A testament to Ethiopia's Christian art African Zion


Ethiopia has a long and illustrious history. Its people, thought to be a mixture of African and South Arabian peoples, were spoken of by Homer as the "farthermost of men," who welcomed the gods to their banquets. Its traditions claim that the Queen of Sheba was Ethiopian, and its monarchs claimed descent from Menelek, the son of the Queen of Sheba and Solomon.

Moreover, Menelek is supposed to have carried the Ark of the Covenant, which contained the tablets of the Ten Commandments, from Jerusalem to the Ethiopian capital of Aksum. Ethiopia's ties to Jerusalem and the Old Testament are so strong that the Sabbath is still celebrated there on Saturday.

The country's ties to the New Testament are even stronger. About 324, Ethiopia's ruler, Ezanas, converted to Christianity. From then to our own century, Ethiopia's brand of Orthodox Christianity was the state religion of the country. The art that that religion produced is the subject of "African Zion: The Sacred Art of Ethiopia," an exhibit opening at the Walters Art Gallery today.

It is seldom that one can experience a pivotal moment in a nation's history as clearly as one can the conversion 16 centuries ago of Ezanas at the entrance to this exhibit. There, among a group of coins of the third to the seventh century, are two from the reign of Ezanas, one silver and one gold. On the silver one, from before his conversion, the ruler appears with symbols of a disc and a crescent. On the gold one, from after the conversion, the disc and crescent have been replaced by the cross, making Ethiopia the first nation to put the symbol of Christianity on its coinage.

These coins are the oldest of more than 100 examples of Ethiopian Christian art gathered for this traveling exhibit, which debuts at the Walters and will subsequently travel to New York, Houston, Chicago and Los Angeles. According to Gary Vikan, Walters curator of medieval art, this is the first time many of these objects have ever been out of Ethiopia. Some of them, he contends, "may never have been seen outside the churches they were commissioned for."

The exhibit thus presents an opportunity never before offered and perhaps never to be offered again. It does not, however, provide a complete view of its subject. Although the gallery's statement that "the objects range in date from the fourth through the 18th century" is strictly correct, prospective visitors should not expect to see an unbroken procession of artwork marching steadily through the centuries. Since much was destroyed by subsequent rulers and later invasions, almost nothing aside from the early coins appears here from the Aksumite kingdom of the first through the 10th centuries or from the succeeding Zagwe dynasty through 1270. The exhibit essentially begins after that.

In 1270 a new dynasty was established, the Solomonic (claiming descendance from Solomon), and it is from the next 500 years, until the dynasty declined in the late 18th century, that virtually all of this show has been drawn. It is a rich enough period, and the art shown here -- principally parchment manuscripts, icons painted on wooden panels and metal crosses -- amply bear out the exhibit's claim that "Ethiopian art . . . seems continually to erupt anew in a symphony of bold color, dramatic outline, and driving rhythm."

In fact, the works often reflect a dialogue, even a contest for supremacy, between color and pattern -- which at times become abstract -- and the depiction of the human figure.

Although there was one Solomonic dynasty, there are really two Solomonic periods, separated by Muslim invasions in the mid-16th century. In the earlier of these periods, there are two distinct styles of painting, one of which came from the then-powerful monasteries and the other from the ruler's court.

As might be expected, the art of the monasteries tends to be more abstract and that of the court more humanistic. A good example of the former is provided by a northern Ethiopian 15th-century manuscript open to a leaf with a depiction of St. Anthony. His two-dimensional figure is completely swathed in stripes -- primarily diagonal, but some circular. Although they obviously represent clothes, they really form an abstract pattern that covers the majority of the sheet and renders the saint's face almost secondary.

Another late 15th-century manuscript, this one from the monastery at Gunda Gunde, reveals a variation. Here the faces, though somewhat stylized, are more prominent, but the emphasis remains on the deeply colored, richly patterned garments of the Mother and Child and the saint facing them. The saint's robe has alternating blue and green stripes decorated with designs in red, and he holds a cross from which depends a bright yellow cloth with a red and blue border.

While color and pattern are by no means absent from court art of the same period, the emphasis lies elsewhere. This art is exemplified by the work of Fre Seyon -- one of the few artists whose name is known. Active about 1445 to 1480, he worked at the court of the Emperor Zara Yaeqob and became enormously influential.

In works attributed to him of the Virgin and Child with saints and of various biblical personages, the figures are more volumetric and the expressions and gestures are more human. St. Peter puts an arm around St. Paul, and Mary offers a flowering branch to her son, who reaches up to touch her face as the apostles on the adjoining panel look on with obvious interest.

The Muslim invasion of 1531 to 1543 ushered in the later Solomonic period -- called the Gondarine, because the kings established a permanent court at the city of Gondar. The art of this period, which lasted through the second third of the 18th century, can also be divided in two; but in this case chronologically, for the influence of the monasteries had declined, and Gondar was both the site of the court and an ecclesiastical center.

There is a similar division, however, between the First Gondarine style, which tends to two-dimensionality and surface patterning, and the second (after about 1730), in which faces are more sculpturally modeled. But common to both is the inclusion of objects of everyday life, which gives these religious objects an added touch of humanity and a sense of immediacy rather than distance.

In a late 16th-century painting of the Virgin and Child, the Christ child wears sandals. An early 18th-century triptych pictures a nobleman in a then-popular hair style and wearing a sword, while the Christ child wears a garment resembling a leather baby carrier of the time. Church figures in a mid-18th century painting carry drums and noisemakers which, we are told, are still used ceremonially today.

While the show ends at about this point, we are also told that the second Gondarine style has influenced Ethiopian art until the present day.

Both the catalog of this show and the installation's labels and texts impart a great deal of information about this art, which will be so new to most American eyes. The catalog, in addition to dealing with the art, contains several introductory essays on the history of the Ethiopian state, religion and literature.

These, however, are at times complicated, repetitious and confusing. This is a book for those who want to immerse themselves in the subject thoroughly and are prepared to plow through the required reading to do so. Or, alternately, for those who want the pretty pictures. Those looking for a clear and understandable introduction to the subject will come closer to finding that in the show than in the catalog's often turgid pages.


What: "African Zion: The Sacred Art of Ethiopia"

Where: The Walters Art Gallery, 600 N. Charles St.

When: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays, through Jan. 9

Admission: $4 adults, $3 seniors, free to students and those 18 and under

Call: (410) 547-9000

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