Ethiopian Illuminated Manuscripts

By Gebre, Fanna | The World and I, March 2011 | Go to article overview

Ethiopian Illuminated Manuscripts


Gebre, Fanna, The World and I


From the rock hewn churches of Lalibela to the towering obelisks of Axum, Ethiopia boasts an extremely rich and ancient art tradition. While the elaborate crosses, colorful church wall paintings, and imposing icons all evoke wonder, illuminated manuscripts best reflect the uniqueness of Ethiopian art. Like those of Byzantium and medieval Europe, Ethiopian illuminated manuscripts literally illustrate the word of god; they are blessed scrolls combining Christian images and Biblical text. Religious function distinguishes an illuminated manuscript from a secular, or nonreligious, manuscript. These works showcase the vast aesthetic influences and anomalous aspects of both Ethiopian art and culture.

Though different periods have produced varied styles, a few characteristics present themselves in nearly all Ethiopian illuminated manuscripts. First, and most important, is subject matter. The Biblical tales come from both the New and Old Testaments, some which can only be found in the Ethiopian Orthodox Bible. The Four Evangelists, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, are commonly depicted, as well as the Crucifixion and Fountain of Life. Explanatory text in Ge'ez, an esoteric language used within the church, always accompanies images. Second, the bold use of color is evident in all Ethiopian painting. Primary colors red, yellow, and blue can usually be found in manuscript paintings, though white and gold have both been en vogue at some point. Third, and probably most memorable, is composition. Wide eyes and flatness result in almost cartoonish images. Holy and important figures, such as saints, always have their entire face visible (profiles are reserved for enemies), and eyes open to symbolize spiritual awareness. The Twelve Apostles, an 18th century manuscript page now in the British Library, illustrates all these characteristics, including a harag, or decorative border.

Two factors play essential roles in understanding the history of illuminated manuscripts in Ethiopia: international contact and the Orthodox Church. Located in east-Africa, surrounded by the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden, Ethiopia has had relations with its neighbors, both near and far, for thousands of years. While the earliest recording of Ethiopia in Western literature comes from Pliney the Elder, a 1st century Roman historian, trade occurred well before. Estimated to have been founded as early as 300 B.C., the famed city of Aksum conducted trade with the Mediterranean, Arabia, and Egypt. The Greek text Periplus of the Erythraen Sea, also from the 1st century, documents the well established ties with India, located across the Arabian Sea. In the 14th and 15th centuries, European courts in Aragon, Venice, and Portugal received Ethiopian representatives. Other links included Monastic Syria, Armenia and Jerusalem. (Richard Pankhurst, the living authority on Ethiopian history, details these relations in The Ethiopians.) Ethiopian artists had access to foreign art entering the country, incorporating certain styles that appealed to them. They borrowed gold from Byzantium, architectural elements from Rome, and decorative patterns from Renaissance Europe.

Since the founding of the Orthodox Church in Ethiopia, there has never been a distinct separation between church and state. The king's power rested on the belief that he directly descends from King Solomon of the Old Testament. The famous Kebra Nagast, or 'Glory of Kings,' written in the 14th century, recounts this lineage. Introduced in the 4th century by Syrian monk Frementius, Christianity became the state religion in 324 A.D. by order of King Ezana of Aksum. Ethiopia became the only sub-Saharan country in Africa to accept the Bible before the arrival of Western missionaries. (The Jesuits eventually arrived in 1555 and stayed for nearly a century.) As Getachew Haile and Jacques Mercier discuss in Ethiopian Art, published by The Walters Museum, art became confined to religious subjects and court tastes. …

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