The Idler: The Gifts of Africa to Christendom

One of the finest private art collections in the U.S., assembled at the beginning of this century, is now the heart of a beautiful, if underused, public museum in downtown Baltimore. The product of the taste and railroad fortune of the father and son team of William and Henry Walters, the collection of the Walters Art Gallery is an interesting potpourri of artistic media and provenance. Its galleries, covering nearly a city block, hold everything from east Asian porcelain to paintings of the Old Masters of Europe. Particularly striking are the exotic religious artifacts in the collection: the Hama treasure, an exceptional set of sixth- or seventh-century silver Byzantine liturgical vessels; a small but world-class collection of illuminated Armenian manuscripts; and a medieval Italian evangelistry, a Gospel book, that some scholars think was used by Saint Francis of Assisi and his early companions to formulate their first Rule. Since 1986, though, some of the most interesting religious treasures to be seen at the Walters have not been part of the permanent collections.

In the mid-80s, Gary Vikan, the Walters’ new curator of medieval art, in collaboration with Oxford-trained orientalist and art promoter Roderick Grierson, conceived of a “mega-Byzantine” show: a single, massive exhibition of the artistic treasures of the Christian East. Concentrating especially on the art of Greece, Russia, Armenia, Georgia, Egypt, and Ethiopia, they imagined a kind of Pan-Orthodox synod of art. Realizing, though, that the logistics would be impossible to coordinate and especially that there was no single facility that could house such an exhibition, they decided to present the show piecemeal, over the course of several years. Hoping to take the shows to as many locations as possible, they also planned to develop productions that could travel across country. The first show, Silver Treasure from Early Byzantium (1986), literally “went nowhere”: local attendance was disappointing, and the show never left Baltimore. Undiscouraged, they continued their effort with Holy Image, Holy Space (1988) on Greek iconography and Beyond the Pharaohs (1989) on Egyptian art, both B.C. and A.D. The breakthrough came, though, with 1992’s Gates of Mystery: The Art of Holy Russia, the largest show of Russian icons, textiles, and other devotional art assembled in more than 60 years. Gates of Mystery was uniformly praised as it travelled to six American cities. It is now in London where Dr. Vikan, a Princeton-trained Byzantinist, notes it is doing “record-breaking” business.

Back in Baltimore, the Walters has premiered what may be its biggest show yet. African Zion: The Sacred Art of Ethiopia has received enormous attention for a show of its kind, not least because the Ethiopian patriarch, Abuna Paulos, in this country for the show’s opening last October, was greeted in New York and Baltimore with rowdy protests. (The protests seem to be a matter of ecclesiastical politics and ethnic rivalries internal to Ethiopia. As far as can be seen, they have had nothing to do with African Zion. On the contrary, Ethiopians seem universally pleased with the presentation of their artistic and religious heritage.) In addition, the Walters, once infamous for its lack of self-promotion, has undertaken a sizeable local publicity campaign.

But perhaps that campaign was unnecessary, for Ethiopia is one of the recurring fashions of Western Orientalism. From the medieval obsession with the kingdom of Prester John to Dr. Johnson’s Rasselas (1759), from the coronation of Haile Selassie in 1930 and the Italian invasion in 1935 to the tragic famines and the Israeli airlift of Ethiopian Jews of the 1980s, Ethiopia is a perennial preoccupation in the West. Most recently, Graham Hancock’s 1992 book The Sign and the Seal made some headlines by announcing as a great discovery what the Ethiopians have claimed for almost a thousand years, namely that a chapel of the primatial church of Ethiopia in the ancient capital city of Aksum is the final resting place of the Ark of the Covenant. Apart from its silliness, though, Hancock’s work did perform the service of introducing the ancient traditions of the Ethiopian church to a wider public. But if The Sign and the Seal was the warm-up, African Zion is the main event. We are unlikely to see again soon as sympathetic and informed a presentation of the traditions of old Abyssinia as that assembled for this show. Indeed, many of the treasures on display in African Zion have never been seen outside of Ethiopia before.

Despite the wonderful clarity of all the materials accompanying the show—the 11-minute introductory film entitled, Dreaming of Jerusalem, the texts of the displays themselves, and the catalogue (published by the Yale University Press)—the very title of the show poses a question. What is meant by “African Zion”? Is it the fact that the Ethiopian church is that part of the people of God, Israel fulfilled in the Church, with the special mission of the conversion of Africa? Perhaps, but for a number of reasons the Ethiopians have never undertaken the great missions that the churches of the East, West, and North have. Does “African Zion” refer to the Semitic traditions and beliefs of the Ethiopian church, the legends of the Queen of Sheba, the liturgical commemoration of the Old Testament saints, the claim to possession of the Ark of the Covenant, even the retention of Saturday Sabbath and circumcision? This is more likely. The existence of Jews in Ethiopia very early on in our era is confirmed by archaeological evidence, and there can be little doubt that Judaic customs were common then in the Horn of Africa and were easily assimilated to the new Christian faith adopted by the Aksumite King Ezana in 324. There were many such Judeo-Christian groups in the early church; the Ethiopians are perhaps the only survival.

Coupled with these customary practices, though, was a developing national ideology, given exquisite formulation in the Kebra Naqast (“The Glory of Kings”), the Ethiopian national epic. The Kebra Nagast elaborates on the biblical story of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba (1 Kings 10:1-13). The son of that union, Menelik, is reported to have visited Jerusalem and to have returned to Ethiopia with the Ark of the Covenant to establish a new Solomonic dynasty, thus symbolizing the transferral of God’s favor from the Old Israel to the New.

This “vision of the transfer of legitimacy” has undoubtedly and profoundly shaped Ethiopian national self-understanding, and, too, has contributed to a certain ethnocentrism and exclusivism. This kind of development is certainly not unknown among Christian nations, but it seems to be a greater temptation for the separated Oriental Orthodox (i.e., Monophysite or, as they sometimes call themselves, Apostolic) churches. Armenian folkways, for example, seem to consider baptism a kind of naturalization process. Traditionally when a child is born he is taken to the church for christening. It is only after he is baptized that the priest says to him, “Now you are an Armenian!”

While we may smile at this example, there is a more serious side to this attitude. As Aidan Nichols has noted about the potential of ecumenical relations with the Coptic church, those relations are at times blocked by “the corporate mystique of the Coptic church as the ‘true’ Egyptian nation and the guardian of Athanasian and Cyrilline orthodoxy when all the world was Arian (or semi-Arian) and `Nestorian’ (or Chalcedonian).” The Ethiopian church, which has always been closely aligned with the church of Egypt, no doubt shares in this mystique. This Monophysite nationalism and Judaic exceptionalism, coupled with the at times legitimate recognition of being nearly surrounded by hostile Muslims, have led to the predicament of an “African Zion” that has often been reduced to an inward-looking remnant. (There is yet a third possible reading of the idea of an “African Zion,” a more positive one, to which we will presently turn.)

Whatever we make of the concept of “African Zion,” there can be no doubt that the material culture of Ethiopia is particularly rich and varied. The show spans the whole Christian era in Ethiopia, beginning with the coinage, signed with the Cross, of the early Aksumite Christian kings, moving on to the illuminated Gospel books and other artifacts of the Zagwe Dynasty (1137-1270), and concluding with the icons of the Late Solomonic period (ending in the mid-eighteenth century). Though the icon is the prototypical form of Eastern Christian art, none survive from Ethiopia before the middle of the fifteenth century. But when they appear they do so in a burst of color and shape. Completely traditional in form and subject matter, they are absolutely distinctive among oriental devotional art works.

Some scholars trace the emergence of icons in Ethiopia to the reign of the theologian-emperor Zara Yaeqob (1434-68). Zara Yaeqob, the author of numerous theological and homiletic works (some of which have recently been published by the Ethiopian scholar Getatchew Haile of Saint John’s University, Collegeville), undertook the promotion of a particular devotion to Our Lady Mary, the Mother of God, by the production and veneration of icons, perhaps in an effort to protect his very high (Monophysite) view of the Incarnation. Without denigrating the place of Mary in the scheme of salvation, many monks and monasteries, led by the deacon Estifanos, opposed the imperial enforcement of this new cultus. They in turn developed their own distinctive schools of iconography. But the undoubted star of Africa Zion is the court painter and monk Fere Seyon (whose name means “Fruit of Zion”).

Fere Seyon (fl. c. 1445-80), while working in a completely traditional medium, imbued it with new insights. His bright colors, distinctive figures (with their big, haunting eyes), and soft lines are particularly moving. His Mariography gives the Virgin a particularly gentle appearance, while on the other hand his school developed a new iconography of the Crucifixion, portraying the dead Christ still on the cross. Fere Seyon influenced the mainstream of Ethiopian iconography into the sixteenth century. And his influence would undoubtedly have continued had not the Muslim invasions (1527-43) intervened and ushered in first a brief era of ravage and then one of openness to European influences, before closing back down in the seventeenth century.

Fere Seyon is also important as part of a movement throughout the Christian world in the fifteenth century. While it was a period of great strife—with heretical movements and the Great Schism in the West, the fall of Constantinople in the East, and even schisms in the Ethiopian church—it was also a time of great life. One thinks of the English mystics and the devotio moderna, or of the monastic renewal throughout the “Byzantine Commonwealth.” Especially in the world of religious art, this may have been the last gasp for a monastic-based, theocentric humanism, as opposed to the more anthropocentric, classical Renaissance of the history books. Besides Fere Seyon in Ethiopia, there were Fra Angelico (c. 1400-1455) in Italy and slightly earlier Andrei Rublev (fl. c. 1400) in Russia, all artist-monks working in very traditional media, but bringing a new spirit to old forms.

Dr. Vikan of the Walters would add to this list other representatives of the various provinces of Christendom: Rogier van der Weyden (c. 1400-1464), the Flemish painter whose work influenced much of northern painting as well as theological writers like Nicholas of Cusa, and slightly later the Cretan iconographer Angelos Bizamanos (fl. c. 1490). There is a wonderful consonance, a common spirit, among these far flung Christian artists. (Dr. Vikan prefers the metaphor of medieval Christendom as a great “soup bowl,” each region drawing on the same broth, but savoring local flavors and ingredients.) Is it any coincidence, then, that the fifteenth century saw the last great attempt to reforge the unity of the Church, the Council of Florence (1438-45)? Nor should we be surprised that among the various delegates to the later sessions of the Council was a group of Ethiopian monks.

What is perhaps more interesting is that these monks were sent by the abbot of the Ethiopian monastery in Jerusalem. The papal legates could not reach Ethiopia itself because of the intransigence of the Moslem overlords of the Levant, so the Ethiopian abbot in Jerusalem took it upon himself to send a delegate to Rome (to which the Council had been translated). Although not an official representative of the Ethiopian church, it was hoped that the leader of this delegation, the monk Peter, would relay the initiative of the Council to the Negus (emperor), Zara Yaeqob, and his clergy.

Despite the ultimate failure of this mission, it does exemplify the key place of Jerusalem in the life of the Ethiopian church. As the late Cardinal Tisserant noted, “Jerusalem was for several centuries the connecting link between the Western world and Ethiopia. Near the sepulchre of our Lord all Christians meet.” Indeed, the Ethiopians have long cherished a devotion to the Holy City, and have since the fourth century maintained a monastic community there.

Here, perhaps, is our third interpretation of “African Zion.” When the Ethiopian church’s instincts were to look inward, its Jerusalem community sought to broaden its vision of Christian communion. When the mother church was lax (the Ethiopian church was until recently dependent for its hierarchy on the Coptic church and long suffered under notoriously relaxed discipline), the daughter was devoted. This has been noted by visitors, like Evelyn Waugh who was in Ethiopia in 1930 and again in 1935. Waugh was disturbed by the dark and superstitious Christianity he saw practiced in Ethiopia, but later claims to have fallen in “love” with the poor Ethiopian monks living “in a collection of huts on the roof of the Holy Sepulchre” in Jerusalem.

This devotion to the earthly Jerusalem among Ethiopians was literally set in stone by the emperors of the Zagwe dynasty (which overthrew the traditional Aksumite kings in 1137, and was itself overthrown in 1270 by the first Solomonic emperors, promoters of the Kebra Nagast). At Lalibela, in the Lasta Mountains, were carved out of solid rock a dozen churches in conscious imitation of the Holy Sites in Palestine, with a nearby stream called the Jordan and a hill christened the Mount of Olives. (Visitors to the Franciscan monastery in Washington will realize that these reproductions of the Palestinian Holy Places are not an exclusively medieval or oriental phenomenon. Indeed, every church that contains a set of Stations of the Cross is, in miniature, memorializing the sites of Christ’s Via Dolorosa through the Holy City.)

Indeed, to put African Zion in its proper context, one must consider the churches of Ethiopia As Angela Schuster has recently observed, the interiors of these churches may themselves be the greatest works of Ethiopian art (see “Hidden Sanctuaries of Ethiopia,” Archaeology, January/February 1994, pp. 28-35). They are certainly the setting within which the art of African Zion was meant to be experienced. And “experience” is the key word here. Ethiopian art is liturgical and devotional, that is, it is meant to be used in worship. Indeed, there is a hands-on quality to it, with its distinctive diamond-shaped crosses in pectoral, manual, and processional forms; its umbrellas and fans, tambourines and drums; and its miniature icon diptychs meant to be worn as pendants and its sensuls, small, portable icons painted on parchment. Curator Vikan for his part insists that the art of African Zion must not be viewed as “purely formal devices,” rather it must be “embraced.” This has certainly been the response of the steady crowds that have come to see the exhibition. Some visitors have returned day after day, setting up on camp-stools. Others have been moved to the point of fainting. African-Americans have been particularly intrigued by this show, and since many of the other galleries hosting it are part of black cultural centers they will have further opportunities to see it. Of those who have seen it so far, their recurring question has been, “Why haven’t we heard about this before?” Why, indeed.

In the recent multicultural fervor that has produced fantasies about an “African Athena” and other lost African civilizations, the real contributions of African civilization have been swamped. Particularly if we include northern Africa and Egypt, then the gifts of Africa to Christendom must be reckoned priceless: the theologies of Augustine and the Alexandrinians, as well as, out of the Egyptian desert, the institution of monasticism. Since the beginning of the fourth century Ethiopia has stood foursquare in this tradition. (Indeed, perhaps even before. As the Ethiopian archbishop of the U.S., Yesehaq, notes, “Eusebius speaks of [the Ethiopian] eunuch (Acts 8:26-39) as the first fruits of the faithful in the whole world.”) It will not be the least of its achievements if African Zion reminds us that until 1974 Ethiopia was, in the words of its old tourist bureau, “the oldest Christian Empire in the world.”


  • William M. Klimon

    William M. Klimon has studied history at the University of Pennsylvania and at Cornell University. At the time this article was published, he was on the staff of the Milton S. Eisenhower LIbrary at Johns Hopkins University.

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