Kongo Mary

These are two more snapshots of the Virgin moving outside of the European sphere, this time from the Kongo. The first snapshot narrowly precedes Columbus’s voyage to the Americas in the fifteenth century while the second picks up the thread of her kikongo sojourn in the seventeenth century. I’ll share each one, then link them.

First, from Cécile Fromont’s The Art of Conversion: Christian Visual Culture in the Kingdom of the Kongo:

…when Iberians and their crosses reached central Africa in 1483, their presence resulted neither in colonial conquest nor forceful conversion. Rather, Christianity entered into the political, social, and religious realm of the kingdom of Kongo at the demand of its own rulers and without foreign coercion…

On May 3, 1491, he [chronicler Rui de Pina] reports the king of Kongo, Nzinga a Nkuwu, received baptism along with six of his courtiers and took the Christian name João I…. A few days after the ceremony, two of the men baptized with him experienced a vision in their sleep. They were visited by a resplendent Virgin Mary, who asked them to congratulate João on her behalf…. The next morning, as he stepped out of his house, one of the two men found a cross carved in a strange black stone. It was two palms high with smooth rounded branches…. they [king, courtiers, Catholic clerics] took the cross in procession to a newly built church where it was prominently displayed as a relic of the great miracle. (67–68)

Subsequently, the cross and the Virgin become closely intertwined themes in Kongolese Christian art. Kongo representations of Christ on the Cross frequently include more or less abstract representations of the Virgin Mary above her Son.

Fromont makes a point of emphasizing that the cross wasn’t an import in the Kongo; there was already an elite society for which it was central and rock art in the region frequently employed cross or four-quarter elements. While Christianity’s adoption transformed the meanings of that older cross, it didn’t entirely erase or supplant it. Rather, the cross became a lever between pre-Christian and Christian experience.

We shouldn’t be overly romantic (conversion entailed widespread destruction of Kongo shrines, albeit often undertaken by Kongo people rather than invaders), we also should realize that this acceptance and sense of recognition of Christianity on the part of the Kongo allowed them to more fully integrate their understanding and relationship of the world into their Christianity.

This is what makes the subsequent story from Zdenka Volovka’s Crown and Ritual: The Royal Insignia of Ngoyo of great interest to me. Volavka focuses her work on a not-well-known Lusunsi shrine, located in the Ngoyo region where “until the late nineteenth century” missionaries were unable to make headway due to “its absolute lack of religious tolerance” and its “strong reputation…as a priestly country” (148). That lack of tolerance was tolerated by its (more or less Christian) neighbors in part because the shrine was central to the investiture of kings.

Volavka notes that this isolation presents something of a challenge because it made it difficult to determine the antiquity of the Lusunsi shrine she was studying. With Europeans being unwelcome, there were fewer written records of the region and its people. The exception she finds and her interpretation of it follows. It comes from a 1712 account by Capuchin Antonio Zucchelli in the Kongo at the turn of the century:

It concerned the fate of two wooden sculptures of the Virgin Mary. Torn loose by the sea from a Castilian shipwreck, they were reportedly carried away by the sea until one of them reached the mouth of the Congo/Zaïre River. There, it was deposited in the Christian chapel in Mpinda, where it was still kept during Zucchelli’s time and was subject to veneration by the population. The other sculpture…landed on the shore of the port of Cabinda, was collected by the people and, so Zucchelli says, to the temple of their idol named Lusunsi, becoming a public idol….

The Virgin Mary, according to the story, opposed the idolaters’ disgraceful worship at the temple in the Lusunsi shrine. To obstruct it, the Virgin made two miracles happen. First, a wide and deep ditch was dug to separate the temple from the access road. In the second miracle, the Virgin Mary introduced into the ditch a large rapid stream, which did not appear to spring from any source. Because of this stream, the temple could only be reached by canoe. That made the idolaters, so Zucchelli has it, less ardent in their superstitious worship. (58–60)

Volavka goes to great pains to demonstrate that the mythology of the two virgins is transparently false. There are many accounts of the Mpinda chapel and its tightly bundled figures of Mary and St. Anthony (Fromont discusses it, too), none of which support them having come from a Castilian shipwreck. Nor can Zucchelli’s account be treated as a work of firsthand reportage of the shrine. He attempted to make his way into Ngoyo in order to rescue the Virgin, but was rebuffed on all fronts.

However, what is useful to Volavka’s purposes is that this secondhand description of the shrine matches the more recent accounts of it. What is more:

Compelling details lead unavoidably to an inside [i.e., Kongo] authorship of the story. Lusunsi has jurisdiction over the land and sea. The deity is said by the traditions to often scurry between sea and land in the form of a driving wind. Hence the model of the miracles [i.e., shipwreck carrying statues inland]. Furthermore, Lusunsi is…the protector of the bride’s virginity….[and] the key object of the shrine, the cap/crown, which is female in gender, was conceptually interchangeable with the bride. Hence the idea that the Virgin Mary sculpture was the object of the shrine cult. The parable, although using Christian symbols and giving them strength, implies competent inside religious cognizance. (61)

Compelling, indeed, but given that there was an actual Virgin Mary sculpture in Mpinda, it seems quite possible that the story confirms the actual presence of another at Lusunsi’s shrine. The myth would then reflect a self-conscious affiliation of the two shrines, one that undermines the ‘official’ narrative of Zucchelli who reports the Virgin’s dissatisfaction. Within the Kongo frame, the Virgin’s self-isolation is not a source of dissatisfaction, but an assertion of her own domain and sanctity.

That makes a great deal of sense against the backdrop of the Nzinga a Nkuwu’s conversion. As the sight of investiture, the Lusunsi shrine would quite naturally absorb new and potent expressions of kingly authority (i.e., the Virgin). The pairing of the two Virgins might be more straightforward than Zucchelli imagines, too, an explicit fusion of Christian and Kongo authority that grounds the Christian within the sacred realm of Ngoyo rather than overturning it.

And the wind cries Mary.

4 thoughts on “Kongo Mary

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