Betsy Porter

Betsy Porter
Art and Iconography

Ethiopia, Its Art And Icons

Betsy Porter

In January 2009, I traveled to Ethiopia as part of a pilgrimage group organized by the All Saints’ Company of San Francisco, with the assistance of Ethiopian coordinator Yemi Fantahun and her Nine Saints Tour Company. We were particularly focused on the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, its historic church buildings and icons, and its great two-day Epiphany festival of Timkat, which celebrates the baptism of Christ. On our first day in Addis Ababa, we had the privilege of an audience with the Patriarch, Abouna (Abune) Paulos, a former president of the World Council of Churches.

Ethiopia is a developing nation where 90 percent of the population live in villages and survive by subsistence farming. Although surrounded by Muslim countries, it has a thriving Orthodox Church and a proud Judaeo-Christian history, tracing back to the Queen of Sheba’s visit to King Solomon. The original Ark of the Covenant, a gilded wooden box containing the stone tablets of the law (Ten Commandments) received by Moses from God on Mount Sinai, is thought to reside in a church in Axum (Aksum), their ancient former capital city. A replica of these tablets, known as a Tabot, is placed in the Holy of Holies at the heart of each Ethiopian Orthodox church building.

Links: Blog by Rev. Daniel Simons, organizer of this pilgrimage, with a further link to his photos
Article "Timkat and the Ark of the Covenant" at, art blog, January 2009
Article "Ethiopia's Enduring Cultural Heritage" at, Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History

Historic church interiors, covered entirely with painted icons. Some of these murals have been restored in acrylic.


Ethiopia enjoys well-developed traditions in music and dance, iconography, manuscript illumination, calligraphy, book arts, weaving, embroidery, metal work, wood carving, basketry, and many other art forms. Beautiful and intriguing handmade objects, including icons, abound in tiny shops and are even sold on the street, typically at modest prices. There is no strong distinction between art and craft, or between icons and religious art.

The interiors of many surviving historic churches are completely covered with large mural icons. In other churches, icons on canvas (or framed reproductions of Western religious art) hang from the walls. Some church treasuries hold historic illuminated manuscripts.

Carved wooden crosses, cylindrical mini-towers, book-like pendants, and complex fold-out pieces open out with little doors on string hinges, revealing miniature icons inside. Painted icons adorn metal crosses as well as wooden diptychs and triptychs. Other icons are painted on goat skin, sometimes with strips of fur still on the back.

The traditional (and very challenging) medium is distemper, a form of tempera paint based on animal-skin glue rather than egg yolk. This paint can be used on un-gessoed wood, and it adheres well even to metal. I have not tried it; reportedly it has to be warmed and held at just the right temperature. Contemporary Ethiopian artists and iconographers often prefer oil or acrylic paint.

For information on making and using glue tempera paint, see Artist's Paints/Glue Paints at

large icons on canvas, installed in a church, depicting the Visitation and the Last Supper

Icon of Mary with angels

Jesus washes Peter's feet; both painted on goat skin.

Favorite subjects include a wide variety of incidents from the lives of Mary and Jesus. Mary and the Christ Child are typically shown flanked by angels. The Flight into Egypt is an especially beloved subject, as a reminder that Africa sheltered the Holy Family from the threat of persecution in Israel.

Saint George, the national patron saint, is extremely popular and frequently depicted, rescuing a princess from the dragon who represents evil. George is considered the special friend and messenger of Mary, so their icons are frequently positioned to face one another.

Archangel Michael, the cosmic defender against evil, is depicted as a warrior with his mighty sword raised.

The Nine Saints who brought Christianity to Ethiopia are sometimes shown in a circle, their heads together.

The donors who commissioned the icon may be depicted as supplicants, lying face down on the floor at the feet of the holy figures.

A hand-lettered book, illuminated with an icon of an evangelist.

A circular icon on goat skin, depicting the revered Nine Saints who introduced Christianity to Ethiopia.

Some iconographic conventions differ from those of Byzantine icons. The Holy Trinity is depicted as three identical white-haired men, seated in a row. Mary’s outer garment is deep blue, rather than red-violet.

Saints and angels are not necessarily shown with halos. Halos are painted rather than gilded. The events and people depicted are not always identified in writing. Many icons are square or horizontal in shape.


Prince Gabre Kristos left home to pursue a religious life. When he returned to the palace disguised as a beggar, only his dogs recognized him.

Saint Aregawi (Argawy) founded a monastery on a high butte surrounded by steep cliffs, which to this day is accessible only by rope. A friendly python helped the saint ascend and descend. Some of the men in our group visited this monastery. Monks at the top of the cliff pulled them up as they clung to the rope.

A 20th-century mural icon of one-legged Saint Takla Haymanot (ca.1214-1313), a model of monastic devotion who spent such long hours standing on one leg in prayer that his leg broke off. He continued, standing on his remaining leg. At, the large website of a Coptic church in Alexandria, Egypt, you can learn much more about Ethiopian and Coptic saints and the life of Saint Takla, including how he acquired his six wings. Our group visited Saint Takla's cave hermitage at Debre Libanos, on a forested slope of the Rift Valley. The priest in charge of the cave blessed each of us with 3 dashes of the water that drips from the roof of the cave, thrown hard into our faces!

Saint Gabre Manfus Kiddus with the wild beasts to whom he preached. When he found a bird (shown flying perilously close to his face) dying of thirst, he allowed it to drink water from his eye.

A small processional cross with an icon of the Holy Trinity.

A group of processional crosses, "dressed" with ribbons threaded through the lower lobes.

A tower of solid metal, with 3 small icons on each of its four sides.

A brass hand cross and a small processional cross of the "Lalibela" type.

Saint Gregory of Nyssa Church, San Francisco (my home church), has a collection of Ethiopian crosses and icons. The crosses, cast of brass and silver-toned pot metal, mostly have Celtic-like interlaced designs; and some have painted or engraved icons. No two are alike.

This portable lectern stand, carved from a single piece of wood, is adorned with icons of Saint Gabre Manfus Kiddus with his bird and wild beasts, and Saint Takla Haymanot with his six wings and his wooden leg.

Iconographer Gebre Merha considers this small folding icon to be among his very best works. The colors are especially rich and luminous; the miniature painting is expressive and highly detailed; the wood is beautifully carved and finished to a rich warm tone. This layout is typical of many pocket-size personal icons; with Saint George and the Virgin Mary on one side; and the Resurrection and Crucifixion on the other.

Carved and painted icons by Gebre Merha. Gebre holds a freshly carved and stained wooden tower, ready to receive its painted icons inside the hinged doors.


I had the pleasure of visiting two Ethiopian iconographers in their studios. Both produce work in several styles and mediums. If you contact them by phone, remember the time difference! If e-mailing, Ethiopians do not necessarily own computers, but rather check e-mail at an internet cafe every few days, so you may not receive an immediate response. Money can be transferred by your bank or (from some locations) by Western Union.

GEBRE MERHA was born and raised in the ancient holy city and former imperial capital of Axum (Aksum). He learned iconography in the traditional manner, passed down for generations in his family of distinguished artists. He now lives and works in Addis Ababa. His family provides him with wood for his carvings and paintings from the mountains surrounding Axum, where the trees are still felled by hand-axe.

His icons are painted in glue-based distemper paint and acrylic on un-gessoed wood. In addition to traditional icons, Gebre paints African designs in acrylic. His website is

Contact: Gebre Merha here, or phone +251 911 62 01 19; PO Box 25969/1000, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia

Gebre produces his beautiful carved and painted icons on the small work table which serves as his studio. I wish he would get a desk lamp!

New work by Gebre Merha; photos received March 2011. It is very time-consuming for him to paint these large multi-leaf icons, each with multiple scenes and extensive detail.

A tryptich icon by Gebre Merha, shown open and closed. It was painted several years ago and only recently made available for purchase.

This piece contains numerous small icons, each miniature scene painted with care and precision. Gebre says that his eyesight no longer permits him to do such detailed work.

The exterior is carved with angels and elaborate lattice work.

SIMACHEW MESFIN maintains the Lucy Art Gallery across from the Roha Hotel (the main tourist hotel) in Lalibela. He paints in watercolor and acrylic on goat skin.

Contact: Simachew Mesfin, phone +251 09 12 043027; PO Box :05, Lalibela, Ethiopia.

Saint George and the Dragon. Center; the face of Christ in Glory, surrounded by symbols of the four evangelists and by angels. Right; postcard-sized paintings. The blue face represents the moon.


pectoral crosses and a star. The shiny new crosses are sterling silver, in both stamped sheet and cast dimensional types. Some of the older crosses are probably sterling; others are a silver-tone alloy.

At a gift shop, processional crosses share space with beads, jewelry, wood carvings, and other African arts.

Handwoven shawls. Both of the pieces shown include sparkling metallic yarn.

Baskets in some of the many styles sold in gift stores and on the street.

More Links:
Contemporary Coptic-style icons by Stéphane René
Notes on an exhibition of Ethiopian icons at the
Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of African Art
Here and here are more articles about iconography in Ethiopia

Two leaves of an Ethiopian diptych icon, illustrating scenes from the life of Christ, mostly his Passion.

This piece is worn and nicked at the lower edges, and may be an antique. The wood surface under the paint is roughly textured.

Note the limited palette, the restrained use of color, and the expressive line work.

Although the layout initially suggests a comic strip, the scenes are only occasionally in chronological order. The "bad guys" are depicted in profile, but the "good guys" have both eyes showing.

Many US cities have Ethiopian Orthodox churches, including:

- New York City: Church of the Savior (meets at Riverside Church, Harlem);

- Washington, DC: St. Mary of Zion Ethiopian,

- Los Angeles: St. Mary of Zion,

- Oakland, CA: Mekane Selam Medhane Alem Cathedral,

- Dallas, TX: St. Michael Ethiopian Church,

My appreciation to Stacy Pervall, Rick Storrs, Daniel Simons, and Ursula Hashem for contributing photographs for use on this page.

Appreciation to Jemonde Taylor for the listing of Ethiopian Orthodox churches.

Betsy Porter
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