Jesus & Mary in Ethiopia: A Distinctive Christian Art

By Smith, Karen Sue | Commonweal, June 3, 1994 | Go to article overview

Jesus & Mary in Ethiopia: A Distinctive Christian Art


Smith, Karen Sue, Commonweal


The first exhibit of Ethiopian Christian art ever to tour the United States (jointly sponsored by participating galleries and InterCultura, Fort Worth, and the Walters Art Gallery, Baltimore) is a small but exquisite selection of a hundred pieces, mostly from the Middle Ages. The show is a sampler, illustrating distinct art forms and subjects that developed in a Christian country which was geographically and culturally cut off from the Western world for nearly a thousand years.

The oldest pieces on display are also the smallest. At New York Public Library's Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, where the tour opened, I saw fourth-century gold and silver coins inlaid with crosses on one side, the emperor's profile engraved on the other. The coins make clear that the imperial house of Ethiopia had already converted to Christianity. Because the faith spread from the top of society downward, Ethiopian Christians were spared the persecutions that befell converts in Rome. Perhaps that is why their early art dwells not at all on suffering, not even the Passion and death of Jesus.

Ethiopia became a theocracy where its rulers heavily influenced liturgical practice. Although Ethiopia, as part of the Eastern church, stressed Mary as the Mother of God, it was a fifteenth-century monarch who initiated the cult of "Our Mother Zion." By fiat, Emperor Yaeqob introduced more than thirty Marian feasts into the liturgical calendar. Along with hymns to Lady Mary and readings from the "Miracle of Mary," prostrations were to be made before her icon.

At the exhibit, one is struck by the artists, preoccupation with Mary. She appears on silver pendants, wooden panels, in Scripture books, hymnals, and psalters. She sits cross-legged, sharing a cushion with the resurrected Christ reigning in glory; she nurses an infant Jesus; she wears luxurious fabrics--velvets and brocades with fleur-de-lis--and is flanked by saints and angels. She stands for prayer, hands open and raised to shoulder height. Such depictions illustrate a uniquely Ethiopian religious development devised in the emperor's court. To produce the number of Marian images required for ritual veneration, the artists of Yaeqob's day must have worked at full speed. Yet, the images on exhibit look anything but rushed.

In fact, Fere Seyon, the only artist singled out in the show, was a monk and court painter under Emperor Yaeqob. Seyon's icons of Mary and the saints, brightly colored, mostly tempera on wood, and well-preserved, show pleasing, round-faced, almond-eyed figures, lavishly painted in deep reds and yellows. The effect is one of warmth as well as contemplation.

Almost startling to behold is Judaism's influence on Ethiopian Christianity. Not only do the Ethiopians circumcise male infants on their eighth day, uphold a man, s duty to marry his brother's widow, and observe the Sabbath, but like the Jews in Sinai, they have become peripatetic worshipers. On display is an imaginative set of portable liturgical tools. …

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