The chapel of the theological seminary of the Jesuit order in Nairobi (Hekima College) hosts a Stations of the Cross designed by Engelbert Mveng (1930–95). An unknown artist in Kenya then executed the fourteen paintings. They are an outstanding example of contemporary Christian art in Africa.
Mveng was a Jesuit priest, author, artist, theologian, and prominent historian. On 22 April 1995, he was brutally murdered in his home in Yaoundé (the circumstances and the motive for his murder remain unclear). His internationally renowned works of art can be found in churches, chapels, and educational centres around the world—for example, in Nairobi, Nazareth, Chicago, and Yaoundé.
This painting presents the thirteenth station, traditionally called ‘Jesus is Taken Down from the Cross’. The scene captures the moment just after Jesus’s deposition, as Mary receives his dead body. It is an African Pietà.
The viewer can hardly help but be fascinated by the intimacy of the connection between the dead Jesus and his mother in this work. The almost identically drawn faces of Jesus and Mary express closeness; Mary’s dress and Jesus’s shroud have the same pattern; the two bodies have almost become one.
Mveng was a master of stylized designs made with a limited colour palette. He used only three or four colours. Christ’s face is like a mask—an African mask—which contributes to his portrayal as an ‘African Christ’. Mveng also draws on stylistic elements of Ethiopian paintings, in particular by simplifying the figures, exaggerating their eye areas, and using an economy of line to render their forms.
In the context of widespread suffering and death on the African continent, Mveng succeeds in creating a symbol of love and compassion. It is mostly African women who bear the worst repercussions of famine, sickness, and death, while also having to take care of their children (and often losing them). This female experience of mourning for dead offspring suggests something beyond mere biological necessity; it takes us into the realm of religious consciousness. It reveals the power of a love that is ‘stronger than death’ (Song of Solomon 8:6).
Thus, the visual similarity of the faces and bodies of Mary and Jesus in Mveng’s painting does more than express their closeness. As Mary’s compassion witnesses to this care that will endure beyond death, Mveng transforms the mourning African woman into an Alter Christus (‘Another Christ’).
Mveng, Engelbert. 1980. L’ art et l’artisanat africains (Yaoundé: Clé)
Ott, Martin. 2000. African Theology in Images, Kachere Monograph,12 (Blantyre: CLAIM)
34and Simeon blessed them and said to Mary his mother,
“Behold, this child is set for the fall and rising of many in Israel,
and for a sign that is spoken against
35(and a sword will pierce through your own soul also),
that thoughts out of many hearts may be revealed.”