Visual History of the World




From Prehistoric to Romanesque  Art
Gothic Art
Renaissance  Art
Baroque and Rococo Art
The Art of Asia
Neoclassicism, Romanticism  Art
Art Styles in 19th century
Art of the 20th century
Artists that Changed the World
Design and Posters
Classical Music
Literature and Philosophy

Visual History of the World
First Empires
The Ancient World
The Middle Ages
The Early Modern Period
The Modern Era
The World Wars and Interwar Period
The Contemporary World

Dictionary of Art and Artists


The Early Modern Period

16th - 18th century


The smooth transition from the Middle Ages to the Modern Age is conventionally fixed on such events as the Reformation and the discovery of the "New World," which brought about the emergence of a new image of man and his world. Humanism, which spread out of Italy, also made an essential contribution to this with its promotion of a critical awareness of Christianity and the Church. The Reformation eventually broke the all-embracing power of the Church. After the Thirty Years' War, the concept of a universal empire was also nullified. The era of the nation-state began, bringing with it the desire to build up political and economic power far beyond Europe. The Americas, Africa, and Asia provided regions of expansion for the Europeans.

Proportions of the Human Figure by Leonardo da Vinci (drawing, ca. 1490)
is a prime example of the new approach of Renaissance
artists and scientists to the anatomy of the human body.






The diversity of African social development can be accounted for only to a certain extent. From the 16th to the 19th century, Africa became a focus of European trading interests. The coastal regions primarily drew the interest of the Portuguese and other European powers, who organized a complex slave and commodities trade with the African kings and chiefs, playing rival tribes against each other. In the North African kingdoms, there were constant struggles between Islam and Christianity in the upper classes, while the common people held fast to their traditional religions. Ethiopia had a special position in North Africa.


East Africa, the Kongo Kingdom, and the Songhai Empire

While the Portuguese controlled trade on the African east coast, a Christian kingdom was established in the Kongo Kingdom. The Muslim Songhai Empire resisted Christianization.


The arrival of the Portuguese on the African continent in 1498, a year after Vasco da Gama had discovered India, changed the dynamics of Africa, especially on the 1 east coast.

1 Map of the Indian Ocean showing
East Africa, 16th century

Portuguese commercial enterprise would know no limits.

The Portuguese used the rivalry between the coastal 6 chiefs and city-states to destroy the trade there, eliminate Muslim traders, and gradually bring the entire coast under their control. In the meantime, the kingdoms of central Africa were able to survive, while Zanzibar became a new center for Arab traders under the rule of Oman.

In the the 5 Kongo Kingdom, King Nzinga Nkuwu asked the Portuguese king to send missionaries to his Kingdom in 1482 and converted to Christianity in 1491 as John I.

He and his son Afonso I (Nzinga Mbemba I) constructed Christian churches and monasteries.

The Kongo Kingdom experienced considerable prosperity as a result of the influx of Christian merchants and artisans, but the Kingdom's Christian upper class also participated in the 4 slave trade of the poorer subjects.

6 Monomotapa of the Bantu Empire,
copper engraving, 17th ń

5 The king of Kongo receives a delegation,
copper engraving, 1686

4 Handcuffs of slave traders in sub-Saharan Africa

The Christian Kongo Kingdom declined in the 17th century and in 1668 the capital Sao Salvador do Kongo was devastated and plundered during attacks by neighboring non-Christian tribes.

The most important Yoruba state, the Kingdom of 3 Benin, traded with the 2 Portuguese from i486 and allowed them a trading post in the country.

British expeditions to Benin beginning in 1530 led to regular clashes with the Portuguese, but the kingdom profited from the slave trade. The ban on slavery in 1691 led to the disintegration of the Kingdom of Benin.

Portugal also opened diplomatic relations and trade in 1484 with the Mali Empire, which went under in the 16th century with the expansion of the Muslim Songhai Empire. Songhai had already risen to become a prosperous kingdom in the nth century through intensive trade contacts with the Arab world. Sonni Ali the Great turned the empire into the leading power in the Sudan by 1464 through expansion and in 1476 conquered Djenne.

7 Muhammad Ture founded the Askia dynasty in the Songhai Empire in 1493, which became a leading power in Upper Africa with a standing army, but was defeated by Morocco in 1590-1591.

3 Bronze head of an Oba, a king of Benin

2 Portuguese with helmet and tri dent,
sculpture from Benin, 17th ń

7 The Tomb of Muhammed Ture of the Asaki
dynasty in Gao, Mali



Bornu, the West Coasts, and Ethiopia

Bornu became a strong Islamic empire, while the African west coast fell under the trade control of European powers. Ethiopia was largely able to maintain its own independent form of Christianity.


The rising Bornu Empire under Ali Dunamani, who had reigned since 1472, replaced the declining Kanem Empire on Lake Chad. Ali expanded his empire in all directions with his armored cavalry and carried on trade with North and West Africa. Idris II continued this expansion and trade, which reached their height during the reign of Idris Alooma in 1580-1617. Northern Cameroon, northern Nigeria, and even the Voruba nations were then under the influence of Bornu, but its supremacy declined in the 17th century. Islam had been advancing since the 1500s in the Hausa and Fulbe states, which had been largely able to retain their independence.

Competition developed among the European great powers for West African trade products, and the British and French eventually triumphed. In the 18th century, the British controlled the trade in the Gambia, Sierra Leone, and the Gold Coast (present-day Ghana), while the French dominated Senegal, French Guinea, and the Ivory Coast.

Ghana, Togo, Nigeria, the Kongo, and Angola were centers of the ebony trade.

9 Castle at the Gold Coast, present-day Ghana, copper engraving, ca. 1750

The Christian emperors in 8 Ethiopia had been fighting the advance of Islam in Africa since the 14th century.

Although they were determined to maintain political and 10 cultural independcnce, they were supported in the battle against Islam by the Portuguese from the 16th century on.

Plagued since 1527 by the raids of Adel's Muslim Somali Empire, Negus Claudius was able to crushingly defeat it with Portuguese aid in 1543. Although Claudius and his successors emphasized the independence of Ethiopian Christianity, Jesuits were allowed to do missionary work in the country from 1557. The conversion to Catholicism of Negus Za Dengel in 1605 and Negus Susneus in 1622 led to bloody uprisings until Negus Fasilidas expelled all Catholics under penalty of death. During the reign of Jasus I (the Great), Ethiopia once again attained a political and cultural zenith at the turn of the 18th century but then sank into anarchy due to palace intrigues and the invasions of hostile neighboring tribes, finally crumbling into small local kingdoms. This condition persisted until Theodor II's reign in 1855. Theodore, a native of Amhara, married the daughter of the previous ruler.

8 Leather buckle from Ethiopia

10 Banquet, where wine is served in round clay jugs,
Ethiopian book illustration, 17th century



The Ancient American Empires and the
Conquest by Spain and Portugal

As in Southeast Asia, the Portuguese were forced out of Africa after 1600 by the Dutch. In 1637 the Dutch West India Company drove the Portuguese out of Elmina on the Gold Coast, took over the slave trade there, and made its own contracts with the Fanti chiefs of the Coast.

In 1641, the Dutch occupied Luanda Island in Angola; they finally succeeded in expelling the Portuguese from Angola by force of arms in 1648. A largely peaceful reconciliation in trade eventually developed between the Portuguese and the Dutch.

Dirck Wilre, General Director of the West India Company
on the south coast of Africa,
painting by Peter de Wit, ca. 1669




African Masks



African traditional masks

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

There are an enormous variety of masks used in Africa. In West Africa, masks are used in masquerades that form part of religious ceremonies enacted to contact with spirits and ancestors.

The Yoruba, Igbo and Edo cultures, including Egungun Masquerades and Northern Edo Masquerades. The masks are usually carved with an extraordinary skill and variety by artists who will usually have received their training as an apprentice to a master carver - frequently it is a tradition that has been passed down within a family through many generations. Such an artist holds a respected position in tribal society because of the work that he/she creates, embodying not only complex craft techniques but also spiritual/social and symbolic knowledge. African masks are also used in the Mas or Masquerade of the Caribbean Carnival.

African masks are made from different materials: wood, bronze, brass, copper, ivory, terra cotta and glazed pottery, raffia and textiles. Some African masks are colourful. Many African masks represent animals. Some African tribes believe that the animal masks can help them communicate with the spirits who live in forests or open savannas. People of Burkina Faso known as the Bwa and Nuna call to the spirit to stop destruction. The Dogon of Mali have complex religions that also have animal masks. Their beliefs are in three main cults - the Awa, cult of the dead, Bini, cult of communication with spirits and Lebe, cult of earth and nature. These three main cults nevertheless use seventy-eight different types of masks. Most of the ceremonies of the Dogon culture are secret, although the antelope dance is shown to non-Dogons. The antelope masks are rough rectangular boxes with several horns coming out of the top. The Dogons are expert agriculturists and the antelope symbolizes a hard working farmer.

Another culture that has a very rich agricultural tradition is the Bamana people of Mali. The antelope (called Chiwara) is believed to have taught man the secrets of agriculture. Although the Dogons and Bamana people both believe the antelope symbolises agriculture, they interpret elements the masks differently. To the Bamana people, swords represent the sprouting of grain.

Masks may also indicate a culture’s ideal of feminine beauty. The masks of Punu of Gabon have highly arched eyebrows, almost almond-shaped eyes and a narrow chin. The raised strip running from both sides of the nose to the ears represent jewellery. Dark black hairstyle, tops the mask off. The whiteness of the face represent the whiteness and beauty of the spirit world. Only men wear the masks and perform the dances with high stilts despite them being “female” masks. One of the most beautiful representations of female beauty is the Idia’s Mask of Benin. It is believed to have been commissioned by a king of Benin in memory of his mother. To honor his dead mother, the king wore the mask on his hip during special ceremonies.

The Senoufo people of the Ivory Coast represent tranquility by making masks with eyes half-shut and lines drawn near the mouth. The Temne of Sierra Leone use masks with small eyes and mouths to represent humility and humbleness. They represent wisdom by making bulging forehead. Other masks that have exaggerated long faces and broad foreheads symbolize the soberness of one’s duty that comes with power. War masks are also popular. The Grebo of the Ivory Coast carve masks with round eyes to represent alertness and anger, with the straight nose to represent unwillingness to retreat.

Today, the qualities of African art are beginning to be more understood and appreciated. However most African masks are now being produced for the tourist trade. Although they often show skilled craftsmanship they will nearly always lack the spiritual character of the traditional tribal masks.


A traditional Malian mask
A traditional Urhoboan mask
Fang mask used for the ngil ceremony, an inquisitorial search for sorcerers. Wood, Gabon, 19th century.



Discuss Art

Please note: site admin does not answer any questions. This is our readers discussion only.

| privacy