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Considered one of the finest examples of African art, the fourteenth century bronze portrait of a princess of Benin, fabulous and now virtually extinct small nation of the West African slave coast, was presented to the Fogg Museum by Mrs. John D. Rockefeller, Jr., of New York City.
The bronge princess is included in an exhibit of Benin ivory and bronze works at the Museum until Saturday, loaned to Harvard by Dr. Louis Carre, French art collector, and by Edsel B. Ford, Mrs. Edward S. Harkness, Mrs. Rockefeller, the Allbright Art Gallery, of Buffalo, and the Peabody Museum.
Held to be one of the most successful character portrayals in early African art, the princess portrait breaks away from the traditional stylization of features, revealing great artistic skill and knowledge of anatomy. A cap of coral beads, with long pendants on either side, tops the head. The eyes are delicately inlaid with iron.
Benin flourished in a high development of art and government between the twelfth and seventeenth centuries, achieving a very rich civilization, according to museum authorities. The natives lived under a "divine monarchy" and a religious system notorious for its human sacrifices, which annually destroyed many slaves and king's favorites to pacify the local gods. These customs were continued until Benin was subdued by the British in 1897. Today scarcely a trace remains of the ancient city, with its famous palace harem lodging the king's 900 wives.
Religious ceremonial objects in the current exhibit include a six foot elephant tusk, carved in relief with richly dressed figures of kings and elephant heads; a huge, leaf-shaped sword, or ebere; many bells, cast in the shape of human heads; and a wooden rattle, five feet long, used by the priests to invoke the spirits at religious ceremonies.
Benin bronzes were made with the very difficult "lost wax process", and are thought to be some of the world's most expert examples of this art. Among the most famous of these works shown are a pair of leopards from the royal palace, a life-sized rooster covered with feathers in a foliage design, and numerous plaques with figures of warriors, priests, nobles, and their attendants.
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