The kingdom of Kongo, the wealthiest and most powerful state in the Atlantic region of Central Africa during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, began to dissolve in the seventeenth century under internal and external pressures. Portuguese military aggression emanating from the Angola colony to the south spurred the kingdom’s disintegration, notably at the battle of Mbwila in 1665 at which Portuguese troops killed the Kongo ruler Antonio I. By the turn of the eighteenth century, the Kongo capital Mbanza Kongo (also known as São Salvador) had been abandoned and the kingdom had broken up into small territories ruled by warlords and members of the old Kongo nobility. Memories of Kongo’s past glory remained, however, and a series of popular movements developed out of the Kongo people’s desire to restore the kingdom to its former greatness.
Catholicism, which had been practiced by Kongo nobility and commoners alike since the fifteenth century, became the driving force behind these movements. The common folk, who had no political or military power, looked to their faith in the Holy Trinity and the Catholic saints to effect the kingdom’s recovery. Antonianism, which considered Saint Anthony of Padua to be the source of Kongo’s salvation, was the most prominent of these movements. It arose under Dona Beatriz Kimpa Vita, a Kongolese woman of high birth. Dona Beatriz fell ill in 1704 and claimed to be possessed by the spirit of Saint Anthony, who addressed the kingdom’s problems through her. She was trained as an nganga marinda, an individual who consults the supernatural world to solve problems within the community. Speaking as a medium for Saint Anthony, Dona Beatriz called for the revitalization of the kingdom through adherence to a vision of Catholicism that was set firmly within Kongo history and geography. This divine communication with Heaven revealed an African Holy Family. According to this vision, Jesus was born in Mbanza Kongo and baptized not at Nazareth but in the northern province of Nsundi, while Mary’s mother was a slave of the Kongo nobleman Nzimba Mpangi. Dona Beatriz also disclosed new versions of the Ave Maria and Salve Regina that were more relevant to Kongolese modes of thought. Although the movement recognized papal authority, it was hostile to European missionaries, whom it considered corrupt and unsympathetic to the spiritual needs of Kongolese Catholics. Dona Beatriz and her followers briefly occupied Mbanza Kongo, from which she sent emissaries to spread her teachings and urge rulers of the divided Kongo territories to unite under one king. In 1706, however, she was captured by King Pedro II and burned as a heretic at the behest of Capuchin monks.
The short-lived Antonianist movement left a tangible legacy in sculpture. Depictions of Saint Anthony rendered in ivory, brass, and wood were affixed to crosses (1999.295.14), used as staff finials (1999.295.2), and worn as pendants (1999.295.1). The Portuguese-born saint was considered a protector of children and mothers, and these images, called Toni Malau (“Anthony of Good Fortune”) in KiKongo,, served to guard their bearers against illness and other misfortunes.