carrying a bundle on top of his head. This plaque is part of a set of more than 800 that once decorated the pillars in the audience hall of the Oba, or king, of Benin. Unlike many figures that appear in the plaques, this man is holding a functional sword, not the dull-edged ceremonial swords used for performances at court. It is not, however, entirely clear what the man carries on top of his head. Because he carries a sword, some scholars have suggested that he is bringing wood to a place of sacrifice, but the shape of the objects in his bundle are too finely worked for kindling. He wears a single strand of beads around his neck, likely a circlet of coral given by the Oba to lower-ranking courtiers. The man’s wrapper is made of two layers of fine cloth with complex patterns, and an elaborately decorated belt. The man wears an ivory or brass image of a leopard head on his left hip, an ornament that helps to tie his wrapper securely. The baldric across his chest is made of leopard-skin, as you can see from the small circles the artist painstakingly included, and this further connects this man to the Oba; the leopard, the swift and aggressive king of the forest, is a metaphor for the Benin king. The fish surrounding the main figure are another metaphor for the Oba. Mudfish are further indicative of royal power because they live in oceans and rivers, the abode of the god of wealth and the source of royal coral regalia.
Many plaques made in this period have ornamental motifs in each corner. If you look closely, you can see an angled pattern on the left side of the plaque, on a piece of metal that would have wrapped around the palace pillar. New scholarship suggests that this pattern is the mark of a particular head of the brass-casting guild, allowing scholars to date the plaques to different production periods.
16th century, commissioned by Oba Esigie (r. 1517-1550s) or his son Oba Orhogbua (r. 1550s-1570s), Royal Palace, Benin City; by descent to Oba Ovonramwen (Ovonramwen Nogbaisi, b. about 1857 – d. about 1914; r. 1888 - 1897); 1897, taken from the Royal Palace during the British military occupation of Benin and kept by the Crown Agent of the Niger Coast Protectorate, London; March 24, 1898, sold by the Crown Agent of the Niger Coast Protectorate for £ 6 to Lt.-General Augustus Henry Pitt-Rivers (b. 1827 - d. 1900), Farnham, England; until the 1960s, kept at the Pitt-Rivers Museum, Farnham, and passed by descent within the family [see note]; 1970s, sold upon the dispersal of the collection. By 2011, Robert Owen Lehman, Rochester, NY; 2012, promised gift of Robert Owen Lehman to the MFA.
The collection of the privately-owned Pitt-Rivers museum passed by descent through Augustus Henry Pitt-Rivers’s son Alexander Lane Fox Pitt-Rivers to his grandson, Captain George Pitt-Rivers (1890-1966) and his common law wife, Stella Howson-Clive (Pitt-Rivers). The museum closed in the 1960s and the collection was sold.
Robert Owen Lehman Collection