African Zion

A reflection on the significance of Ethiopia’s sacred art.

by Michael J.L. La Civita

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In February and March sacred images from Ethiopia were placed in the heart of Harlem.

“African Zion: the Sacred Art of Ethiopia,” an exhibition of icons, illuminated manuscripts, crosses, coins and other liturgical objects dating from the fourth to 18th centuries, was displayed at the New York Public Library’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem.

As in Russian religious art, the origin of Ethiopia’s sacred art is essentially Byzantine. Images of the Mother of God, the suffering Jesus, monks and soldier saints abound and follow the standard compositions of Byzantine iconography. Faces are never depicted in profile; large almond-shaped eyes dominate.

Yet these images are not mere Byzantine replicas. The compositions are often geometric and flat; the palette ranges from bright red and yellow ochres to rich blue and brown hues; the facial features are characteristically Ethiopian. This last point, “Jesus as a man of color,” suggests the function of the exhibit as the center’s premier event for Black History Month and the show’s success within the black community.

“The African-American community’s interest in Ethiopia and Ethiopian Christianity stretches back to before the Civil War,” explained Victor N. Smythe, the Schomburg Center’s project archivist and curator of the exhibit.

“Although it was illegal, the slaves studied the Bible to learn how to read and quickly identified with the Ethiopian eunuch baptized by Philip the Apostle.”

Marcus M. Garvey, a charismatic black leader who founded the first important black nationalist movement in the early 20th century, urged blacks to “‘worship God through the spectacles of Ethiopia,’” Mr. Smythe continued.

The images of the divine examined by the African-American crowds (who made up the overwhelming majority in attendance) were effigies they could relate to: powerful yet intimate portraits of a suffering son of man, portrayals of a mother and child sheltered by two armed boys, the sanctity and safety of the cross.

Unknowingly documented in its religious art, Ethiopia’s drama of good and evil – drought, famine and wealth, war and peace, comfort and pain – echoes a similar drama in contemporary Harlem.

Three subjects from “African Zion” epitomize this drama: the icon of the Virgin and Child with the archangels Michael and Gabriel, the icon of St. George slaying the dragon and the cross.

Still recognizably Byzantine, an aloof mother holds an infant whose hand is raised in blessing. Several icons even portray Mary offering her son a flower – a European motif. However in the wings stand the archangels Michael and Gabriel, swords raised, their eyes focused attentively on their vulnerable wards. The Virgin Mary, the mother of the church, is never depicted without her protectors:

…Then the dragon stood before the woman about to give birth, to devour her child when she gave birth. She gave birth to a son, a male child, destined to rule all the nations with an iron rod.…

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Tags: Ethiopia Ethiopian Orthodox Church Art Ethiopian Christianity Manuscripts