Walters acquires precious rarities Ethiopian art: Walters Art Gallery recently purchased 17 objects that show little-known links between Africa and early Christianity.


A 16-foot parchment fan made 500 years ago by Ethiopian monks. A painted wooden triptych showing Mary with a cloak of pale blue and eyes of deepest black. An ancient Gospel that contains in its illustrations rare clues to the architecture of Jerusalem at about 500 A.D.

These artworks, among a group of 17 Ethiopian objects recently purchased from two private collectors by the Walters Art Gallery, are a window into little-known links between early Christianity and Africa, and are the most significant acquisition made by the museum in decades.

Icons like these from Ethiopia were originally made as sacred objects, images to be venerated no less than a priest or a church. But in them also lay a forum for creative experimentation in color, portraiture and symbols -- indeed, the artistic expression of civilization.

By adding these wood, bronze and parchment objects to its permanent holdings, the Walters has assembled what may be the finest collection of Ethiopian art outside Addis Ababa, Ethiopia's capital.

It also may be the only museum to own important collections in the four basic Christian icon-making traditions: Byzantine, early Italian, Russian and Ethiopian.

And for Baltimoreans, the acquisition means that the museum's collection -- amassed in the 19th century by William Walters and his son, Henry, with its emphasis on Eastern and Western culture -- now includes significant African artworks.

In celebration, the Walters has invited a group of community leaders to a private unveiling Tuesday of its new artworks.

Beginning Wednesday, the Ethiopian artworks will go on public view and museum-goers will see -- alongside the icons from Italy or Byzantium -- equally magnificent Ethiopian works in which Mary, the Apostles, the Archangels and Christ are depicted as men and women of color.

"This acquisition builds and complements the collections we already have," says Gary Vikan, museum director. "It gets us out in front of other medieval collectors, and at the same time it responds to our constituency. It's wonderfully serendipitous."

Over the years, exhibitions of religious icons at the Walters have attracted large audiences. So have displays of African art -- particularly a 1993 show called, "African Zion: The Sacred Art of Ethiopia."

"We found an excellent vehicle in 'African Zion,' " says Ackneil M. Muldrow II, chairman of the Walters' African-American steering committee, whose goal is to increase involvement of the black community at the museum. In four months, the exhibition drew more than 60,000 people, won critical praise and inspired curators to put on other African shows such as the 1994 display of masks called "Secrecy: African Art that Conceals and Reveals."

Still, the question remained: "How do we have a permanent exhibition that involves the African-American community and still falls within the realm of the Walters museum?" said Muldrow, president of the Development Credit Fund Inc.

Vikan, a Byzantine art scholar who was named museum director in 1994, grew intrigued with Ethiopian art when he curated the African Zion show.

The popularity of that exhibition made him wonder: What if the Walters were to purchase Ethiopian icons? Galvanized by the steering committee, he began watching the world art market for Ethiopian iconic art.

But there was little out there.

In the spring of 1995, a call came from New York. An art dealer named William Wright thought he had something that might interest the Walters. And he was willing to give the museum's director first right of refusal.

Vikan sped to New York. There, spread out in a loft on the fifth floor of a Soho warehouse, was an Ethiopian art collection that belonged to New Yorkers Joseph and Margaret Knopfelmacher.

"It was off the charts in terms of historic value," Vikan says. "And three of the pieces were of almost unduplicatable quality outside of Ethiopia."

Without hesitation, Vikan put circular red "acquisition" stickers on about a dozen works. "It's like old cars or good chocolate: You either know it or you don't," he says. "I knew great Ethiopian art when I saw it."

L Now all that remained for the museum director to do was pay.

In the next few months, two other collectors, Nancy and Robert Nooter of Washington, also agreed to sell several pieces to the Walters. All told, says Vikan, the 17 Ethiopian artworks cost $300,000 -- an amount that may seem small in the art world but is a huge amount for a museum that rarely adds to its holdings.

As 1995 drew to a close, Wright, the dealer, began getting nervous: He had reserved the objects chosen by Vikan for the Walters, but during the wait for the actual purchase the price of the 15th-century fan, for which the Walters paid about $150,000, rose by $10,000.

By December, though, "because we had a really good year on the stock market," Vikan says, the Walters had enough money. And the art was theirs.

The objects that will soon go on display at the Walters are steeped in traditions dating to the fourth century. According to those traditions, a great king named Menelek carried the Ark of the Covenant (containing the tablets of the Ten Commandments) from Jerusalem to the Ethiopian city of Aksum.

Judaism had made its way there, tradition holds, and was followed by Christianity in its first centuries. In 324, the nation's ruler converted to the then new faith. As evidence of lasting ties to Jerusalem and the Old Testament, however, some Ethiopian Orthodox Christians still follow practices on Saturday similar to those observed by Jews, says Dr. Moges Gebremariam, a steering committee member who is Ethiopian.

The objects in the Walters collection include a rare, 16-foot parchment fan, which people waved above the chalice during liturgy. Similar fans are still used today, says Gebremariam.

There is a triptych dating to the 16th century, on which Mary and Jesus, painted in tempera on wood, are surrounded by scenes of Christ teaching the Apostles. Painting -- on parchment or wood -- has been the most characteristic manifestation of Ethiopian Christian tradition, and its themes have remained essentially the same: Mary, Mother of God, holding Jesus; Christ teaching the Apostles; the Passion of Christ.

Ornate processional crosses, similar to the six now owned by the Walters, still are used in religious services, says Gebremariam. "There is a long history of crosses in Ethiopia -- elegant, painted, elaborate work that blends the star of David with crosses -- showing that [many] Ethiopians followed Judaism before they followed Christianity."

Though art as old as that purchased by the Walters is still found in Ethiopian churches and monasteries, such work is difficult to find outside the country. "[These objects are] definitely an extremely important and rare acquisition not only because of age, but because it is one of the oldest and most interesting bodies of material that link Africa to Christian art," says Michael Kan, curator of African art at the Detroit Institute of Arts.

He points to the exhibit, "Africa: The Art of a Continent," that is now at the Guggenheim Museum in New York. That show includes 550 objects on loan from some of the largest museums in the world, but the earliest Ethiopian works date to the 17th century, says Kan, who was once an exhibition consultant. In contrast, some of the pieces that now belong to the Walters date to the 14th century.

"Many people don't realize that African art has been influential for centuries," says Gebremariam. "One has only to look at this art to see that Picasso, Chagall, Henry Moore, all were inspired by it."

Beyond that, he adds, "it sends a message. The Ethiopian and African art sends a message that the museum is trying to interest the people of the community in their art."

Pub Date: 8/11/96

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