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Relief plaque showing a war chief with two attendants
Edo peoples, Benin kingdom, Nigeria
Length x width: 40.6 x 36.8 cm (16 x 14 1/2 in.)
Medium or Technique
Benin Kingdom Gallery (Gallery 172)
This bronze 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. The central figure—the largest because the artist wished to stress his importance—is wearing a unique costume. His high crown and long feathered tunic set him apart from other courtiers and warriors depicted on plaques in the MFA collection. The figure is wearing a collar of coral-beaded necklaces, called an odigba, which was given by the Oba to high-ranking members of the court. He also wears a warrior’s bell wrapped around his chest, and holds a spear and shield as if ready for battle. The busts of the Portuguese figures in the upper left and right corners may underscore the man’s military abilities. Portuguese mercenaries fought alongside Benin warriors in a 1517 war—although these Portuguese figures are only smoking pipes, and seem at their ease. The small nearly-nude figures in the courtier’s retinue are adolescent boys in service to the palace, called emada (sing. omada). The young man on the left carries a ceremonial court sword, called an eben, used by senior official to perform for the Oba. Both emada have scarifications on their faces and torsos that denote their status as subjects of Oba.
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, probably taken from the Royal Palace during the British military occupation of Benin. June 25, 1968, anonymous sale, Sotheby’s, London, lot 155, to Charles Ratton (dealer; b. 1895 – d. 1986) for £11,000. By 2011, Robert Owen Lehman, Rochester, NY; 2012, promised gift of Robert Owen Lehman to the MFA.
Robert Owen Lehman Collection