Articles in this series:
Series: Religious Art and Manuscripts
01. Christian Art: Icons, Wall Paintings and Manuscripts
The Coming of Christianity
Ethiopia was one of the first countries in the world to adopt the Christian faith. Local tradition holds that this conversion occurred as early as at the time of the Apostles. Be that as it may, we know that King Ezana of the Aksumite kingdom, in what is now the northern highlands of Ethiopia, issued coins bearing the Cross of Christ already around 330AD. The Aksum realm was indeed the first in the world to strike money with this device. Ezana also erected several inscriptions, which seem to confirm that the conversion to Christianity took place during or around to the time of his reign.
Ethiopia’s conversion, according to Byzantine author Rufinus, whose account is near contemporary, and apparently worthy of credence, was carried out by Frumentius, a Greek-speaking youth from Syria. Shipwrecked off the Red Sea coast of Africa, he was taken to Aksum, the capital of the Aksumite realm. There he entered the service of the ruling monarch, perhaps Ezana’s father, and seems to have converted either the latter or Ezana himself. Frumentius, at around this time, or a little later, established the first “conventicles”, in Aksum, where early Christians “might resort in prayer”. He later travelled to Alexandria, then a great centre of Christianity, where the famous Patriarch Athanasius duly consecrated him as Ethiopia’s first Bishop, after which he adopted the name Abba Salama, or Father of Peace.
The Nine Saints
This conversion, an important turning-point in Ethiopian history, was followed by the coming to the country of a stream of Christians from other lands. Most notable among them were the so-called Nine Saints: Abba Alf, Abba Sehma, Abba Aragawi, Abba Afse, Abba Garima, Abba Pantalewon, Abba Likanos, Abba Guba, and Abba Yem’ata. They were Christian missionaries from Syria, or “Rom”, i.e. the Eastern Roman Empire, as Ethiopian historical texts term it. These visitors from the far-off Christian world established monasteries in the northern Ethiopian highlands, often on virtually inaccessible mountains.
The advent of these foreign missionaries, and the monasteries they founded, placed the Aksumite kingdom, and later the Ethiopian state which developed therefrom, firmly within the orbit of Eastern Christendom. It subsequently became customary for the Ethiopians to obtain their chief religious dignitary, their Abun, or Metropolitan, from Coptic Egypt. It is, however, entirely incorrect to describe Ethiopian Christianity, as is often done, as Coptic, for there have always been many differences, both organisational and doctrinal, between the Ethiopian and Coptic churches.
The coming of the Nine Saints was a major religious and cultural event, for it strengthened the country’s Christian affiliation, and led to the introduction of the monastic system. This was accompanied by the emergence of a religious-based system of education.
Such education was culturally important, even though it was almost entirely restricted to boys, and limited, like that in medieval Europe, to a small proportion of the population.
Ethiopian Church Education
Education, in Ethiopian Church schools, began with the study of Dawit, i.e.the Psalms of David, through which the youngsters learnt the alphabet. This introductory study was followed by a degree of specialisation, in which students devoted themselves to such subjects as the Bible, qen, or church poetry, zema, or church chant, and aqwaqwam, or religious deportment.
Many children abandoned their studies scarcely literate, but others continued to study diligently for as long as twenty or more years. Some such scholars could recite the entire Bible from memory, as well differing interpretations of many of its passages. Some clerics also learnt to draw and paint, to produce parchment, to bind manuscripts, and, as craftsmen, to make various items of church paraphernalia, including church vestments, crosses, sistra, bells, and drums used in religious services.
The above old-time Ethiopian system of church education was the only kind of schooling in the country until the introduction of modern education in the first decade of the twentieth century. Though naturally now far less important than in the past, has indeed continued, scarcely interrupted, up to the present time.
Patron of the Arts
The Ethiopian Church was, throughout this period, the principal, and indeed almost sole, patron of culture and the arts. The church was to the fore, in particular, in the fields of both painting and book production. Ethiopian art, throughout the centuries, was indeed essentially Christian art, and Ethiopian literature, very largely Christian literature.
Early Ethiopian Art
Ethiopian church art, and manuscripts, many of them embodying translations of the Bible, probably began to be produced at the time of the country’s conversion, or at least by the time of the Nine Saints.
The earliest extant paintings and manuscripts date, however, only to around the thirteenth century. It is presumed that works produced prior to that time were probably destroyed in the course of the country’s frequent wars, or by the ravages of time, and of the elements.
Icons, and Wall Paintings
Ethiopian church art, which has been described as Byzantine art in an African setting, was devoted almost entirely to Biblical and Christian themes. Such art manifested itself in three distinct areas: 1) icons, 2) wall paintings, and 3) manuscript illustration – miniatures as they are sometimes called.
Icons, which were kept in churches, and apparently sometimes also in palaces and in the houses of the greater nobility and clergy, were regarded with great veneration. Such works of art were painted on wood, either as single panels, or as diptychs or triptychs.
Wall paintings, in the early stone churches, among them the famous rock-hewn churches of Lalibala in Lasta, as well as the probably even older ones of Tegray, were generally painted directly on the stone itself. Later churches, those with mud walls, similar, though larger, than those of traditional Africanstyle huts, were on the other hand for the most part decorated with paintings on cloth, which, after their completion, were pasted to the walls.
Paintings were seldom signed, for the artist, working, as he believed, for the glory of God, would have regarded any such action as both irreverent and presumptuous.
Medieval Ethiopian artists had to make their own paints, from locall stones and plants, but some of the more fortunate, by the sixteenth century, began to use imported materials.