African Pentecostals in Catholic Europe: The Politics of Presence in the Twenty-First Century

by Annalisa Butticci

In recent years, the media and material turn in the study of religion has questioned the dominant understanding of religion as an inward and intellectual human experience and has proposed instead a theoretical and methodological approach that focuses on the materiality, sensuality, and aesthetics of religion, such as objects, images, substances, and bodily sensations by means of which people generate and experience the supernatural. By highlighting the indispensability of matter, scholars are revealing the vital role of the very crude elements of religion that a belief-centered approach has long ignored.[1]

Cover of the book „African Pentecostals in Catholic Europe.The Politics of Presence in the Twenty-First Century“, Harvard University Press, 2016. Honorable Mention, Clifford Geertz Prize 2017.

Historian Robert Orsi has written extensively on the material and embodied world of “real presence” of gods in the history of human kind. Focusing especially on Roman Catholicism, Orsi has examined the everyday practices of materialization of the sacred through the experience of the body and devotees’ sensuous relationship with the sumptuous Catholic visual and material culture.[2] Matthew Engelke, Birgit Meyer, and David Morgan, among others, have studied how the supernatural becomes “real” through specific ways of sensing objects and substances or gazing at images,[3] and in the field of art history, Hans Belting has studied the question of iconic presence in Christian traditions and beyond.[4]

Building on those works, this book provides an anthropological analysis of the politics of the aesthetics of real presence in a very peculiar contact zone: Italy, a country where Roman Catholicism deeply and pervasively shapes the aesthetics and politics of the sacred. The book reveals how Pentecostals and Catholics mediate “real presence” through strikingly similar practices, objects, substances, and even images, and in so doing produce aesthetic clashes and religious short circuits. Italy is indeed a contact zone where African Pentecostals and Roman Catholicism coexist in a highly asymmetrical relation of power. Yet, African Pentecostals are challenging the aesthetic hegemony of Catholicism and are claiming their own power and authority to generate and govern supernatural presences in a Catholic land. As this book shows, they do it in a very peculiar way and through the aesthetics and materiality of “real” presence.

Basilica of St. Anthony, Padua. Photo: Andrew Esiebo.

Pentecostal churches are one of the great novelties in the history of the last thirty years of African migration, and they are one of the most resilient non-Catholic, non-Italian, and non-white subjects of the last century in the history of religious pluralism in Italy. The remarkable growth of these churches is the result of the twentieth-century migration of people from western Africa, a migration that gave rise to a cultural and religious movement unprecedented in the history of religious pluralism in Italy. The religious leaders and members of these churches are women and men often caught in the storm of international migrations.  They have been suffering badly from economic recessions and limited access to decent jobs and housing. They also daily experience Italian racism, a racism shaped by the Italian colonial invention of Africa’s inescapable otherness, primitivism, and barbarity and by contemporary neoliberal economic regimes of exploitation of labor force coming from the global south.[5]

When voicing their protest against their social suffering and imposed religious marginality in a white and Catholic-dominated society, African Pentecostals often refer to the overwhelming power and prestige of the Catholic church, its big cathedrals, big pulpits and columns, sacred images, and statues placed in every corner of Italian urban spaces. “One day, we will build our own cathedrals here!” insists a charismatic African female bishop who oversees a Ghanaian Pentecostal church in Italy.[6]

Intriguingly, to African Pentecostals, Catholic aesthetics are both fascinating and disturbing at the same time. The omnipresent and overwhelming Catholic aesthetics elicits from them a mix of emotions that range from disgust, as in the case of the sacred art of reliquaries, to awe and admiration for the baroque and other religious regalia that adorns churches and cathedrals. This perturbing visual and material culture triggers in them a mix of attraction and rejection and the arousal of discomforting emotions, as all terrible beauties do.[7] In fact, African Pentecostals have always had a very conflicted and ambivalent relationship with Roman Catholic aesthetics. To them, Roman Catholicism has always been the idolatrous other, too similar to African traditional practices, that include, for example, the use of images, statues, incense, and candles.

Yet in Italy, African Pentecostals subtly appropriate and manipulate those material and visual forms, giving birth to captivating transcultural, transtemporal, and transreligious aesthetics. The book analyzes several examples of this, like Pentecostals going to the Basilicas of Saint Anthony in Padua and filling selected corners of it with the sounds of their vibrant prayer and their embodied practices.

Basilica of St. Anthony, Padua. Photo: Andrew Esiebo.

Pentecostal Bishop, Italy. Photo: Andrew Esiebo.

This book examines the religious and political implications of such engagement with Catholic aesthetics in a Catholic-dominated society and shows the politics of disruption and dissent that is at the core of the appropriation and manipulation of the material and visual culture intrinsic to Catholic spiritual and socio-political power.

Drawing from the politics of aesthetics of Jacque Rancière,[8] as well as from Gramscian analysis of the dissenting and counterhegemonic religious practices of the subalterns, the book illuminates the artful politics of dissent that shape and are shaped by Pentecostals’ appropriations and remaking of Catholic aesthetics and that temporarily dissolve the Catholic aesthetic order in which non-Catholic subjects are the one who have no part. Through contested and unauthorized use of objects, images, dress, and spaces, we see how African Pentecostals who live on the margins of Italian Catholic society craft their own social and religious worlds, move objects and images from the center to the margin, redefine the rules and aesthetics of “real presence” and temporarily materialize their political project of liberation from their imposed marginality and social suffering.

African Pentecostal church, Italy. Photo Andrew Esiebo

The experience of African Pentecostals in Catholic Europe provides a peculiar opportunity to observe how historical colonial frontiers have moved from Africa to Europe, turning European cities and societies into contact zones, such as spaces of negotiation in which diverse subjects, groups, or communities previously disconnected by geography and history come into contact and coexist, often in conflict with one another.[9] In the Italian contact zone, the encounter between Africans Pentecostals and Italian Catholics, the powerless and the powerful, the illegitimate and legitimate religious subjects, triggers  aesthetic clashes over the politics of “real presence” and turns objects and images into powerful religious and political mediums through which black African Pentecostal migrants in a white and Catholic society claim their religious power and political subjectivities.

The book proposes a critical approach to study religious material and visual culture that underscores the politics of objects and images in mediating divine and political power in high conflict contact zones and it offers an analysis of the political claims that take the form of transcultural material and visual formations.

African Pentecostal church, Italy. Photo: Andrew Esiebo.

The book was awarded honorable mention by the 2017 Clifford Geertz Prize committee (Society for the Anthropology of Religion) and is  part of a multimedia project that includes a website, a film documentary directed by Annalisa Butticci and Andrew Esiebo entitled “Enlarging the Kingdom: African Pentecostals in Italy” accessible for free at, a traveling photographic exhibition (Andrew Esiebo, photographer and Annalisa Butticci, curator) and a catalog entitled Na God. Aesthetics of African Charismatic power. Annalisa Butticci (Ed) Andrew Esiebo Photography, (Padova: Grafiche Turato Press 2013).


[1] Religion, materiality, and senses have been the subjects of several scholars’ work. Examples are Birgit Meyer and Dick Houtman, eds., Things: Religion and the Question of Materiality (New York, NY: Fordham University Press, 2012); David Morgan, Religion and Material Culture: The Matter of Belief (London, UK: Routledge, 2010); Diana Espirito Santo and Nico Tassi, eds., Making Spirits: Materiality and Transcendence in Contemporary Religions (London, UK: I.B. Tauris, 2013); and Sally Promey, ed., Sensational Religion: Sensory Cultures in Material Practice (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2014).

[2] Robert Orsi, History and Presence (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2016).

[3] Matthew Engelke, A Problem of Presence: Beyond Scripture in an African Church(  David  Morgan. The Sacred Gaze: Religious Visual Culture in Theory and Practice (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005); Birgit Meyer, Mediation and the Genesis of Presence: Towards a Material Approach to Religion. Inaugural lecture, Utrecht University, 2012

[4] Hans Belting, “Iconic Presence: Images in Religious Traditions,” Material Religion, 12:2 (2016): 235–237; Hans Belting, Likeness and Presence: A History of the Image before the Era of Art (Chicago, IL: Chicago University Press, 1994).

[5] Cristina Lombardi-Diop and Caterina Romeo, eds., Postcolonial Italy: Challenging National Homogeneity (New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan ,2012); Rhiannon Noel Welch, Vital Subjects: Race and Biopolitics in Italy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016).

[6] See the documentary “Enlarging the Kingdom. African Pentecostals in Italy” directed by Annalisa Butticci and Andrew Esiebo (28 min), available at

[7] Carolyn Korsmeyer, Savoring Disgust: The Foul and the Fair in Aesthetics (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2011), 171.

[8] On dissent as a political concept, see Jacque Rancière, Dissensus: On Politics and Aesthetics, trans. Steven Corcoran (London: Continuum International Publishing Group, 2000) and  Jacques Rancière, On the Shores of Politics (Brooklyn, NY: Verso, 1995); Antonio Gramsci, Prison Notebooks, trans. Joseph Buttingieg (New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 2011); and Bruce Grelle, Antonio Gramsci and the Question of Religion: Ideology, Ethics, and Hegemony (London, UK: Routledge, 2016).

[9] Mary Louise Pratt, Mary Louise Pratt, Imperial Eyes: Travel Writing and Transculturation (London: Routledge, 2007).


Annalisa Butticci. Picture: private.

Annalisa Butticci is currently Assistant Professor of Social Anthropology at Utrecht University in the Netherlands. Her areas of research include material and visual culture of religions, African visual cultures, African Diasporas, Roman Catholicism and Pentecostalism(s), visual and multimedia studies, and oral history and life stories. She has conducted extensive research in Italy, Nigeria, Ghana, and the US. She was a 2015/2016 Fellow of the research program Art Histories and Aesthetic Practices at the Forum Transregionale Studien



Citation: Annalisa Butticci, African Pentecostals in Catholic Europe: The Politics of Presence in the Twenty-First Century, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 27.03.2018,



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Forum Transregionale Studien (2018, 27. März). African Pentecostals in Catholic Europe: The Politics of Presence in the Twenty-First Century. TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research. Abgerufen am 14. Juni 2024, von

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