Philadelphia Museum of Art - Collections Object : Reliquary Guardian Figure

Reliquary Guardian Figure

Artist/maker unknown, African

Made in Africa

Late 19th century

Brass, copper, wood

16 x 7 1/4 x 1 1/2 inches (40.6 x 18.4 x 3.8 cm)

Curatorial Department:
European Painting

Object Location:

Currently not on view

Accession Number:

Credit Line:
The Louis E. Stern Collection, 1963

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Additional information:
  • PublicationPhiladelphia Museum of Art: Handbook of the Collections

    Louis Stern, whose omnivorous collection ranged from paintings by Gustave Courbet, Marc Chagall, and Amedeo Modigliani to objects from ancient Egypt, once owned this striking African sculpture. The Kota of Gabon are known for these stylized reliquary figures, which were originally mounted on baskets containing the bones of ancestors to protect them from forces that might weaken or subvert their power. Periodic offerings were made to the figures to assure their continued efficacy, and occasionally they were removed from the baskets and carried in village dances to bring benefits from the ancestors to the entire community. Although there are different regional expressions, all Kota reliquary guardians, which consist of a wood core over which strips of copper and brass are laid, are in the form of stylized oval heads surmounting an openwork diamond that represents the shoulders and arms. The reflective qualities of the metal and the prominence of the watchful eyes refer to the figures' protective function. This fine example shows meticulously applied metal strips on the face and embossed geometric designs elsewhere. Allen Wardwell, from Philadelphia Museum of Art: Handbook of the Collections (1995), p. 352.