From Realism to Symbolism: Reflections on Onobrakpeya’s Veronica’s Veil

One of the best examples of the impact of contextualization is the Virgin of Guadalupe, a venerated image of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Mexico. In 1531, a Mexican peasant, Juan Diego, was said to have seen several visions of a mixed European and American Indian (Mestiza) young woman who identified herself as the Virgin Mary. Mainly due to her ethnicity, La Virgen Morena (the Brown Virgin) does not only hold a special place in the religious life of Mexico, but she played an important role in its nationalism and identity. Most significantly, during the Mexican War of Independence (1810) against Spain, she was seen as a symbol of the legitimacy of their origin and gave Mexicans an almost messianic sense of mission and identity.

The concept of contextualization (also referred to as inculturation, indigenization, etc.) suggests that the Gospel can have a more practical and meaningful impact when incarnated into adherents’ culture. It recognizes the symbolic function of art in religion, and advocates that the portrayal of Jesus as native to any culture is meant to symbolize His immanence among them. It signifies He is their Emmanuel too; their ‘God with us’. A staunch advocate of contextualization, Pope Pius XII in a speech to the Pontifical Missionary Society in 1944 said:

“The herald of the Gospel and messenger of Christ is an apostle. His office does not demand that he transplant European civilization and culture… His task in dealing with these peoples, who sometimes boast of a very old and highly developed culture of their own, is to teach and form them so that they are ready to accept willingly and in a practical manner the principles of Christian life and morality; principles, I might add, that fit into any culture, provided it be good and sound…”

Unsurprisingly, in the 20th century, Africanization of Christian art was nurtured largely by Roman Catholic missionaries. Prominent among them were Brother Marc-Stanislas Wallenda from Belgium, who founded the Kinshasa Academy of Fine Arts in the Republic of Congo in 1943, and Father Kevin Carroll of Ireland, who convened the Oye-Ekiti Workshop for Yoruba artists and craftsmen in Nigeria from 1947 till 1954. The Oye-Ekiti workshop produced notable artworks including the 14 wooden Stations of the Cross panels, carved by Lamidi Olonade Fakeye, on display at the African Art Museum of the Society of African Missions, and the Three Kings from the Nativity set, considered the global debut of The Yoruba Christian art genre, crafted by George Bandele, Christiana Ojo and Jimoh Adetoye and in the art collection of The Vatican’s Pontifical Urbaniana University, Rome.

In 1966, Onobrakpeya was commissioned by Father Kevin Carroll, to create 14 panels illustrating the Stations of the Cross for St. Paul’s Church, Ebutte-meta, Lagos. Onobrakpeya’s panels are very detailed—definitely one of the most ornate rendering of the Stations of the Cross. Veronica’s Veil is remarkably vibrant and pleasing to the eye—colourful adire background, etched baton, patterned adire wrapper and the cross, with its vivid patterns, seems a glorified symbol.

Father Carroll in 1974 bought a complete set of Onobrakpeya’s Stations of the Cross for the African Art Museum, Tenafly, New Jersey. And in 2013, Veronica’s Veil was displayed, alongside other African artworks including the Three Kings, at the ‘Africanizing Christian Art’ exhibition.

Adekemi is a lawyer and writer with a passion for the arts, particularly African art history. She is dedicated to discovering and documenting the most excellent artworks of our time. Follow her on Twitter at adekemitweets.


  1. Artstrings Africa
    9th October 2017

    Definitely complex! Thanks, Phil.

  2. Phil
    9th October 2017

    Nicely done! The meeting point of the Scripture and culture is undeniably a complex junction.

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