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African Zion

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

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.…

Then war broke out in heaven; Michael and his angels battled against the dragon. The dragon and its angels fought back, but they did not prevail and there was no longer any place for them in heaven.
(Rv 12:4-5, 7-8)

The theme of the dragon appears again in the icon of St. George. George is depicted as a Roman soldier seated on a white steed plunging a spear in the belly of a serpent, a posthumous miracle taken from the martyrology.

According to the legend, there existed in Asia Minor a serpent whom the people worshipped as a deity, offering their choice maidens and children as an oblation. George slew the serpent with the words “in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.”

Ethiopians venerated the serpent prior to St. Frumentius’s arrival in the early fourth century and his subsequent conversion of the Ethiopian kingdom. The icon of St. George symbolizes liberation from the evils of paganism and the embrace of the Gospel.

The fundamental image of the triumph of good thwarting evil is the cross. Except for those icons influenced by the West, the crucified Jesus is never rendered:

“In the Ethiopian tradition, the cross is an emblem of victory, not an image of shame and death,” said the soft-spoken Mr. Smythe, himself a member of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church and a participant of the commission for Oriental Orthodox and Roman Catholic dialogue.

The cross is omnipresent. In “African Zion” a tremendous portion of the exhibit is dedicated to it. Large, elaborate processional crosses cast in bronze then gilded with silver and gold dominate the gallery. Hand crosses, intimate in size, were created for priests to bless believers and to hinder evil spirits. All are designed with ornate arabesques and patterns; many include incised images of Christ or the Mother of God.

The worship of the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the God of Jesus, the apostles and the saints, has existed in Ethiopia since time immemorial.

It is said that the Queen of Sheba’s son by King Solomon, Menelik, carried the Ark of the Covenant from the temple in Jerusalem to the ancient capital of Ethiopia, Aksum.

Ethiopian Orthodox Christians believe that the Ark, which sheltered the Ten Commandments, is enshrined in a small chapel within Aksum’s cathedral complex of St. Mary of Zion. Only one monk attends the Ark; not even the patriarch may enter the sacred site.

This tradition is reinforced in every Ethiopian Orthodox church. Within the holy of holies, a replica of the Ark, or tabot, stands on the center of the altar. A church is not a church without the tabot.

These traditions attest to Ethiopian Christianity’s links with Old Testament Judaism.

In traditional cultures such as Ethiopia’s, the power of good and the attraction of evil have not been diluted. The links between the Creator and the created have yet to be severed.

Seeing African Zion’s icons of mother and child, archangels, victorious martyrs, dragons and beasts, one is overwhelmed by the effect of impending doom as the angels of hell, according to tradition, “threaten to assault the holy of holies.”

Yet this impression is held in check by the lovingly rendered cross, an instrument of torture and death transformed by the artists of Ethiopia into the expression of life, victory and redemption.

Michael La Civita is the editor of Catholic Near East.

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