Research uncovers lost African school of painting
Analysis of illuminated gospels suggests that first Christian manuscript art may have come from Ethiopia
By Martin Bailey. News, Issue 252, December 2013
Published online: 20 December 2013
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.
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