Anonymous (Tanzania)
Nativity and Flight into Egypt
c. 1989
Missionary-Ethnological Museum, Inv. AF 8197

General Description

A gift to John Paul II in 1989, this sculpture made from a single block of dark wood (ebony),  represents the Nativity and Flight into Egypt. The lower part shows the Nativity, with the baby Jesus in the manger, Mary kneeling in adoration, and Joseph standing.  The composition reflects Western influence. The family is surrounded and protected by a grotto marked with vertical incisions.  The grotto constitutes the base for the second scene, the Flight into Egypt, and simultaneously melds the two scenes into a well-balanced architectural entity.  Saint Joseph, above and below, lends the whole sculpture vertical direction and stability.  He is the prominent figure, identified each time by the tools of his trade, the saw and the plane. Mary, the smaller figure, is clustered in both scenes with other elements:  in the Nativity with the manger and the baby; in the Flight into Egypt with the donkey and the angel.  Thanks in particular to the angel hovering over the Madonna and showing the way, the sculpture achieves a horizontal dynamism.  The overall impression is one of skillful balancing vertical and horizontal movements.

The Art of the Maconde

The work is carved according to the tradition of the Maconde of East Africa (Tanzania). Until recently, artistic activity among the Maconde was of rather modest importance.  Among the reasons for the paucity of artworks are the migrating habits of the tribe, the Muslim (iconoclastic) influence, and the fading of the cult of ancestors, a normally fertile ground for artistic expression.  In pre-European times, the Maconde specialized in carving highly expressive masks used during initiation rites, and statuettes of female figures representing the mother of all Maconde.  The Macondes have a matrilinear social organization; they belong to the Bantu ethnic group and until recently, practiced mainly agriculture in the region of the Rovuma River which separates Mozambique from Tanzania.  East African art is frequently identified with Maconde products, especially with sculptures from ebony wood. Christian art in Tanzania owes much to the influence of European Benedictines (St. Ottilien) and Capuchins.  Sometimes called airport art because it caters to tourists, Maconde art seems to be subject to a rapid change in styles evolving from simple and rustic patterns to highly decorative elements and sophisticated symbolism.  Change in family structure and social organization are believed to play an important role in this rapid evolution.  The art of the Maconde follows at least two important criteria:

1. A piece of art is by definition an original that cannot be copied. Maconde art tends toward the uniqueness of form.

2. Art is a form of story telling. Each work of art has a narrative value, sometimes of intricate and obscure forms.

The narrative structure of the two artworks presented here can easily be noted. In both cases, the primary scene serves as base to the secondary but more popular and narrative event.  The Fall episode would be a hopeless and tragic recollection of human condition, if it were not for its rootedness in the redemptive act of Christ’s crucifixion.  In a similar way, the Nativity gives meaning and explanation to the Flight into Egypt. In both sculptures (Nativity/Flight) and (Crucifixion/Fall) the scene at the base (Nativity and Crucifixion) has constitutive and explanatory value.  They both highlight the foundations of salvation history whereas the scenes on the upper level reflect human history and condition (Flight and Fall), life in need of salvation.

For more information:

Consult the exhibit catalog:  The Mother of God:  Art Celebrates Mary, pp. 76-77.

The Mary Page features Crèches of African artisans. See the gallery section:

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