Staff Pick of the Week: Ethiopian Art
“In Ethiopia, everything is individual, unexpected: … her culture, by which I mean a form of literary and artistic expression, unique in all Africa.” - Jules Leroy
While the scholarship on Ethiopian art is sparse, UWM’s Special Collections has a beautifully printed and documented publication entitled Ethiopian Painting by Jules Leroy, published in New York by F. A. Praeger in 1967. Adhered to its pages are photographs of church frescoes from various places in Ethiopia accompanied by descriptions of the country’s history, religion, and unique culture. Leroy also elaborates on the repeated styles and “formulas” artists followed during the late Middle Ages.
While most African countries were introduced to Christianity via colonization, King Ezana declared Christianity as Ethiopia’s state religion in 330 C.E. Ethiopia was the first country to mint a coin with the symbol of a cross. Christianity was established as a political move to strengthen economic ties with the Mediterranean world. Ethiopia has remained an independent country throughout its history in part due to its Christian faith, and artists have dedicated their training to depict that history. It continues to fascinate me how some countries use religion as politics.
For my staff pick of the week, I wanted to share some of my favorite Christian narratives familiar to the general public that are still produced for the tourist art market today, and shamelessly plug my Master’s thesis exhibition.
While my predecessors have displayed Ethiopian art as complementary to Byzantine, Russian, and Coptic artworks, I explore the political messages artworks like these convey through the framework of the Kebra Nagast, Ethiopia’s sacred text. So to view Ethiopian artworks like these in person, visit Ethiopian Art: Christian Narratives from the Kebra Nagast at the Emile H. Mathis Gallery in UWM’s Mitchell Hall February 27th - May 16th, 2020.
Artworks in this post include:
Christ in Glory, Gospel Book of the fifteenth century, Church of Jehjeh Giorgis, near Gondar.
The Virgin, Gospel Book of the fifteenth century, Monastery of Gunda Gundie.
The Crucifixion, Manuscript of the fifteenth century.
Saint George, Painting on canvas from Lalibela (detail). Addis Ababa, National Museum.
The Last Judgement, Painting on canvas from the church of St Anthony at Gondar.
The Curing of the Two Blind Men, Gospel Book of the seventeenth century. (notice how Judas is clearly defined by the direction of his eyes)
– Morgan, Special Collections Graduate Intern