Benin kingdom, Nigeria, Edo people
Altar of the Hand, 17th century, brass.
Museum purchase, Preston Pope Satterwhite Fund 1970.14
Altar of the Hand displays two unique aspects of the
Edo speaking, Benin culture in Southwestern Nigeria
in the 1600’s. The figures and form of the Royal
Altar tell a story of a distinct culture, while the
material and craftsmanship reveal a high level of skill
The shape and figures in the object reveal how the Benin
people understood their universe. Their world is represented
as a round, drum shaped structure enclosed by a roof
that is held up by four Queens, in the north, east,
south and west corners. The importance of the Queens
in this cosmology emphasizes the influence women held
in the political life of the Benin people, where the
King’s mother occupied one of their society’s
most important political roles.
Upon close inspection of the four Queens you will notice
that they are dressed with elaborate beads that reflect
the prosperity of a people who had recently started
to trade internationally. The development of trade with
Europe is also reflected in the materials and techniques
use to create the altar. Metal casting materials and
techniques imported from Europe allowed the unknown
artist who created this piece to experiment with new
styles and techniques. You can see the some of these
techniques in the rippling water at the top of the piece.
This alludes to Okun, the Benin water god and represents
the spiritual connection between the four Queens.