Manuscripts and religious objects

Many manuscripts that were produced in the monastic and court scriptoria have been destroyed; those that remain date largely from the fifteenth century onward. These include service books, Gospels, psalters, Apocalypses and devotional books with texts of the Miracles of the Virgin, written in the classical Ethiopian language of Ge'ez, a Semitic language. While the earliest preserved Ethiopian manuscript, the Abba Garima Gospels of the late twelfth to early thirteenth centuries, is not illustrated, other Gospel books are extensively decorated. Some of this decoration can be related to other Eastern Christian traditions. Characteristic of Ethiopian illumination is the harag, the system of interlacing bands which frame the page, coloured in reds, greens, yellows and grey-blues. These were particularly finely painted in manuscripts of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, especially at the Monastery of Gunda Gundi in Agame, the centre of the 'Hstifanosite movement in the fifteenth century. The designs were simplified thereafter, to undergo a revival in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The harag bears a similarity to Coptic and Syriac as well as Byzantine illumination.

Decorated Eusebian canon tables head Ethiopian Gospel books, especially those of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, in common with other Eastern Christian Gospel books. Those from the Monastery of Gunda Gundi can be differentiated by the use they make of a more architectural framing device. Ethiopian Gospel books also conform with Eastern Christian practice in including portraits of each Evangelist, as well as scenes from the life of Christ. One such example is a large Gospel book in the British Library (London B.L. Or. 510). The manuscript was written in the court at Gondar in 1664-5, in the official Gwelh script, probably for the Emperor Yohannes I and the Empress Sabla Wangel. Its illustrations are painted in the style known as the 'First Gondarene style', which uses clear, bright colours, especially yellow, orange-red and blue, on the figures' garments; the figures are animated by their gestures and eye contact with one another (see fol. 51r, the Healing of the Two Blind Men, illustrating Matt. 9: 27-31, in Figure 19.13). The arrangement of the figures and the neutral ground is also influenced by western woodcuts, specifically those of the Arabic Gospels, the Evangelium arabicum, printed in Rome in 1591 for Pope Gregory XIII.

By introducing the cult of the Mother of God into Ethiopia the Emperor Zar'a Ya'qob intended to create a focus of Ethiopian spirituality at a time of internal rupture (caused by the attempt to reduce practice of Sabbath worship), in 1441. The reading of the text of Miracles of Mary (Taamra Maryam), which had been translated into Ge'ez from Arabic under his father Emperor Dawit (r. 1382-1413), was introduced into the liturgy at this time. This stimulated the drive for images of the Virgin in both icon and manuscript painting. The most famous icon painter of the fifteenth century is Fere Seyon. His signature on an icon at Daga 'Hstifanos enables further panels to be attributed to him, including those in the collection of the Institute of Ethiopian Studies in Addis Ababa. The formula of the image of the Virgin and Child flanked by the archangels Michael and Gabriel is adapted in each case to accommodate accompanying scenes and saints. Elements of the iconography can be examined with reference to Zar'a Ya'qob's own theological writing on the Virgin.

Another shift is the introduction of western elements, including a sprig of flowers held by the Virgin in one of the Addis Ababa panels, a motif borrowed from Italian panel painting. Zar'a Ya'qob was determined to prevent the 'Hstifanosite movement from undermining the Church-state that he had fostered. Devotion to the Virgin, however, overrode spiritual and political differences, as the pictorial imagery shows.

For example, St Antony with the Virgin and Child (Figure 19.14), is to be found in a manuscript dated after 1480 from Gunda Gundi, now in the New York Public Library (Spencer Collection 7) of the Lives of two saints of the movement, 'Hstifanos and Aba-kerazun. Later images were added to the repertoire. One such was the Virgin of Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome, introduced into Ethiopia by Portuguese Jesuits in the later seventeenth century, and thereafter frequently reproduced there.

Of the liturgical objects kept in Ethiopian churches, crosses are especially famed. Made of silver bronze or copper, some were, and still are, for processional use, and during ceremonies are held aloft on poles on to which coloured fabric is attached. An example of a processional cross is one now in the Walters Art Gallery in Baltimore (no. 54.2894, Figure 19.15), probably dating to the fifteenth century. Its four-lobed shape contains a repeating design of small crosses with serpents at the edges. The pierced work, enabling silhouetting against natural or candle light, was particularly effective and appropriate for processional use. The feature of the projecting semicircular arms at the base of the cross also occur on a processional cross given by the Emperor Zar'a Ya'qob to the monastery at Dabra Nagwadgwad in Tagwela in central Ethiopia. The serpents represent wisdom and can be associated with the serpent made of brass by Moses. The cross is made of bronze that was cast according to the lost wax technique, whereby the image is first made in wax, then coated with clay to form a mould into which the molten metal is poured, replacing the wax. Other crosses were used as hand crosses for blessing by the clergy. Pilgrims and monks in particular wore crosses around the neck. Crosses display interlace designs not unlike those of Coptic woven leather crosses made in monasteries in Egypt to the present day. These designs are also repeated on the more widely-available wooden crosses.

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