The Black Saint Who Embodied Christianity for the African Masses

Image of the Week: An 18th-century painting details the story of St. Elesbaan, one of the “pillars of Ethiopia.”

Anonymous (Portuguese), St. Elesbaan, circa 1750. Oil on canvas, 110 by 75 cm. Museu de Arte Sacra, Arouca, Portugal

The organization began modestly, with a group of blacks from a local parish meeting in a private home. The governing structure of the confraternity became clear in 1740 with its official establishment by means of a compromisso, or charter issued by the church. The confraternity primarily served as a unique advocate for an oppressed population. As a kind of mutual aid society, its members promoted their own material and spiritual welfare. A primary objective was the purchase of freedom for enslaved members.

Like other black confraternities, the internal structure of the Irmandade de Santo Elesbão e Santa Efigênia, as it is known in Brazil, reflected the various ethnicities of its membership. The confraternity was organized into seven distinct groups, or empires, defined in terms of their putative origins along the slave coast of Africa and other points of the slave trade, including east Africa. Each empire was ruled by its own king and queen, who were always of free status, thus introducing a hierarchy of power and influence within the confraternity.

The church founded by the brotherhood in 1754 still survives, though its role has changed considerably with the abolition of slavery in 1888. No longer in need of the intervention of the brotherhood for their freedom, many ex-slaves left to seek their fortunes elsewhere. In a broader sense, however, the cult of saints Elesbaan and Ephigenia still maintains its relevance. As elsewhere, in the complex society of modern Brazil, race still remains an issue. These great African saints, “the two pillars of Ethiopia” as styled by Santana, are just as relevant now as advocates for the welfare and future prosperity of their devotees.

The Image of the Black in Western Art Archive resides at Harvard University’s W.E.B. Du Bois Research Institute, part of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research. The founding director of the Hutchins Center 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.