ONE Magazine

The official publication of
Catholic Near East Welfare Association

Celebrating 50 years | God • World • Human Family • Church

Ethiopia’s Vibrant Sacred Art

Traditional Orthodox iconography flourishes in Africa

As dusk descends on the sleepy street encircling Our Lady of Zion Church in Ethiopia’s ancient town of Aksum, a leader of the church, Lik Berhanat (or “Chief of Lights,” an honorific title) Berhane Gebre Iyasus, and his wife, Tsehai, settle in for the evening after a hard day’s work.

In the kitchen of their home, their daughter Million washes coffee beans for roasting. Their youngest daughter, Melat, practices drawing in one of the sitting areas. She eagerly awaits her older brother Daniel who should be returning from school at any time. The couple’s eldest children, Selam and Abraham, are hard at work on what has become the family’s principal source of income — painting religious art. On canvas pulled taut on wooden stretchers, Selam and Abraham add decorative elements to a painting their father is undertaking.

Soon, the whole family will sit down together for a dinner of injera (a spongy white flatbread made from teff) and misr wot (lentil stew).

The family’s shop nearby sells a wide variety of household items: candles, light bulbs, sugar and tea. More important, it serves as a gallery for the family’s workshop. In a prominent corner, several of the master’s creations hang. The paintings, called gama, each depict a bride, groom and their families posing in front of a local landmark. A regional tradition, gama are widely popular and bestsellers for painters trained in the Ethiopian Orthodox tradition.

Located in Ethiopia’s far northern region of Tigray, Aksum is the former capital of an empire that dominated the Horn of Africa from the third century B.C. to the eighth century after Christ. Home of the fabled queen of Sheba, Aksum is best known as the cradle of Ethiopian Christianity, which became the faith of the empire when the Aksumite emperor, Ezana, embraced it in the early fourth century. Today, Ethiopia’s Christian majority is mostly Orthodox.

Since its earliest days, Aksum has been a center for sophisticated and distinctive decorative arts and crafts, especially metalwork, woodcarving and painting. Scholars believe that soon after Christianity took root in the city, artists began fashioning items utilized in the Qeddase (or Divine Liturgy), mainly ecclesiastical crowns, crosses, fans, icons and manuscripts. Geometric carvings, first utilized in pre–Christian era art of the area, predominated.

Not until the late 16th century, after Portuguese Jesuit missionaries arrived in Ethiopia and dazzled Aksum’s elite with their early Baroque artifacts, did local artists begin adding the finer flourishes that many now associate with traditional Ethiopian liturgical art. Manuscript cases, for example, became more intricate and featured figurative and geometric forms; manuscript pages contained delicate and colorful designs, as well as images of the saints, the Virgin Mary and Christ.

European religious artifacts also influenced the methods and materials used by local artists and the size and dimensions of their pieces. Whereas previously Ethiopian artisans usually used wood to fashion the crosses and takafatch (icons) used for personal as well as liturgical devotion, they were now casting them in bronze, silver and, more rarely, gold. Artists also began creating large, spectacular frescoes in churches and monasteries. The dramatic artistic innovations of the time quickly captured the attention of Orthodox Christians outside Aksum, and workshops sprouted up throughout the northern highlands, filling its churches and monasteries with stunning works of art.

As elsewhere in the Christian world, sacred art in Ethiopia, especially icons and murals, serve several purposes. First and foremost, they glorify God. But, in a country that has long struggled with low literacy rates, the colorful murals, icons and manuscripts have helped the church’s clergy teach the faith and inculcate the culture and traditions of Ethiopian Orthodoxy.

These forms of art have also offered parishioners seeking salvation or eager to express their gratitude an occasion to commission and donate them to a church or monastery. As in the past, faithful continue this tradition.

Contemporary painters sometimes create paintings and icons on speculation, hoping to sell them on holy days when many parishioners are willing to purchase and donate them to their local church. However, this practice entails considerable risks — especially given the overall instability of Ethiopia’s economy.

For instance, several years ago, Lik Berhanat Berhane Gebre Iyasus created a painting of the nine founding saints of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church — commissioned by a man who promised payment once completed. But when the priest finished the piece, the patron, overwhelmed by unforeseen economic hardship, could no longer make good on his promise.

“Really, it was difficult for me. I created the work for him and then he didn’t want it,” the artist recalls. “I understood because the drought was here and it was difficult for everyone. It is also expensive for people to buy paintings; the printed ones are cheaper. But it was difficult for me to find another client to purchase such a big painting — it is really meant for a church not as a souvenir work or for someone’s home.”

Fortunately, the master had found another patron, who paid his original asking price of $45.

Though a handful of today’s artisans create liturgical art from start to finish, most continue in the centuries–old tradition of specializing in one step of a larger process that entails two or more workshops. Specialized woodcarvers or blacksmiths, for instance, create icon cases or crosses. They, in turn, sell their pieces to painters directly or to workshops that commission painters.

Today, art historians are able to identify the age and origin of even the earliest Ethiopian icons and manuscripts by the stylistic markings or techniques associated with specific workshops and masters, e.g., the Master of Eyelashes or the Master of the Brown Complexion.

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.

In the last two decades, traditional sacred art, especially icons, paintings and banners, have been competing for space in shops with much less expensive chromolithograph prints. These prints generally depict the Virgin Mary, Jesus Christ, the saints or scenes from Scripture in a style reminiscent of the post–Byzantine Italo–Cretan school of iconography.

The chromolithographs, often bejeweled with sequins or ribbons and whose subjects resemble Europeans, stand in stark contrast to traditional Ethiopian paintings and icons, which generally feature wide–eyed, dark–skinned Ethiopians. This apparent discord, however, affects little their wide and growing popularity among the faithful. They proudly display the prints in their cars, homes and offices. They donate chromolithographs to their parishes. The prints even adorn the gateways of several churches in the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa.

A major appeal of the chromolithographs is that they are considerably less expensive than traditional handmade paintings. A small print sells for less than a couple of cents, whereas a traditional painting may go for anywhere from 10 to a thousand times that price.

Some faithful, however, prefer the style of the prints — so much so that a few commission local artists to paint copies of them.

Samuel, a young local artist, copies these images for donors. He carries a large painting he recently completed as he boards an Addis Ababa–bound minibus. It depicts a European Jesus Christ, based on a chromolithograph.

“I was asked by a customer to make this work,” he says. “It doesn’t matter that it’s a copy. What is important is that it’s of Jesus Christ and it’s beautiful.”

Not all artists, however, share the same enthusiasm for chromolithographs. Qes Adamu Tesfaw, who lives and works outside Addis Ababa, expresses concern about the authenticity of what he calls “photos.”

“Each generation has its own style or improvement. Now, in Addis Ababa’s churches, they want painters to do copies of painters from overseas,” says the celebrated artist.

“I do not like this because it is not ours; it is a copy of outside work or of photos. For the New Year, they only had photos [chromolithographs] at the festivals. You see people carrying them and all you see are printed posters and [painted] copies of them.”

Yet while Qes Adamu Tesfaw laments chromolithographs from an artist’s perspective, as an Orthodox priest, he recognizes their spiritual value. He himself owns a few, which hang on his walls with his own original traditional paintings.

Lik Berhanat Berhane Gebre Iyasus also has a few chromolithographs on display in his home, alongside his own paintings, including a large gama protected by a plastic cover honoring his marriage.

The master clearly values traditional Ethiopian sacred art. His paintings, after all, support him and his family. And though he firmly believes they belong to a time–honored tradition that will remain relevant in the future, he embraces chromolithographs as an affordable and equally valid alternative for prayer and worship.

“They [chromolithographs] are different than my work as a painter but they are also the same,” he explains. “They are modern but they show that we are Christians. My paintings are a tradition for us as Ethiopians. Now, they are a tradition for our family as our work. It is good to keep our traditions. I hope that the work is strong, that it is good. Always in my work, I try to do my best, because my work is for God. I was not born into a painting family, but I found this life and it is good, thanks to God.”

Leah Niederstadt is professor of art history at Wheaton College in Norton, Massachusetts.

Get to know us and stay informed about the impact your support makes.

Nous constatons que votre préférence linguistique est le français.
Voudriez-vous être redirigé sur notre site de langue française?

Oui! Je veux y accéder.

Hemos notado que su idioma preferido es español. ¿Le gustaría ver la página de Asociación Católica para el Bienestar del Cercano Oriente en español?

Vee página en español