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 www.episcopalcafe.com, art blog, January 2009
Article "Ethiopia's Enduring Cultural Heritage" at www.metmuseum.org, Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History
Historic church interiors, covered entirely with painted icons. Some of these murals have been restored in acrylic.
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.
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 st-takla.org, 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!
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.
CONTEMPORARY ETHIOPIAN ICONOGRAPHERS:
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 www.ethioicons-gebre.com.
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!
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.
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); www.angelfire.com/ny2/medhanealem/
- Washington, DC: St. Mary of Zion Ethiopian, www.dskmariam.org
- Los Angeles: St. Mary of Zion, www.ethiopianorthodoxchurch.org
- Oakland, CA: Mekane Selam Medhane Alem Cathedral, www.msmedhanealem.org
- Dallas, TX: St. Michael Ethiopian Church, www.stmichaeleoc.org
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.