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Lendogno,Zéphyrin - VM - Christian Weber

Zéphyrin Lendogno: The Risen Lord Meets Mary Magdalene

The Hand that Reaches Down into your Despair

by Christian Weber

This unusual wood relief from Gabon comprises two sides of a column. It is framed by a white-red-black patterned frame. At the bottom right Mary of Magdala with hip-length hair has sunk down on her knees while wringing her hands in desperation and prayer. In her grief she has come to the grave of Jesus. Right next to her face is the round stone of the rock tomb. Mary seems frozen: the huge stone blocks her way and her view. She cannot see what is happening directly behind it. The tree behind her back indicates that she cannot return to her former life either.

On the left Jesus is standing, upright and with shoulder-length hair, in a long robe held together by a belt. He stands there like a host who opens the door and invites his guests in. Only one of his hands is visible. What a hand! Seemingly without effort it has pushed aside the stone of death, like a sliding door. His hand reaches to the other side where Mary is mourning. His hand is very close to her praying hands. Two dimensions meet here just like the branches of the tree cross over each other: eternity reaches into time. The door to eternity opens. The hand of the Risen One reaches down into the despair of a person.

The relief is found on a pillar of the Catholic Church of Saint Michel de Nkembo in Libreville, the capital of Gabon. Although little known, the church can be considered one of the most remarkable examples of biblical art in Africa. The French Father Gérard Morel (1926-2009) C.S.Sp. (Congregation of the Holy Spirit) worked in the parish from 1967 until his death. He initiated the new construction of the church or rather the extension of the existing building to a capacity of three thousand believers, which was realized with local funds and completed in 1977. It is not the building’s architecture that is impressive, as it is merely a hall made of bricks and corrugated iron. Its special quality lies in the carved works of art. The most important are the wooden pillars carved over a period of ten years by the local artist Zéphyrin Lendogno (1924-2006). Lendogno, a trained carver, came from Lambaréné, the famous place where Dr. Albert Schweitzer (1875-1965) worked.

Just as royal palaces in Central and West Africa are traditionally decorated with elaborate columns, the church of Saint Michel is surrounded by 31 carved wooden pillars. These show a well-reflected picture program with motifs from the Old Testament (13 pillars, about 30 stories) and from the New Testament (18 pillars, about 40 stories). The selection of the biblical scenes, their respective arrangement on pillars in 3-5 registers on top of each other, the position of the scenes on the four sides of the pillars in relation to the building and the incidence of light, the position of the pillars in relation to each other and their relationship to entrances and exits and to the path of the churchgoers, all this shows a well thought-out concept and a congenial collaboration between Father Morel and the carver Lendogno.

The scene shown here can be seen on pillar no. 28 at the bottom, while on the reverse side ‘The Disciples of Emmaus’ (Lk 24:13-35) have been depicted. Above them are two registers showing Thomas and Peter (Jn 20:24-29; Jn 21:15-19) and the Great Commission and Ascension (Mt 28:16-20; Lk 24:50-53). Pillar no. 27 is dedicated to the crucifixion of Jesus. From there, however, no. 28 with the resurrection motifs cannot be seen. First the churchgoers have to turn the corner.

At Easter 1979 the two motifs ‘The Risen Lord meets Mary’ and ‘The Disciples of Emmaus’ were shown on stamps of the Republic of Gabon. Internationally, however, the carvings of Zéphyrin Lendogno have so far received little attention. In travel guides to Gabon they are occasionally referred to, but often with the false information that the carver was blind.   

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Zéphyrin Lendogno: The Risen Lord meets Mary Magdalenecarving, c. 1975, Libreville, Gabon.

Pastor Dr. Christian Weber has been working as a study secretary in the education team of Mission 21 (Basel, Switzerland) since May 2011. Before that he lived for six years in the Democratic Republic of Congo with his family (and countless pets). Near the city of Lubumbashi he directed the Theological Seminary of the Lutheran Church. In teamwork with local colleagues he trained pastors for several African countries, including military chaplains for the Congolese army. Before his assignment abroad Christian Weber worked with Mission EineWelt in Neuendettelsau, Germany and served as personal adviser to the regional bishop in Nuremberg and as parish pastor with a focus on family work, also in Nuremberg. In May 2020 his new book will be published: Wie andere Kulturen die Bibel sehen. Ein Praxisbuch mit 70 Kunstwerken aus 33 Ländern. (How other cultures see the Bible. A handbook with 70 artworks from 33 countries). www.tvz-verlag.ch/buch/wie-andere-kulturen-die-bibel-sehen-9783290182748/?page_id=1

Literature:

Okoue-Ngou, Fidele/Lendogno, Zephirin (1992): Un art religieux gabonais. Les sculptures de Saint-Michel de Nkembo et de Saint-Luc de Bikelé, Libreville/Gabun.

Levin, Jessica (2004): Architectural Decoration on Gabonese Stamps, in: African Arts 37 (2004, Heft 2) 62–67.95–96. 

Boespflug, François (2007): 'Die christliche Kunst außerhalb Europas (16. –21. Jahrhundert). Einige Orientierungspunkte (Daten, Paradigmen, Probleme)', in: Hoeps, Reinhard (Hg.): Handbuch der Bildtheologie. Band I: Bild-Konflikte, Paderborn u. a., 376–399, here 395. www.libreville-accueil-bal.org/medias/files/explication-des-colonnes-de-l-eglise-st-michel.pdf

 

ArtWay Visual Meditation 19 April 2020