Light and Shadow
Ethiopian sacred art at the Museum of Biblical Art

Jacques Mercier, ethnologist at the University of Paris, begins his 2001 essay on Ethiopian art history this way: “Men of letters in Ethiopia are commonly said to have two faces, one turned toward the light (which is the Christian faith and spiritual life) and the other toward the shadows (which represent the practices of magic and healing). The same may be said of Ethiopian art.”

Folding Processional Icon, late 15th century

The Janus-face of Ethiopia’s artistic heritage — part Christian, part tribal — is evident in “Angels of Light: Ethiopian Art from the Walters Museum” at the Museum of Biblical Art. The collection of religious paintings and artifacts held by the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore is one of the largest outside of Addis Ababa. On view are icons, illuminated manuscripts, crosses, and related items, from the Walters' permanent collection. Most date from the 15th to the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

Throughout Africa, sculpture is the essential artistic medium. Ethiopia is unique in its emphasis on painting. Since the introduction of Christianity in the 4th century, the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, situated at the southern boundary of Eastern Christianity, has been the taproot of this pictorial art. It is a heterodox mix of Coptic, European, Byzantine-Greek, Nubian, as well as Armenian influences grafted onto cultic traditions and shamanic purposes. (Ethiopian Orthodoxy is separated from both Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy by its christology and adherence to non-canonical biblical books.)

Ethiopian sculpture centers on the cross. One of the simplest marks to make, the cross (not the crucifix) is an ancient device that antedates adoption of it as a symbol of the Crucifixion and Christianity’s defining emblem. Its role in local culture retains the occult overtones of pre-modern popular piety. For Ethiopians, the cross serves as a protective amulet, useful against evil and illness.

Processional Cross, 15th century

Processional crosses, “dressed” in colored streamers, are flat, latticed designs without a corpus. One particularly delicate sample, an intricate composition of interlocking circles, demonstrates the metal-working skill of 15th century monastic artisans. (Outside edges end in serpentine coils. It is uncertain whether or not these are remnants of ancient serpent worship, predating Christianity, that still survives in magic scrolls used for healing and exorcism.)

A rare hand cross, incorporating a human figure, resembles pan-African ancestor fetishes. The ancestor here is the biblical Adam, portrayed in conventional totemic terms. Pectoral crosses, in a rich variety of forms, are worn, often from baptism, to ward off harm.

Among Ethiopians, as among medieval Western peasantry, the devotional and the magical fuse. Miniature icons, tied around the neck, are charms against malignant forces that, in the old prayer to St. Michael, “roam the world seeking the ruin of souls.”

Apart from the gracefully articulated, harmonious frieze on a 15th century folding icon painted on parchment, the exhibition left me unexpectedly lonely. Western and Byzantine sacred art developed within a dynamic theology of beauty. (Augustine addressed God: “O Beauty!”) that impelled desire for perfection of forms, however symbolically realized. But Ethiopian iconographic motifs resulted from repetitive, mechanical copying of a borrowed formal language that dwelled uneasily with indigenous sensibilities. The fertile refinements of European and Byzantine sources were transformed by local graphic conventions that originated in spellcraft.

Work here has the bold elementarity and vivid color of folk art. Missing, however, is the ethereal loveliness of its precedents, such as the icons of St. Catherine’s at Mount Sinai, or the spatial inventiveness of Coptic murals at Wadi Natrun. One 17th century Ethiopian triptych dutifully copies Rome’s Santa Maria Maggiore icon, drained of its poetry. Another, reminiscent of Piero della Francesca’s San Sepolchro Madonna—a protectress in an outspread mantle—illustrates the dominance of native idiom over the grandeur of its model.

The Canon Table of a 15th century Ethiopian gospel book suffers from comparison with, for example, a table from the 8th century Barbarini Gospels in the Vatican Library. The earlier manuscript’s flow of strokes is rhythmic and graceful; the later is irregular, even clumsy. The difference in quality of execution seems a matter of cultural response to uses of the written word, not of different alphabets.

Nothing distinguishes the script of an Ethiopian gospel proclamation from an incantation on a magic healing scroll. They look the same. Absent is anything analogous to the linear fluency and stylistic virtuosity of 8th century Insular manuscripts such as the Lindesfarne Gospels and Book of Kells.

The static archaism of Ethiopia’s sacred art has parallels in real life. Ethiopians (Christians and Jews, no less than Muslims) routinely submit girls to genital mutilation, euphemized in the catalog as “female circumcision.” Add that to the persistent talismanic element of its art and one wonders how much acculturation Christianity can accommodate without denaturing itself.

Secure distance from the demons of traditional cultures permits us to aestheticize habits of mind contrary to modernity. But with Christianity waning in the West and rising in Africa, distance shortens by the decade. That is reason enough to see this show.


“Angels of Light: Ethiopian Art from the Walters Museum” at the Museum of Biblical Art (1865 Broadway at 61 Street, 212-408-1500).

This essay first appeared in The New York Sun, March 29, 2007.

Copyright 2007, Maureen Mullarkey

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