A Female-Friendly, Fiery Nubian Saint

Image of the Week: This Portuguese painting declares that the holy virgin Ifigenia's official role is to ward off fire.

St. Ifigenia, 18th century. Oil on canvas, 110 x 75 cm.Museu de Arte Sacra, Arouca, Portugal.
St. Ifigenia, 18th century. Oil on canvas, 110 x 75 cm.Museu de Arte Sacra, Arouca, Portugal.

(The Root) — This image is part of a weekly series that The Root is presenting in conjunction with the Image of the Black in Western Art Archive at Harvard University’s W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research.

The legacy of this remarkable black saint, whose story of persecution and victory begins in ancient Nubia, found its ultimate fulfillment in her role as a spiritual guide to her fellow black Africans in their own trials during the Atlantic slave trade. In this painting, the holy virgin Ifigenia (“born strong” in Greek) wears a nun’s habit and holds a miniature church surrounded by flames. The inscription below attests to her Nubian origins and declares her official role as a protector against the ravages of fire.

The story of St. Ifigenia goes back to the earliest days of Christianity. According to an apocryphal account, during a mission of evangelization to Nubia (then called Ethiopia), St. Matthew defeated evil sorcerers and converted the king and his court to the new faith. The zeal of his daughter Ifigenia was especially strong, and with Matthew’s encouragement she founded a convent of 200 women. When she refused the advances of her uncle Hirtacus, he tried to burn down the building. Matthew miraculously diverted the flames to the palace, soon ending the despotic reign of the usurper and ushering in a period of prosperity under Christian rule.

The real story of her veneration, however, occurs with the arrival of black Africans, mostly as slaves, first in Spain and Portugal in the 15th century, then in their New World colonies. To aid in the process of spiritual assimilation among the captives, religious confraternities of blacks, both free and slave, had been established. Each was dedicated to one or more of a pantheon of exemplary black saints, including such near-contemporary figures as Benedict the Moor and Antonio de Categeró. Ifigenia joined them as a major patron of blacks on both sides of the Atlantic.

The Brazilian-born priest José Pereira de Santana devoted an entire book to Ifigenia and a fellow African saint, the sixth-century Ethiopian Emperor Elesban. He considered them the two pillars of African sanctity and refashioned them as saints of his own Carmelite order. Iphigenia came to be venerated by her countless adherents in her newly established iconographical form seen here.

Santana’s book was published in 1738, and by 1740 a confraternity dedicated to saints Ifigenia and Elesban had been founded by blacks in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Her veneration was thereby formally transferred to the New World, where it would became a major anchoring point for blacks struggling to rise from their oppressed condition. Soon a great number of churches and confraternities were dedicated to these two African saints throughout Latin America, many of which still thrive today.

St. Ifigenia has exerted an especially fervent devotion among her followers. A Peruvian image of her is said to have been brought onto a slave ship from Africa. In Ouro Preto, Brazil, the construction of the Church of St. Ifigenia is credited to the determined efforts of the Congolese slave Chico Rei, who freed himself and many of his people.

St. Ifigenia became a particularly appealing figure for women. The virgin saint is considered the protector of those forced into marriage and the advocate of those desiring to buy property. This role of matriarchal influence may indicate the retention of social patterns brought by West African slaves from their homelands. In this broader sense, Ifigenia has thus come full circle to once again embrace her own African origins.

The Image of the Black in Western Art Archive resides at Harvard University’s W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research. The director of the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute is Henry Louis Gates Jr., who is also The Root’s editor-in-chief. The archive and Harvard University Press collaborated to create The Image of the Black in Western Art book series, eight volumes of which were edited by Gates and David Bindman and published by Harvard University Press. Text for each Image of the Week is written by Sheldon Cheek.