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Ancient icons, paintings and manuscripts never bore an artist’s signature or a workshop’s brand — these works were meant to glorify God and God alone. The earliest signed icons and manuscripts date from the late 15th century, only a few of which have survived, including several by the Venetian artist Nicolò Brancaleon, who lived in Ethiopia at the turn of the 16th century, and one by the 15th–century Ethiopian artist Fre Seyon.

Not until the 19th century did painters begin signing their work, perhaps in response to the then emerging demand for such art among international art collectors. Today, artists such as Berhane Gebre Iyasus proudly sign their paintings, often including a date and location.

For generations, these workshops have been largely a family affair, in which fathers passed the trade on to their sons, nephews or other boys close to the family. This apprenticeship system has produced many of today’s master artists, who in turn, carry on this apprenticeship system, often training their sons and now their daughters.

Berhanemeskel Fisseha, Aksum’s most celebrated living liturgical painter, was trained by his mother’s father, Haleqa Yohannes Teklu. And he has taught all his children the skill. Another artist, Qes Adamu Tesfaw, one of the last living artists to have come of age in the early years of Emperor Haile Selassie’s reign, was taught by his uncle’s student, Qes Gebez Anteneh, and by his godfather, Ato Yohannes Tesemma. In 2005, Qes Gebez Anteneh’s work was the focus of a major international exhibition.

Lik Berhanat Berhane Gebre Iyasus is a bit unusual: While the artist is teaching his sons and daughters, he taught himself the art of icon painting.

Ethiopia has lost a staggering number of its masterpieces to looting in the past 150 years. Though never colonized, the country has served as a battleground in several international conflicts, with foreign armies making off with boatloads of the nation’s patrimony. When in 1868 British forces captured the mountain fortress of Emperor Tewodros, they left Ethiopia with hundreds of antiquities, including liturgical paintings, icons and manuscripts. And for the next half century, countless more were illegally trafficked out of the country and into the international art market, where they ended up in private collections never to be seen again.

A growing number of art curators and conservationists are calling for galleries and museums to repatriate the Ethiopian antiquities acquired — even inadvertently — on the black market.

A visitor to Ethiopia today also finds no shortage of museums with astounding collections of ancient liturgical artifacts. Still more impressive is the degree to which traditional sacred art remains a vital aspect of daily life for many Orthodox Ethiopians.

In Aksum, sacred art is everywhere — in churches, homes and offices. Religious iconography is fashioned into amulets and worn as jewelry. Paintings in traditional style depicting scenes from the histories of the city and church hang prominently in hotels. And relatively inexpensive crosses, paintings and icons — many of which are handmade by local artists — fill every tourist shop.

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