Plaque of Benin Chief (Primary Title)

Unknown (Artist)

16th–17th century
Overall: 14 3/4 × 7 × 2 in. (37.47 × 17.78 × 5.08 cm)

The Kingdom of Benin, one of Africa’s most renowned civilizations, came to power in the tenth century. The Benin people learned bronze casting from the neighboring kingdom of Ife during the fourteenth century. The strongly modeled figure and crisp details in this plaque demonstrate the mastery achieved by royal court sculptors in Benin City during their peak years of production, the sixteenth through the eighteenth centuries. The portrait heads of the obas (divine kings) provide a lasting record of the Benin ruling class.

Asserting his command through an intense glare and raised sword, an important chieftain stands squarely planted on this well-preserved plaque. The artist’s incredible attention to detail is evident in the chief’s long braids of hair, the decorations on his bracelets, and the tassel hanging from the hilt of his sword.

Here, the chief holds up a richly decorated, paddle-shaped ceremonial sword. This and other regalia identifies him as a chief, including a choker of coral beads, a necklace of leopard’s teeth, a leopard-society mask worn on the left hip, and a finely embroidered textile wrapped around his waist.

Arthur and Margaret Glasgow Fund
"Thomas Jefferson, Architect: Palladian Models, Democratic Principles, and the Conflict of Ideals", Chrysler Museum of Art, Norfolk, VA, October 19, 2019 - January 19, 2020

Spirit of the Motherland. Museum of Western Virginia, Roanoke, VA,, July 1995 - October 1995. Peninsula Fine Arts Center, January 1996 - May 1996.

A Golden Legacy: Fifty Hears of the Arthur and Margaret Glasgow Fund. Deane Gallery, April 2 - August 18, 2002.
Royal Palace of the Oba of Benin until 1897. Collection of Lieutenant-General Augustus Henry Lane-Fox Pitt-Rivers (1827-1900), Farnham, Dorset, England by 1900. [1] (Alan Brandt, New York); Purchased by the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts (VMFA), Richmond, VA in September of 1983.

[1] Lieutenant-General Pitt-Rivers acquired this object from an antiquities dealer (possibly W.D. Webster of Bicester) after the return of the British punitive expedition of 1897. See Pitt-Rivers' introduction, "Works of Art from Benin, West Africa," written in April 1900, and published in Antique Works of Art from Benin, edited by Bernard Fagg (New York: Dover Publications, 1976), v-vi.
Image released via Creative Commons CC-BY-NC

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