Fragments of Leopard Altar Figure


This partially melted leopard figure was damaged in the heat of the fire that consumed World Museum after it was bombed in May 1941, during the Second World War. Only the abdomen, the back legs and the upper part of the front legs remain, while the tail has become detached from the main fragment. The glass-like enamel, which would originally have filled the relief spots on the leopard, has mostly melted away. Images of Leopards and leopard heads are signifiers of royal authority and are an important feature of Benin court art. When the Oba sat in state he was flanked by a pair of ivory or brass leopards. One of the praise names of the Oba is ‘the son of the leopard of the home’. Like the predatory leopard the Oba had power of life and death over his subjects. This leopard was described as having been “found” with on the “altar of a dwelling house”. It formed part of the private loot that Dr Felix Roth removed from Benin City in 1897 and sold to the Liverpool Museum in December the same year. In his 1898 article the museum’s director Henry Ogg Forbes described an opening with a broken hinge on the crown of the head of this leopard (Bulletin of the Liverpool Museums 1898, 1(2) p.59) which suggests that the leopard was made as an ‘aquamanile’, a water vessel used for pouring water for washing the hands. Aquamanile vessels in the form of animals may have been introduced by the Portuguese, but Edo brass casters made their own versions for the palace, which carried Edo meanings. The water would have been filled up via the opening in the head and may have been poured from a hole in the leopard’s mouth or nostrils.