- Museum number
- Series: Benin Plaques
Upper half of two-part double-sized relief plaque, lost-wax cast in brass. Almost square in form with side flanges. Background surface decorated with circled crosses and stippling. Two nail holes at top, one at bottom right.
Depicts upper part of standing European (Portuguese) figure with long hair and beard holding a partisan (weapon with long shaft and trilobe blade) in right hand; crossguard sword in scabbard in left hand. Figure wears peaked helmet with three raised bosses. Dressed in sleeveless doublet, open at front; long-sleeved tunic below decorated with stippled diagonal bands; leather gauntlets. Upper left and right corners have images of mudfish, facing downwards, with lozenge and dot pattterning.
- Production date
Height: 42.50 centimetres
Weight: 7.40 kilograms
Width: 41.50 centimetres
Depth: 7.70 centimetres
- Curator's comments
This is the upper half of a two-part double-sized relief plaque; the lower half is in the collections of the Weltmuseum Wien (inv.no. 64.718). William Fagg (1963) attributed these to the ‘Master of the Circled Cross’ referring to the distinctive background decoration. Stylistically, these plaques are characterised by their low relief and elegant lines. The figures have fore-shortened arms and legs.
Two complete double sized plaques are known: BM Af1898,0115.2 and Weltmuseum Wien 64.697 (Portuguese pair).
BM Af1898,0115.35 and Berlin Ethnologisches Museum III C 10879 (Warrior pair).
Two halves of double sized plaques are known: Weltmuseum Wien 64.718 (upper half of Portuguese pair); Museum für Völkerkunde, Hamburg C.2.434 (upper half of Warrior pair).
The relief brass plaques that used to decorate the Oba's (king's) palace are among the most well-known of all the royal arts of Benin. Although frequently described as 'Benin Bronzes' most plaques are made of leaded brass in varius compositions. It is widely accepted that they date to the 16th-17th centuries.
In the years prior to the British Expedition royal influence in Benin was increasingly under threat from rival powers, both internal and external, with a focus on economic power and control of the important trading monopolies. However, the court and palace remained the political and spiritual centre of the Benin Kingdom. Earlier accounts written by Europeans visiting the city describe its size and scale. The palace complex was set up around atrium courtyards; some had galleries with wooden pillars supporting the roof. Brass plaques, probably made in matching pairs, were fixed to these pillars.
The Benin brass plaques represent a distinct and unique corpus of work, unparalleled elsewhere on the continent. They are cast using the cire perdue (lost wax) technique and show significant variation in the depth of the relief. Some of the plaques portray historical events or commemorate successful wars, while others are a vivid depiction of Benin court life and ritual. Several groups of plaques show clear stylistic similarities. William B. Fagg suggested that these plaques represent the work of master brass casters.
Fagg, William, 1973, 'Nigerian Images', London: Lund Humphries
Gunsch, Kathryn, 2018, 'Benin plaques: a 16th century imperial monument', London: Routledge, Taylor
and Francis Group
Most of the bronze plaques form the kingdom of Benin feature scenes and illustrations which are complete in themselves, but there are some exceptions, such as this image of a European in which the upper part of the body is depicted on one plaque and the lower part on another. These plaques are typical examples of European’s careless treatment of the art treasures they encountered during the conquest of Benin, though the upper part was taken to London, the lower one ended up in Vienna.
This type of two-part plaques belongs to a particular style of Benin reliefs, which Fagg (1963a) ascribed to a ‘Master of the Circled Cross’. These plaques are characterised by a lower relief and a more stylised form of representation. Images of Europeans together with mudfish and crocodiles as a sign of military power and wealth are very common in the court art of Benin. In 20th century traditions in Benin, depictions of Europeans are associated above all with the era of the warrior kings, during which the troops from Benin were frequently accompanied by European soldiers.
Read & Dalton 1899:
"An imperfect panel, showing the upper part of a figure of a European with long hair and beard, but no moustache. He wears a sleeveless surcoat with no fastening indicated. Beneath this is a sleeved jerkin with diagonal bands; he has a trilobed hat with bosses. In his right hand he holds a pike with trefoil head, and in the left a sword with straight quillons and knuckle-guard, and extended pommel. In the upper corners are fish with their heads downwards. The background is composed of a diaper of circles enclosing crosses. This group is found on very few examples (see Af1898,0115.34-36), and in all cases the style of the work is less florid than in the case of the majority of the panels."
- Not on display
- Exhibition history
1970-1973, London, Museum of Mankind, Divine Kingship in Africa
1993-1997, London, Museum of Mankind, Great Benin: a West African Kingdom
2005 Apr-Jul, BM, Views from Africa
2007 May-Sept, Vienna, Museum für Völkerkunde, Benin. Kings and Rituals: Court Arts from Nigeria
2007-2008 Oct-Jan, Paris, Musée du quai Branly, Benin. Kings and Rituals: Court Arts from Nigeria
2008 Feb-May, Berlin, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Ethnologisches Museum, Benin. Kings and Rituals: Court Arts from Nigeria
2008 Jun-Sept, Chicago, The Art Institute of Chicago, Benin. Kings and Rituals: Court Arts from Nigeria
2017-2018 07 December - 25 February, Moscow, Kremlin Museums, Lords of the Ocean: Treasures of the Portugese Empire in 16th - 18th Centuries.
- Good. both bottom corners missing, top left corner missing. Missing sections along top edge.
- Acquisition date
- Acquisition notes
- Following the British occupation of Benin City (Edo) in 1897 objects made of brass, ivory and wood were looted by British forces from the royal palace, its storerooms and compounds. Some of these objects were sold or exchanged on the coast. However, many were brought to the UK where they were sold through private auction, donated to museums, or retained by soldiers of the expedition.
The British Museum successfully petitioned the government to secure some of the relief plaques and over 300 were sent to the UK by the Consul-General [Sir] Ralph Moor and placed at the Foreign Office. During the summer of 1897 the Crown Agents for the Colonies, on behalf of the Foreign Office, agreed a temporary loan of 304 plaques to the British Museum. In September these were placed on public display in the Assyrian basement where they attracted considerable public attention. The Museum initially received 203 of these plaques as a gift from the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs. In the summer of 1898 a further eleven plaques were sent to the British Museum from the Foreign Office and three of these were selected by the Museum and were subsequently presented as a gift. Of the remaining plaques the Foreign Office retained eight and the rest were offered for sale to major museums, collectors and private dealers in Europe and the UK. Today over nine hundred plaques are known to exist in museums and private collections around the world.
See Collection File: Af1898,0115.1-203 (previously Eth.Doc.185).
- Africa, Oceania and the Americas
- Registration number
- Additional IDs
Previous owner/ex-collection number: 203 (Foreign Office number)