Ethiopian Christian Art: WOW

Yesterday (6 Feb 2013) was my last full day in Ethiopia, and I wasn’t thrilled with my guide’s plan for the afternoon:  a trip to another ancient church.  This one was located in the countryside.  Luckily, I decided to go.

After an enjoyable one-hour drive over rough up-and-down roads, we arrived at the ancient church.  The outside of the church was disappointingly surrounded by scaffolding that supported a temporary roof (protection from rain and subsequent water seepage). The inside of the church was poorly lit and its wall paintings (frescoes) were severely damaged by time and water seepage.

Stylized Image of An Angel Decorating the Inside of an Ethiopian Rock Church

Stylized Image of An Angel Decorating the Inside of an Ethiopian Rock Church

After a brief explanation by my guide of the major frescoes, the Ethiopian Orthodox priest who was accompanying us disappeared behind a curtain.  He reappeared dressed in his priestly robes and with a staff topped by a crucifix.

Ethiopian Orthodox Priest Dressed for Photograph

Ethiopian Orthodox Priest Dressed for Photograph

We adjourned outside for the some photographs.  After we had taken a couple, I tipped him.  I only had big bills, so the contribution was generous.  Suddenly the priest became quite animated.  He wanted to show me an old book.  I thought “sure, why not?”  The calligraphy would be beautiful; written Ethiopian is very unique.

The priest came back with a large, almost square, book with wooden covers and goat-skin pages.  The first page I was shown was beautifully illustrated, reminiscent of medieval manuscript illuminations.

Priest and Local Guide Showing Off Their Ancient Manuscript

Priest and Local Guide Showing Off Their Ancient Manuscript

As it turned out, every page had beautiful illustrations.  The best I could determine, the manuscript concerned the life and miracles associated with St. Mary, the mother of Christ.  I was told that the book was 700-years old.  I certainly couldn’t prove them wrong.

The book had about 20 pages and was bound with coarse thread or string along the left border.  It had been cataloged because there were markers on some of the pages.

I’m not sure how old the book really is.  But for me, I was thrilled just to see it.  I couldn’t have been happier if I was in the Louvre.  The illustrations were colorful and finely executed.  The symbolism and images were very intriguing.

Two Pages from the Manuscript

Two Pages from the Manuscript

The priest carefully leafed through the book and we photographed each page.

This entry was posted in Art, ethiopia, Religion, Travel. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Ethiopian Christian Art: WOW

  1. rogerdhansen says:

    The following is from an email (12 Feb 2013) received from Steve Delamarter (Professor, George Fox University), authority on Ethiopian manuscripts:

    “It sounds like you had an interesting time in Ethiopia. The manuscript appears to be a manuscript of the Miracles of Mary. But there is not enough resolution to the images to determine the age or value of the manuscript. It is clearly a large-scale work and the pictures that are visible in the one photograph you sent, point in the direction of the Miracles of Mary.

    There are three ways to determine age of such a manuscript. First is a colophon (usually) near the end of the codex in which the owner is mentioned and the date of the copying took place. These colophons are actually rather rare. Perhaps only 15% of manuscripts have colophons.

    Second is the mention by the writers of the manuscript of some historical figure whom we can date. These would usually be the king or the Abuna. If their names are given we can date the era in which the manuscript were produced.

    Finally the science of paleography is used to determine the shapes of the letters. Paleography is probably accurate to within 50 years. But it takes some experience to be able to tell the age of a manuscript by paleography due to the fact that many letter forms are quite stable over many hundreds of years. Nevertheless someone trained in the field can tell you. For instance, if the picture you had sent showed the letters close enough to be able to see their details, I could tell you an approximate age.

    In any event it is not likely that you were looking at a 700 year old manuscript, since the very oldest extant manuscripts are about that age and there are only perhaps 20 or so known. 15th century would be very old for an Ethiopian manuscript. More likely 18th or 19th century, judging from the illuminations.

    For many reasons digitization is the urgent need for most manuscripts. Among other reasons a program of digitization is essentially a program of registration that can prove that a manuscript was at a certain place at a certain time and provide a basis for proof of ownership. I have been working in Ethiopia and North America for some 8 years now to digitize, preserve, catalog, and study the manuscripts. We are up to nearly 9,400 manuscripts digitized. We have always taken images of the ones digitized in North America and given copies to the Institute of Ethiopian Studies at Addis Ababa University and to the Patriarch’s Library and Museum in Addis Ababa.

    However the challenges of digitizing manuscripts in Ethiopia are legion and most people are suspicious and/or want huge sums of money to allow access. It is a shame really. In the mean time manuscripts are being moved out of the country at an alarming rate.”

  2. rogerdhansen says:

    The following is a follow-up email (12 Feb 2013) from Steve Delamarter:

    “The paleography points, actually, to the twentieth century. Nineteenth at the earliest. I suspect that an inspection of the pigments and hues of the paint might also point to the same conclusions.

    The Patriarch’s Library and Museum has conducted training sessions for those with authority over the church treasuries to help them understand the issues of preservation and to provide environments that are secure from water, rodents and theft. In the current environment I’m not sure much else that can be done.

    The sigla you describe are the registration number system of the dept of Tourism which has responsibility for this. We have seen these numbers in many places. This is good. It means that someone has a record.

    With regard to your images, if you would like to transfer a set to us we would include them in the project. This includes a full catalog entry and preservation of and access to the images for the future. We place all our images and electronicaly searchable metadata at the Hill Museum and Manuscript Library. They have systems and procedures which will guarantee preservation and access for scholarly use.”

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