Ethiopia is located in the Horn of Africa and doesn’t have its own access to the sea. It is approximately three times as large as Germany and is home to around 120 ethnic groups who speak more than 80 languages. Ethiopia is one of the poorest countries in the world and has a culture that dates back millennia. From a cultural standpoint, Ethiopia has always been more closely linked to European states such as Byzantium than to its neighbouring African kingdoms. This is still reflected in the country’s art, which Andreas Lommel described as follows in 1985: ‘Ethiopian art is not African art, it’s European art – though it is far removed from Europe and its history, both geographically and in terms of time.’
In fact, Ethiopian art is reminiscent of Byzantine paintings. It ties in seamlessly with the icons of the Eastern Roman Empire, and for good reason.
One of the Oldest Christian Kingdoms in History
Where poverty reigns today, the mighty Kingdom of Aksum once thrived. The first references to this trading empire date back to the mid-1st century AD. With its port of Adulis, the Kingdom of Aksum controlled access to the Red Sea. This made Aksum an important stop on the trade route from Rome to India. Tax revenue and business with long-distance merchants were lucrative and brought a great deal of wealth to the kingdom. The numerous treasures that are frequently discovered in Indian soil bear testament to the quantities of Roman denarii that flowed through Aksum to India, in exchange for luxury goods, Chinese silk and costly spices.
Frequent contact with foreign peoples brings new ideas into a country. And it was no different in Aksum. Increasing numbers of traders belonged to the Christian faith and so, in the mid-4th century, Aksum’s ruler King Ezana decided to adopt the Christian faith in his kingdom too, and thereby become a close ally of Byzantium.
The Kingdom of Aksum lasted all the way up until the spread of Islam, which brought about its end. The old capital city was surrendered in the 9th century. The power vacuum was filled by other dynasties, but the people of Aksum remained loyal to their country and, with it, their Christian faith. And so, in the midst of the Islamic environment in modern Ethiopia, a Christian church has survived, whose belief systems and imagery link directly to Byzantine ideas.
The Tewahedo Church
Tewahedo means unity. It refers to the unification of the two natures of Christ – both divine and human – in one person. The theological concept behind this is debated by western researchers. The study of the Kingdom of Aksum is a very new discipline and although the Aksumite script has been deciphered, much of the content is yet to be interpreted, leaving a whole host of questions unanswered for the time being.
What we know for sure is that Ethiopia’s Christian church survived in isolation for centuries, preserving beliefs and art forms that linked directly back to late antiquity.
Many ceremonies performed by the Tewahedo Church go even further back: they are based on Jewish customs. The church practises circumcision and observes the Sabbath. This gave rise to the Ethiopian legend that the ruling family Menelik was descended from the son of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. He is believed to have brought the Ark of the Covenant to Ethiopia, thus transferring the covenant between God and the Jewish people to the people of Ethiopia.
The Tewahedo Church is the only Christian establishment in Sub-Saharan Africa that existed before the colonisation of the continent by western powers. To this day, approx. 32.1 million people in Ethiopia, equivalent to 43.5% of the population, belong to the Christian faith. They come from the ethnic group Amhara people, or the Abyssinians, as western sources used to call them. They were the ruling class of the Ethiopian Empire. Their last emperor Haile Selassie, who was driven out of his country by a military coup in 1974, was also known in western pop culture thanks to the Rastafari movement.
Followers of the Rastafari movement, which is particularly widespread in the Caribbean, regard the Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie as their messiah. That’s why you’ll find motifs of Ethiopian Christianity cropping up in numerous song lyrics in reggae music.
Paintings that Follow the Tradition of Byzantine Icons
To this day, Ethiopian painters adhere to a style that originates directly from the Byzantine Empire. Their works refer directly to Coptic and Byzantine wall paintings. If we take a look at contemporary paintings by Amhara artists, we’re reminded of the early Christian illuminated manuscripts of Ireland, with their intricate weaving patterns, although almost a thousand years passed between the production of the Book of Kells and that of the book we’re presenting here.
This picture bible, which the MoneyMuseum was able to acquire from a German collector, could just as well have been created in the 19th as in the 20th century. Both the technique used and the style have remained unchanged for centuries. The dark outlines of the biblical figures do not suggest any movement. Mary, Christ, the angels and all the saints are frozen in the middle of their actions. The inner space of the figures, clearly defined by the outlines, is filled with sparsely shaded fields of colour. These images are therefore two-dimensional, not three-dimensional. The background, too, is a flat surface without any hint of a landscape. This removes the scenes from world events - raising it to the eternity of heaven.
Annunciation and the Birth of Christ
‘Ave Maria, full of grace’, the angel seems to say as it brings Mary the message that she is going to conceive a child. The mother of God, an industrious housewife, is moving the spindle to make yarn for her weaving, and she looks attentively out at the book’s viewer as she works. The forward-facing stance, the gaze of both eyes, is typical of all icons of the Orthodox Church. Artists and observers alike believed that eyes are the window to the soul.
These forward-facing stances can also be found in the depiction of the nativity: Mary, Joseph and Jesus, as well as the four angels, all look out at us with both eyes, although this depiction requires them to be turned in the direction of the baby Jesus – a direction that is expressed by a slight squint towards the manger.
A Book that Manages to Tell the Biblical Story with Minimal Words
53% of the Ethiopian population is illiterate. This country is therefore one of the areas on our planet where the struggle against illiteracy is yet to be won. But how can a reverend convey the truths of the Tewahedo Church to their illiterate believers? In the west, so-called ‘Biblia Pauperum’ were developed for this very purpose, bibles for the poor and simple-minded. These books didn’t contain any scripture that followers had to understand, but rather engaging pictures.
This idea of a Biblia Pauperum, a bible designed to bring salvation to the poor and illiterate, was not unique to Ethiopia. In Germany too, this form of knowledge transfer was used for centuries. Its invention is attributed to St. Ansgar of Bremen, who travelled to Northern Germany and Scandinavia as a missionary in the 9th century and encountered people there who weren’t able to read theological texts. As a result, he is believed to have developed a very specific canon of pictures to make the Christian message easier to understand. Several scenes from the New Testament – which occasionally vary slightly – were juxtaposed with events from the Old Testament. The birth, passion and resurrection of Christ were central, along with some examples of the ministry of Jesus, for instance his baptism in Jordan, the resurrection of Lazarus and the wedding at Cana.
This imagery was used again and again to paint churches. The same images adorn lent cloths and were applied to paper using wooden printing blocks. Woodprints featuring motifs from the history of salvation which were bound together in a book were first described as ‘Biblia Pauperum’ in the 17th century, when they were catalogued as such by the librarian of the Wolfenbüttel library.
While in the west, these picture bibles lost significance with the rise of literacy and the spread of printed bibles from the 16th century onwards, they remained relevant in other areas of the world – including Ethiopia.
An Ethiopian Biblia Pauperum
Above all else, what our example has in common with the western picture bibles is its form. Both are block books, in which each page was produced individually and then put together at the end. Whereas the early specimens in Europe were already being duplicated with wooden stamps and printed on cheap paper in order to save costs, the artist who produced our example was painting on parchment. The animal hide was tanned, cut into strips, sewn together, smoothed out, pre-treated for the application of the paint and, after painting, folded together between two leather-covered wooden boards.
Essentially, it is a picture book. Hardly anybody can read the few words that surround the depicted figures, even in Ethiopia. The texts are written in old Ethiopian, an ancient language that is still used in the liturgy of Tewahedo Church. To this day, there is no dictionary available to translate the unknown words.
But we don’t need one to understand what’s being depicted in the paintings. We recognise these images without the need for any additional text. The Adoration of the Kings, the circumcision of Christ in the temple, the baptism of Christ in the Jordan, the calling of the Apostles, the wedding at Cana, the resurrection of Lazarus, the crucifixion and the ascension of Christ: this book was made to show an illiterate people what happened many centuries ago in the distant region of Galilee.
Other Things You Might Be Interested in:
The idea of “Picture Books as Educational Tools” did not just work for the Bible, but also to familiarize modern audiences in the 19th century with the ancient world.
Find out more about another bibliophile work on the subject of Africa in our article “The Treasures of Africa”.
Learn more about the history of Ethiopia in this documentary film.