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Ethiopia’s Vibrant Sacred Art

Ethiopian Christians cultivate an ancient Orthodox tradition

by Leah Niederstadt

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As dusk descends on the sleepy street encircling Our Lady of Zion Church in Ethiopia’s ancient town of Aksum, a leader of the church, Lik Berhanat (or “Chief of Lights,” an honorific title) Berhane Gebre Iyasus, and his wife, Tsehai, settle in for the evening after a hard day’s work.

In the kitchen of their home, their daughter Million washes coffee beans for roasting. Their youngest daughter, Melat, practices drawing in one of the sitting areas. She eagerly awaits her older brother Daniel who should be returning from school at any time. The couple’s eldest children, Selam and Abraham, are hard at work on what has become the family’s principal source of income — painting religious art. On canvas pulled taut on wooden stretchers, Selam and Abraham add decorative elements to a painting their father is undertaking.

Soon, the whole family will sit down together for a dinner of injera (a spongy white flatbread made from teff) and misr wot (lentil stew).

The family’s shop nearby sells a wide variety of household items: candles, light bulbs, sugar and tea. More important, it serves as a gallery for the family’s workshop. In a prominent corner, several of the master’s creations hang. The paintings, called gama, each depict a bride, groom and their families posing in front of a local landmark. A regional tradition, gama are widely popular and bestsellers for painters trained in the Ethiopian Orthodox tradition.

Located in Ethiopia’s far northern region of Tigray, Aksum is the former capital of an empire that dominated the Horn of Africa from the third century B.C. to the eighth century after Christ. Home of the fabled queen of Sheba, Aksum is best known as the cradle of Ethiopian Christianity, which became the faith of the empire when the Aksumite emperor, Ezana, embraced it in the early fourth century. Today, Ethiopia’s Christian majority is mostly Orthodox.

Since its earliest days, Aksum has been a center for sophisticated and distinctive decorative arts and crafts, especially metalwork, woodcarving and painting. Scholars believe that soon after Christianity took root in the city, artists began fashioning items utilized in the Qeddase (or Divine Liturgy), mainly ecclesiastical crowns, crosses, fans, icons and manuscripts. Geometric carvings, first utilized in pre–Christian era art of the area, predominated.

Not until the late 16th century, after Portuguese Jesuit missionaries arrived in Ethiopia and dazzled Aksum’s elite with their early Baroque artifacts, did local artists begin adding the finer flourishes that many now associate with traditional Ethiopian liturgical art. Manuscript cases, for example, became more intricate and featured figurative and geometric forms; manuscript pages contained delicate and colorful designs, as well as images of the saints, the Virgin Mary and Christ.

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Tags: Ethiopia Ethiopian Orthodox Church Art Aksum