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Architectural Sculpture in Nigerian Churches

Architectural Sculpture in Nigerian Churches: A Case of St. Patrick’s Catholic Cathedral, Awka


The role of sculpture in architecture for a while now has been downplayed. A phenomenon in which both the practitioners in the building industry, and the policy makers have been accused of culpability. Art being a go-between man and his environment once again should rise to the occasion. This is the underlying message of this project. This study tried to epitomize the use of sculpture in churches to drive home its view that sculpture’s relevance in architecture can never be over-emphasized. The writer commenced the project by taking the readers on a historical journey starting from the pre-colonial days through the colonial and post colonial eras, all in a bid to establish the fact that architectural sculpture was part of the traditional art-heritage of Nigeria. The 2nd chapter of the project involves an extensive review of different writers’ opinions on the subject. The 3rd chapter is more of an overview of St. Patrick’s Catholic Cathedral, its history, as well as the sculptural works found within it. At the end, the study not only asked pertinent questions but also concluded by providing some relevant suggestions as to how the glorious days of architectural sculpture can be restored.



Background of the Study

A historical tour of the architectural sculpture landscape of Nigeria, starting from the pre-colonial era to the present, reveals that it is quite conspicuous that there exists a huge gap in the utilization of sculpture in the embellishment of architecture in Nigeria’s colonial and post colonial periods. This problem therefore underscores the need for this study.

Architectural sculpture has to do with the use of sculptures to enrich and embellish architectural works or buildings with the surrounding spaces inclusive. It is a term usually used to describe buildings in which sculptures are used by an architect or sculptor in the design; this is found not only in buildings but also in structures such as bridges, mausoleum and so many other structures that can accommodate sculptures. Usually, the sculpture is integrated into the structures thereby forming an integral part of them.

This practice has been employed by builders throughout the ages and in virtually every continent on earth. The little we know today about the history of architecture in Nigeria comes from few art historical writings, and as Cliff. Nwanna (2004) posits: “architecture in the Western Sudan region has received very little scholarly attention compared to other branches of arts, like sculpture, music etc.” Therefore our knowledge of the architectural practices of the ancient cultures of Nigeria has to rely mainly on information gathered from books on Archeology, Anthropology, and art history

It will not be out of place to say that architectural sculpture in Nigeria has been in existence even in the pre-colonial era. It could even be rightly inferred that this art enjoyed wider patronage during this era. Africans and specifically Nigerians, prior to the advent or intrusion of the white man, appropriated a functional nature to their sculptures. This functionality was most conspicuous in the utilization of sculptures as religious objects of worship and ancestral veneration; consequently, these sculptures became part of the architectural landscape of the shrines and places of worship, (see plate 25).

The art of sculpture was so prevalent in Nigeria that its preponderance was echoed by William Fagg (1971) in his book “Living Arts of Nigeria”, according to him, ninth tenth of all the known sculpture of ancient Africa are probably found in Nigeria.  These sculpture of pre-colonial Nigeria was intertwined with their religion, the advent of the Europeans and the subsequent introduction of Christian religion, led to the so called detribalizing process which brought about the diminishing fortunes of sculpture of that era. Sculptors were discouraged or succinctly put, unemployed, since their once lucrative profession was now being labeled fetish and pagan by the alien religion. This could be regarded as the first stage of retrogression in the history of architectural sculpture in Nigeria.

Delving further, one can also note that court art was also pre-eminent during the pre-colonial period. Kings, most often, commissioned sculptors to make sculptural pieces for them. (Plate 22) Some of them were in the form of their personal busts, pendants, ceremonial pots, royal stools, and royal insignias, some monarchs involved sculptors in the architectural designing of their palaces, and the doors of these palaces were embellished with carvings.

Nevertheless, the advent of colonialists and their system of government demystified the monarchial system and consequently placed it in position of disrepute. The colonial era witnessed what could be termed as an era of dearth of progress in the history of architectural sculpture in Nigeria. These events could be regarded as the first among the numerous occurrences’ that hampered and is still hampering the growth and development of this sector. However, it will be wrong for one to assume entirely that the advent of Christian religion was completely destructive to Nigeria’s traditional architecture and sculpture. This is because as noted by Marshal Ward Mount (1972) that the Christian missionaries encouraged local sculptors to carve some of their doors and other architectural vestiges for their churches. According to Mount, the primary aim of these works were to educate the church members, and most of the themes were derived from the Christian themes, though the sculptors sometimes do accept commissions from outside the church which involves secular subject matter. (See plates 20-21)

Furthermore, the post colonial era produced sculptors who Chris-crossed the boundaries of architecture and sculpture and still came out to be known as masters of both professions. A typical example of the set of sculptors is Demas Nwoko who is not only a sculptor but also an architect and one of the pioneer students of the Zaria school of Art.  Demas Nwoko was a member of the revolutionary Zaria Art society whose ideology was as posited by Ola OLoidi (1984) as rooted in Uche Okeke’s advocacy of ‘natural syntheses. He is a good example of the intermarriage of western art principles and African/Nigerian cultural milieu; a course championed by Uche Okeke.

These few facts can lead one into the conclusion that the advent of western education and colonialism brought with it some mixed blessings. But it should not be forgotten that the Europeans who had the obnoxious believe that Africans were incapable of producing anything that could be rightly called ‘Art’, were reluctant in introducing art education into their school curriculum, krydz C. Ikwuemesi (2000).

Suffice it to say that the architectural structures in Nigeria today are as quoted by Frank Lloyd Wright in his critics of Le-Corbusier’s houses ; “ mere boxes on stilts” with little attention to aesthetics. The present day Nigerian architects no longer see the need for involving sculptures in the designing of their projects. The questions one is poised to ask are where is the missing link? What has gone wrong? What is the cause of this ugly trend? Looking back to our history once again, one can decipher that our fore-fathers had a better direction; they understood the inextricable importance of sculpture in architecture and therefore utilized it whenever possible in their architectural contraptions. Even our first generation of contemporary artists/sculptors understood this importance and sedulously followed this tradition with little refinements. But as this generation of artists drift away, this tradition seems to be drifting with them. There is therefore an urgent need to arrest this ugly trend and to re-echo the merits of this tradition across Nigeria. This in essence is what prompted and motivated   this research.

Statement of Problem

It is quite obvious that there exists a missing link between the builders and architects of nowadays and those of old. An investigation into the whereabouts of this missing link is the sole concern of this study. The work fills a gap in the area of architectural sculpture and also proffers solutions as to how the glorious days of architectural embellishment with sculpture could be returned

Significance of the Study

This study is significant in many aspects.  It presents the development of Nigerian architectural sculpture in time-perspective; taking note of the various stages of its development, via the pre-colonial, colonial, and post colonial eras. It also established the fact that architectural sculpture is not alien to Africans and Nigeria in particular. The study while highlighting the history the Catholic Church in Awka, x-rayed some of the cultural practices of the Awka people. The study also reaffirmed the in expendable importance of sculpture in architecture

Purpose of the Study

The purpose of this study is to make our contemporary architects to reflect on such grandeurs architectural masterpieces of the west in line with the global trend. What gave Western architecture their glamour and appeal and still makes them relevant is the sculptures which form inseparable part of the structures.

Scope of the Study

In order to avoid ambiguity and still remain within the framework of this type of academic research, the author has chosen to concentrate on architectural sculpture in Nigeria, using St. Patrick’s Catholic Cathedral, Awka as an example, since most Catholic church architecture are replete with sculptures.


Financial constraints and unavailability of written literature were but a few of the numerous challenges that battled against the writing of this project. Also in order to avoid the seemingly silly errors usually made by conventional typists, I had to type this work by myself and this greatly took a large chunk of my meager time


The author employed an art-historical approach to the study. Information used was gathered through both primary and secondary sources. The primary sources are mainly oral sources, such as, interviews, and group discursions while secondary sources were written materials: published and unpublished. Pictures of sculptures found within St. Patrick’s Cathedral Awka were taken and analyzed, which formed part of the basis for discussion. The Church archive was also visited for clarification of some historical records. In all, the methodology could be described as qualitative and discursive.

—This article is incomplete———–This article is incomplete———— It was extracted from a well articulated quality Project, Research Work/Material

Project Topic: Architectural Sculpture in Nigerian Churches: A Case of St. Patrick’s Catholic Cathedral, Awka

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