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Art Through Time: A Global View

Ceremony and Society Compare: What Role Do Objects Play in Ceremonies of Power?


Artist / Origin: Attributed to the Buli Master, Luba, Democratic Republic of Congo
Region: Africa
Date: 19th century
Period: 1800 CE – 1900 CE
Material: Wood, metal studs
Medium: Sculpture
Dimensions: H: 24 in. (61 cm.)
Location: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY
Credit: Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art/Photo by Max Yawni

Coronation sword and scabbard of the Kings of France

Coronation sword and scabbard of the Kings of France
Artist / Origin: French artist
Region: Europe
Date: 10th–13th century (with later additions)
Period: 1000 CE – 1400 CE
Material: Gold, lapis lazuli, steel, glass, gilt silver, cabochons, gem stones, with embroidered velvet
Medium: Glass, Jewelry, and Metalwork
Dimensions: L: 41 1/3 in. (1.05 m.)
Location: Musée du Louvre, Paris, France
Credit: Réunion des Musées Nationaux/Art Resource, NY/Photo by Daniel Arnaudet

What role do objects play in ceremonies of power?

In every culture, there are objects and symbols that are associated with leadership. The prominence of these arts in investiture ceremonies around the world testifies to their ability to lend legitimacy to new rulers. Those in power, or hungry for it, are rarely unaware of the cultural and historical weight such objects carry. Napoleon took care to surround himself with the recognized signs of sovereignty when he declared himself emperor of France. In a spectacular coronation ceremony at Notre Dame in 1804, he appeared with not only crown and scepter, but also the hand of justice, the necklace of the Légion d’honneur, and the sword of Charlemagne. Any true leader of France would have to have this sword at his investiture, just as any king of the Luba would need a stool at his.

Questions to Consider

  • In what ways are the sword of Charlemagne and the Luba stool similar in terms of meaning and tradition within their respective cultures? What does this suggest about the role of objects in the transfer and maintenance of power more universally?
  • Consider the artistry involved in each of these items. To what degree does the form, content, or material of each piece imbue it with significance? What does this suggest to you about the values associated with leadership in each culture?
  • The significance of objects used in ceremony is often established by tradition. In such cases, the capacity of the ceremonial object to communicate power is made greater by audience recognition of its particular historical and cultural resonance. What role do you think traditional knowledge played in the ceremonial efficacy of the two objects pictured here? Think of an object used in a ceremony practiced in your culture or community. What does that object mean to you?

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Art Through Time: A Global View


Produced by THIRTEEN in association with WNET.ORG. 2009.
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