Articles in this series:
Series: Religious Art and Manuscripts
02. Ethiopian Manuscripts: Bindings and Illustration
Ethiopian bookmanship, at least by the fourteenth or fifteenth centuries, was highly developed. Manuscripts were often beautifully fashioned, and indeed works of art, and craftsmanship, in their own right.
Parchment, or Vellum
Manuscripts were invariably made of parchment, usually fashioned from cow, sheep or goat skin, but sometimes also of horse hide, which enabled the production of particularly large sheets of vellum. Manuscripts were in many cases strongly bound, and often covered with stout wooden boards, generally made from either the wanza tree(Cordia africana) or the (Olea africana).
Leather and its Production
The finer volumes, those belonging in particular to important churches, monasteries, and imperial and other rulers, were often covered with beautifully fashioned leather.
The preparation of leather was a well-established Ethiopian traditional craft, but imported skin from Arabia was later also used, and is to this day known as arab leather. Leather bindings were in many cases tooled with a variety of decorative motifs. Most of these were based on a large central cross, often framed by a series of box-like designs, and some kind of simple border decoration. Many such themes, to judge by datable examples, changed remarkably little over the centuries, with the incidental result that manuscripts can scarcely be dated by their binding styles.
Some of the finest Ethiopian bindings were plated in gold, or elaborately decorated with gold thread. Such volumes were, however, naturally very rare, and, because of their immense value, sadly tended to attract the attention of looters, particularly in time of war.
Very few indeed are today extant.
The inside front and back covers of Ethiopian manuscripts were in many cases attractively adorned with pieces of imported cloth, which was pasted into the interior bindings. Many of the fabrics, printed cottons, silks, damasks and the like, came from Gujarat and the Deccan in India, as well as from Egypt, the Ottoman Empire, and parts of Europe, particularly Italy and France. Often of pristine quality the place of origin, as well as the date of production of such cloth, can in many cases be established, with a high degree of certainty. Such cloth binding material is therefore of considerable help in helping to date manuscripts, as well as in tracing historical and commercial contacts between Ethiopia and the outside world.
“Indian” Ink, and Rubrication
The text of the manuscript was no less beautifully presented. Pages were neatly ruled, with a reed ruler, and awl for incising lines. On these latter the scribe wrote almost invariably with considerable care, using locally-made ink held in a speciallyfashioned cow-horn. Texts, in Ge’ez, the country’s Semitic, and eccleasistical, language, were written with considerable calligraphic skill, in jet black ink, like that known in Europe as Indian ink. The names of God, members of the Holy Family, Saints, and such-like figures were, however, often rubricated, or written in red ink. The process of writing a manuscript is not infrequently vividly depicted in Ge’ez copies of the Gospels, many of which show each of the Evangelists, pen in hand, with two ink-horns, one for black ink, and the other for red.
Ethiopian manuscript illustrations took the form of paintings, almost entirely of Biblical or other religious scenes, and harag, literally “vine”, a creeper-like decorative device often found at the beginning or end of the manuscript, or of chapters in the Bible or other works.
The writing, and illustration, of a typical manuscript, even if commissioned by a church, monarch, or wealthy individual, was regarded by the scribe as an act of devotion to God, and could take as much as a year to complete.
Method of Manuscript Illustration
No contemporary account of the method of manuscript illustration in Ethiopia is extant. A fair understanding of the process, and of the successive stages of such illustration, can, however, be deduced by an examination of manuscripts which were for one reason or another left unfinished.
Scrutiny of such volumes indicates that the first step would be for the entire text to be written, leaving spaces, large or small, for the subsequent inclusion of pictures. Before starting to draw, the artist might, however, make one or more trial sketches, perhaps on an empty page or a loose piece on parchment. Artists might also make use of pattern books, which, to judge from such works as are extant, seem nevertheless to have been extremely rare. More proficient, or self-assured, artists might, on the other hand, entirely dispense with such preliminaries.
A Charcoal Outline, Later Inked In
The first step would be for the artist to draw the outlines of the desired picture in charcoal. The use of this medium allowed him to revise, or rework, his drawing, and thus “feel his way”, as he thought fit, to a final version. Once satisfied with his charcoal outline he would firmly delineate its main features, permanently, in black ink. On the completion of this outline the drawing would be ready for colouring. This was a virtually routine operation, with little further artistic creativity, for pigments were almost invariably applied flatly, without any attempt to impart a rounded characteristic to the figures, or to depict light and dark, or shadows. The range of paints employed was moreover usually extremely narrow, confined perhaps to a single shade of only four colours: red, yellow, blue, and green.
Artists, in the process of colouring, would invariably start at the beginning of the manuscript. Using a single colour, they would start by painting the sky, or some other background feature, for a number of pages, before turning to other aspects of the painting. On completing the background, or portion thereof, in any particular colour the artist would be tempted to continue using the same paint on other parts of the work. This was because employing the same colour obviated the need to clean the brush, or to search out or prepare paint of another hue. Only when the background was finally completed, would the artist usually turn to the foreground, and, with it. the painting’s principal features.
The above procedures for the production of illustrated manuscripts seem to have been deeply ingrained in Ethiopian artistic life. The early nineteenth century British traveller Henry Salt recalls that, being “desirous of bringing home an example of Abyssinian art”, he begged the “chief painter” at Cheliqot, in Tegray, to paint for him “one of his best paintings”. The artist, he recalls, accordingly, “made an exact outline of it with charcoal, and afterwards went over it with a coarse sort of India ink, subsequently to which he introduced the colour”.