H x W x D: 43.2 x 18.1 x 8.6 cm (17 x 7 1/8 x 3 3/8 in.)
Mid-16th to 17th century
In the early 1600s, a Dutch report described the royal palace of the Benin court as having "beautiful and long square galleries . . . one larger than another resting on wooden pillars . . . covered with cast copper . . . pictures of their war exploits and battles." Later travelers' accounts did not mention the plaques; however, the British military punitive expedition found them in a palace storehouse in 1897.
Today, over 900 plaques are in public and private collections, but there is no documentation explaining how they were arranged on the palace walls. Allowing for damage, they are relatively uniform in size and shape. While some plaques show scenes, such as battles and hunts, and others hierarchical multiple figures, many have one or two male figures in court regalia. They depict members of the royal court in the proper trappings for different ceremonies.
This member of the royal court wears an elaborate tunic with a stylized leopard face on the torso. The leopard is a symbol of the oba. Below the collar is a quadrangular bell. Warriors wear such bells into battle to invoke the spiritual protection of the reigning oba of Benin and his predecessors and to strike fear into the enemy.
Single figure cast copper alloy plaque of a man holding a ceremonial sword point down, against a foliate background with four rosettes. The male wears an ornate leopard face tunic with bells, a quadrangular bell on his chest and a leopard tooth collar.
Benin Punitive Expedition, 1897
Duveen-Graham Gallery, New York, 1957
Joseph H. Hirshhorn, Greenwich, Connecticut, 1957 to 1966
Visionary: Viewpoints on Africa's Arts, National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C., November 4, 2017-ongoing
The Ancient West African City of Benin, A.D. 1300-1897, National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C., September 28, 1987-June 1, 2004
Freyer, Bryna. 1987. Royal Benin Art in the Collection of the National Museum of African Art. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, no. 16.
Robbins, Warren M. and Nancy I. Nooter. 1989. African Art in American Collections. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, pp. 216-217, no. 557.