Creation Altar Piece

The Creation Altar Piece, South Africa. The Creation Altar Piece, South Africa.

The Creation Altar Piece is a South African stitched and beadwork embroidery, inspired by the altar piece 'The Lamb of God' (Het Lam Gods), painted by the Flemish artists, Hubert and Jan Van Eyck (Gent, Belgium, early fifteenth century). The Creation Altar Piece was made by the Hamburg Women’s Co-operative (Hamburg is a rural area of the Eastern Cape, South Africa) under the auspices of the Keiskamma Trust.

The Creation Altar Piece was first shown at the Grahamstown National Arts Festival in 2005. It is based upon the daily life of the Hamburg community and their experiences.

Instead of traditional (Western) Christian figures and events, the Keiskamma artists depicted the story of Nongqawuse (a Xhosa prophetess; c. 1840's – 1898), her cousin, Nonkosi and others representing the Virgin, John the Baptist, John the Evangelist, as well as Adam and Eve.

Following a prophecy by Nongqawuse in c. 1856-1857, the Xhosa people destroyed their crops and killed hundreds of thousands of their cattle. This was done in the belief that their ancestors’ spirits would then drive the white oppressors into the sea bringing about better crops and cattle. The prophecy did not occur and Nongqawuse was eventually arrested and imprisoned on Robben Island. The four main panels of the Creation Altar Piece address the themes of hope, strength and new life. They include:

Panel 1: life of a Xhosa family in Hamburg, with the twins 'Brightness' and 'Sweetness', and the Archangel Gabriel with Nongqawuse as the Virgin Mary in an Annunciation scene. The theme is Hope: hope that the next generation will be free from AIDS and that all parts of society will work together.

Panel 2 includes a group of embroiderers and sewers from the Keiskamma Art Project in Hamburg, and beaders from the neighbouring village of Ntilini. The group stands on either side of two elderly members of the community, Mr. Gqwaka (a healer; John the Baptist) and Noshumi Rhubhushe (a sangoma, diviner; John the Evangelist).

Panel 3 focuses on new life and hope: it includes a representation of a cow, an animal that is sacred to the Xhosa people. It replaces the symbolic Christian lamb at the centre of the Van Eyck version. The cow is next to a fig tree, the Xhosa symbol for new life and growth. The tree is home to numerous birds and animals that live in the area around Hamburg.

Panel 4: the last panel depicts Adam and Eve. Adam is represented by Shadrak (a Zulu man’s name), while Mildred is Eve. They are sustained by the ocean and the surrounding land and live in balance with nature. Between Shadrak and Mildred are people from Hamburg and nearby Bodiam, who represent the groups in the Van Eyck altar piece who are moving the fountain of living water, symbolising strength, hope and new life.

The Creation Altar Piece was exhibited in England, Canada and the US before being bought by a private collector and loaned out to the Hamburg community where it was exhibited in an arts centre.

Digital source (retrieved 29 May 2016). See also an article in Artway, October 2015, by Victoria Emily Jones (click here).

Digital source of illustration (retrieved 29 May 2016)


Last modified on Sunday, 23 April 2017 09:43
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