News United Kingdom

Research uncovers lost African school of painting

Analysis of illuminated gospels suggests that first Christian manuscript art may have come from Ethiopia

Scored lines behind the pink background were used to arrange the layout and text

Evidence has emerged for a previously unknown school of painting in sub-Saharan Africa that may have been responsible for the earliest Christian paintings in manuscripts. New research suggests that illuminations in two Ethiopian gospels dating back 1,500 years were painted in the ancient kingdom of Aksum, and not in the Middle East, as previously believed.

These illustrations, which include a set of the Evangelists, are evidence of an Aksumite School of painting, says Jacques Mercier, a specialist in Ethiopian art at the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique in Paris. The ancient kingdom of Aksum lies in present-day Eritrea and northern Ethiopia. If Mercier’s theory is correct, it sheds new light on the development of early Christian art.

An early dating for these texts (known as the Garima Gospels, after the monastery that houses them) was first brought to international attention by The Art Newspaper, when we reported the existence of two bound Gospels with parchment leaves carbon-dated to between 330 and 650 (The Art Newspaper, June 2010, p46). They had been assumed to date to around 1100, since no earlier manuscript was believed to have survived in Ethiopia. A second set of small samples of parchment was recently dated by the University of Oxford’s Research Laboratory for Archaeology and the History of Art.

The results were announced last month at a conference in Oxford on the Garima Gospels, organised by the Ethiopian Heritage Fund. They confirm the previous results, with a date range of 390 to 570 for the first book of Gospels and 530 to 630 for the second. The middle dates from these two results average out at 530.

It has been assumed that the parchment was prepared and the illuminations created in the Middle East. The pages would then have been taken to Ethiopia, where the text was added in Ge’ez (the local language) by Ethiopian scribes. But Mercier has noticed that scored lines, added to help the scribes writing the text, were also used for the layout of the illuminations. Some of the 28 horizontal lines are visible behind the pink background of the Evangelist Luke, and the upper and lower decorated frames have been painted directly on top of the lines. Mercier argues that if the Ge’ez text was written in Ethiopia, as seems highly likely, then the illuminations must have been made there too. Theoretically, the images could have been painted by a Middle Eastern artist who had travelled 3,000km south, but Mercier argues that it is much more likely that they are the work of an Aksumite artist, copying earlier (lost) images made in the Middle East or Aksum.

Among the earliest works

As to the dating, 530 gives only a rough indication, but it does suggest that the Garima Gospels include some of the earliest Christian paintings (other than wall paintings). The earliest dated illuminated manuscript is the Rabbula Gospels, which was created in 586 in Beth Zagba, in modern-day Syria, and is now in the collection of the Laurentian Library in Florence. The Cotton Genesis (British Library), Vienna Genesis (Austrian National Library) and Rossano Gospels (Rossano cathedral, Italy) are likely to be slightly earlier. The oldest icons, now in St Catherine’s monastery in Sinai, date from the mid-sixth century.

The first volume of the Garima Gospels was conserved and rebound in 2006. Similar work, organised by the Ethiopian Heritage Fund, was carried out on the second volume this year.

The Orthodox monastery of Garima lies in northern Ethiopia, at an altitude of 7,000ft and hemmed in by rugged cliffs. It is a relatively humble complex of buildings, with 50 monks living in a few simple houses. There is a small treasury building, where the Gospels have been kept. Last year, a museum was set up in a converted building, with greater security and armed guards.

The monastery was founded in the sixth century by Abba Garima, but the area was occupied by Muslims from the ninth to the 14th centuries and the monastery would have been abandoned. It remains a mystery how the Garima Gospels were preserved, but they may have been hidden in a cave before being rediscovered centuries later.

More from The Art Newspaper

Comments

27 Jan 14
21:56 CET

RASKOLNIKOV HAB., ADDIS ABABA

I always check for recent posts whenever I read books written about Ethiopia 'cos there is always some mistakes being made due to most likely negligence and or short of information. I was reading WAX and GOLD by Donald N.LEVINE and in Chapter 2 he states that, in the ''synthesis period between ( 1270-1527)'' of Ethiopian history, Ethiopian monks brought to expression an intense spirituality in the form and of miniatures in illuminated manuscripts using translucent colors and austere shapes and designs. And he puts at this period that the connoisseurs of Ethiopia attribute the most original and refined paintings. Thank you JACQUES MERCIER, we wait your other enlightening researches.

6 Jan 14
17:3 CET

FESSEHA WOLDE-EMANUEL, CARSON CITY CALIFORNIA

Ethiopia being one of the oldest Christian country in the World. We have many reminesent original collection but because it is very poor country there is/was a lot of looting by colonial & by the muslems.

6 Jan 14
17:4 CET

MUCHFUN KASSA, OTTAWA

IT IS AN EYE OPENING PHENOMEN THE GARIMA GOSPELS.I STILL BELIEVE THAT THE PAINTING IS FROM AXUMITE ERA.I WOULD GIVE CREDIT TO THE WORK OF JACQUES MERCIER AND TO THE BRITISH WHO WENT TO REVIVE THE GARIMA GOSPELS AND ENCOURAGE JACQUES MERCIER TO DO MORE WORK AND THE HEAVEN DESCRIBED IN THE BIBLE HAS SOME RELATION TO AXUM AND ITS SURROUNDING.THE ETHIOPIAN GOVERNMENT HAS TO GIVE MORE ATTENTION TO THIS KIND OF DISCOVERIES AS WELL. GOD BLESS YOUR WORKS OF ALL THOSE INVOLVED. THANK YOU. MESFIN ABBAI KASSA OTTAWA, CANADA.

6 Jan 14
17:18 CET

DR. TADDELE HIWOT, SUGAR LAND

The truth shall not be denied its rightful place. The fall of Black Africa soiled the true place of Ethiopia as the starting center of the Nile civilization bet it religious or political upperhand. Little by little Ethiopia is the undeniable place as the crucible of world civilization. With regards to Ethiopia's place in religious painting, the priests are still alive and the monasteries are still covered with magical paintings all done with home made paints be it acrylic or oil. Let Ethiopia triumph with her own treasure. Best, Taddele

6 Jan 14
17:19 CET

MICHAEL HAYKIN, LOUISVILLE, KY

Fabulous find. Will make a difference in my lectures on early Christianity.

Submit a comment

All comments are moderated. If you would like your comment to be approved, please use your real name, not a pseudonym. We ask for your email address in case we wish to contact you - it will not be made public and we do not use it for any other purpose.

Email*
 
Name*
 
City*
 
Comment*
 

Want to write a longer comment to this article? Email letters@theartnewspaper.com

 

Share this