Sculpting Memory

Reliquary of Saint Thekla, late 15th–early 16th century
Wood with polychromy

Many cultures memorialize or revere the deceased, using art to capture something of their essence. On two distinct continents, a Hongwe artist from Gabon and a German artist created these reliquary sculptures to protect or hold now-absent bones and to facilitate a spiritual connection with the departed. The Hongwe figure would have perched atop a bark reliquary box; a central cavity in St. Thekla’s chest contained a relic. However, in the context of a museum, neither of these figures continues to serve a true commemorative purpose: the vessels have been separated from the bones they once guarded, the physical link to the deceased. Here, they take on a new role as art object while reminding us of sculpture’s role as a potent connection between the living and the dead.

Reliquary figure (bwiti), late 19th–20th centuries
Wood, copper alloy, colorant, and bone or ivory

Preserving memory and projecting the traits of venerated ancestors or saints, reliquary sculptures also aid spiritual connection. From the 1700s, the Hongwe peoples of Gabon created bark containers to hold ancestral bones, topped by dramatic metal-covered guardian sculptures. Their lively metallic glimmer served two purposes: it protected the ancestors by deflecting evildoers, and it signified the ancestors’ acknowledgment of the living. While not a naturalistic portrait with an identifiable likeness or associated symbol—such as the German reliquary bust of St. Thekla, on the left, accompanied by a lioness representative of her ordeals—the Hongwe figure, with its cool countenance and staring eyes, represents an idealized depiction of a wise ancestor. The bust of St. Thekla is gilded to highlight her crown, symbolizing her revered virginity and martyrdom.