Tuesday, October 11, 2005

In Ethiopia, Honoring the Witnesses

Christian Monitor -- Honoring the example of earlier witnesses became part of official Christianity in its early centuries - "so great a cloud of witnesses" as St. Paul described them in his letter to the Hebrews. Pictures and statues of witnesses became objects of veneration and contemplation.

In the Middle Ages, some reformers felt the need to define the purposes of such a practice. For instance, one article in the Augsburg Confession (the primary document of Lutheran Protestantism) reads: "It is also taught among us that saints should be kept in remembrance so that our faith may be strengthened when we see what grace they received and how they were sustained by faith. Moreover, their good works are to be an example for us, each of us in his own calling."

This statement was written in 1530, close, as it happens, to the time when 80 paintings of prophets, apostles, and disciples were featured in an obscure Ethiopian gospel book.

This book will be in an exhibition, "Art of Ethiopia," opening in New York next Tuesday. It is a remarkable example of the originality of monastic illuminated manuscripts painted in the northeastern African country.

Ethiopia is an ancient Christian civilization. Its art has long given visual expression to this fact through processional crosses, painted wooden icons, murals, and illuminated manuscripts. Beginning in the 1530s, when Ethiopia was overrun by Islamic armies, Christian culture retreated to remote regions for a period. Monasteries obedient to the Stephanite order were concentrated in rugged mountains in the northeast part of the country. Artists in these monasteries were noted for illuminated manuscripts such as the one shown here. They are bold, colorful, and intricate. There is a strong tendency toward pattern and abstraction.

The saintly "portraits" also are ordered in a rich pattern of interlocking colors and shapes. Each figure is nevertheless individual, with different attributes and slightly varying facial expressions. They celebrate the Christian idea of "one body," but with each believer being a particular "member" of that body.

• "Art of Ethiopia" is presented by Sam Fogg, a London dealer specializing in medieval art, at PaceWildenstein in New York, Oct. 18-29.


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