Art historian Cécile Fromont uncovers Kongo’s Christian visual culture

Drawing on 17th and 18th century art, Fromont’s work adds new layers to common understandings of the historical relationship between Europe and Africa.
This watercolor by Capuchin monk Bernardino D’Asti depicts a Christian wedding ceremony in the kingdom of Kongo, circa 1750.

This watercolor by Capuchin friar Bernardino D’Asti depicts a Christian wedding ceremony in the kingdom of Kongo, circa 1750. Bernardino created an illustrated manuscript providing practical advice to future missionaries in the west-central African kingdom. (© Biblioteca Civica Centrale, Turin)

A mid-18th-century watercolor depicts a Christian wedding ceremony in the kingdom of Kongo. A friar blesses a happy couple from underneath the veranda of an outdoor chapel. The bride and her attendants are wrapped and draped in colorful, imported textiles. The groom, also richly attired, holds a black European-style hat in his left hand.

Bernardino d’Asti, a Capuchin friar, painted the scene from his experiences as a missionary in the West Central African kingdom, which consisted of portions of present-day Angola and the Democratic Republic of Congo. The watercolor appears in “Missione in prattica,” an illustrated manuscript Bernardino produced in about 1750 offering practical advice to future missionaries.

It’s like a Lonely Planet travel guide for the mission to Kongo and Angola,” said Cécile Fromont, an associate professor of the history of art at Yale. “Friar Bernardino was conveying to novices in Europe what life was like in Central Africa and what they could and could not do as missionaries there.”

Bernardino’s manuscript belongs to a corpus of similar works by Capuchin friars about the order’s mission to the Kongo, which lasted from 1650 through the first decades of the 19th century. Fromont, who joined the faculty last summer, found the Capuchin manuscripts while digging through archives and museum collections in Europe for evidence of the Kongo’s Christian visual culture in the early modern period, roughly 1500 to 1800 C.E. The Capuchin materials, which had been largely forgotten, shed light on the kingdom’s relationship with Europe, Fromont said.  

These manuscripts and images challenge our preconceptions about Africa and Africans — both in the 17th and 18th centuries and today,” Fromont said. “Perhaps most significantly, they show that the missionaries landed in a place that had already converted to Christianity.”

Fromont also uncovered a set of Christian artworks produced in the Kongo, including crucifixes, textiles, medals, and pendants. Like the Capuchin materials, the art objects were largely unpublished and, in some cases, previously unknown to scholars.

“The Art of Conversion: Christian Visual Culture in the Kingdom of Kongo” book jacket

Fromont draws on both sets of materials in her 2014 book, “The Art of Conversion: Christian Visual Culture in the Kingdom of Kongo,” which examines the development of Kongo’s Christian visual culture while tracing the kingdom’s engagement with the wider world. The book was named the American Academy of Religion’s 2015 Best First Book in the History of Religions, and it received the 2015 Albert J. Raboteau Book Prize for the Best Book in Africana Religions, among other honors.

Her next book will focus on the Capuchin images and manuscripts, she said.

My first book traces the history of Kongo Christianity, and while it very much considers the interaction with Europe, the emphasis is on the African side of the story,” she said. “My next book will analyze the Capuchins’ images and consider what they teach us about early modern missions in general and the relationships between Europeans and non-Europeans.”

The relationship between the Capuchin missionaries and the African kingdom was exceptional in part because it was not colonial, Fromont said.

The missionaries were not the religious arm of an invading European army,” she said. “Their images do not emphasize a European dominant view of the situation, but on the contrary, they show that Europeans had to negotiate a place for themselves in this non-European context.” 

Portuguese explorers and clerics first landed on the kingdom’s shores in 1483. The Kongo’s monarch, Nzinga a Nkuwu, was baptized on May 3, 1491 and took the name João I after the king of Portugal. His son and successor, Afonso I Mvemba a Nzinga, made Roman Catholicism the state religion and wove it into Kongo’s social and cultural fabric.

From that moment on, we have four centuries of Christian history in Kongo in which Christian objects, rituals, and paraphernalia play a very important role, not only in the religious life of the country, but also in its political life,” Fromont said.  “For example, the conversion helped the kingdom maintain independence during the period as European nations could not colonize a Christian kingdom.”

The kingdom remained independent and deeply engaged with Europe and the Atlantic World into the late-19th century, when Portugal and other colonial powers began seizing control of its territory.

During the early modern period, the Kongo’s rulers forged diplomatic ties with the papacy, which provided protection from seafaring powers like Portugal that had territorial ambitions in Central Africa. The Kongo elite invited the Capuchins to establish a mission in their country, preferring the largely Italian religious order to missionaries from European nations like Portugal or Spain that they viewed as potential adversaries, Fromont said.  

This was during the Counter Reformation, and the friars go to Kongo in a missionary spirit in the same way that they visited the countryside of Italy or Germany to strengthen Catholicism,” she said. “They were there to reinforce the faith and make its practice more orthodox.”

The Art of Conversion” features several of Bernardino’s watercolors, including vignettes of the friar hearing a confession, observing a sangamento — a ritual martial performance — and being welcomed by the rulers of a coastal province. A watercolor of Bernardino leading a funeral ceremony shows the blending of Catholicism with African religious traditions, Fromont said.

The painting shows the friar, with hymnal in hand, singing an Office of the Dead, a prayer cycle said for the repose of a dead individual’s soul. He is assisted by three mestres, who were interpreters and church officials. Each mestre holds a cross. Incense burns. The grave is marked with a cross. Candles are placed at each corner. A tall cross stands beside the grave near the scene’s center. Mourners stand and kneel before the grave. They have placed offerings on the ground as part a traditional Kongo ritual symbolizing the passage from life to death, Fromont said.

Bernardino’s watercolor shows a Christian burial.
Bernardino’s watercolor shows a Christian burial. The African mourners have placed offerings before the tomb, demonstrating a blending of Christian and local traditions. (© Biblioteca Civica Centrale, Turin)

The image is infused with two sets of religious symbols and beliefs,” she said. “The crosses and sensuousness of the Christian ceremony — the singing, incense, and theatrical staging — are joined with central African religious tradition into a single ritual.”

This blending of traditions also is visible in crucifixes produced in the Kongo during the early modern period. Commonly made of brass, the crucifixes combine Catholic iconography with stylized figures of the dying Christ and his attendants, as well as motifs from earlier Kongo cosmology.

In Christian Kongo, Catholic ideas about death and resurrection were integrated with Central African cosmology that had similar concepts, and vice versa,” Fromont said.

By recognizing Christian Kongo objects and narratives as orthodox, the papacy was expanding Catholicism’s perimeter, she explained.

What it meant to be Christian in the early modern period was made broader in a way that is important,” Fromont said. “In the 20th century, the Catholic Church would deal with similar issues over inculturation that, in a sense, had already played out hundreds of years earlier in the Kongo.”

Kongo Christianity’s influence spread beyond the kingdom’s borders through diplomacy and international commerce, including the Atlantic slave trade, Fromont said. Obtaining the foreign goods sought by the Kongo Christian elite required trafficking enslaved people and opening the kingdom to European slave traders, Fromont noted.

Many people who were already Christian in the Kongo, or at least aware of Christianity and familiar with its rituals, ended up enslaved in the Atlantic trade and took up roots in different parts of the Americas,” she said. “The story of the Kongo’s conversion to Christianity provides important background to our understanding of what slowly became African American cultures, and I’m using ‘African American’ in the broadest possible sense.”

Fromont is editing “Afro-Catholic Festivals in the Americas,” a volume of essays coming out next spring that examines Kongo Christianity’s affect on Afro-American festivals in Latin America, North America and the Caribbean from the 16th century to contemporary times. 

Cécile Fromont
Cécile Fromont

Born and raised in Martinique, a department of France in the Caribbean, Fromont earned her undergraduate degree at the Paris Institute of Political Studies, commonly known as Sciences Po, which focuses on cultivating the French political and administrative elite. She completed a long-term internship in the French consulate in Rio de Janeiro where she produced contemporary art exhibits as part of the cultural cooperation between France and Brazil. The work sparked an interest in art history and she subsequently earned her Ph.D. from Harvard University in 2008. Prior to coming to Yale, she served on the faculty of University of Chicago. She is a resident fellow at Ezra Stiles College where she lives with her family. 

This campus is such a warm environment,” she said. “It’s been wonderful to be in a setting where the college is the beating heart of the university. It’s so stimulating.”

Her students are invested in the material while always considering how they can use their knowledge to make an impact on the world beyond campus, she said.

It is a powerful trait in the undergraduates — this mixing of intellectual engagement with their responsibility to the wider society as people who have enjoyed the privilege of being at a place like Yale,” she said. “That emphasis and balance is very special.”


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