The Magazine of Ethiopian Airlines
Cover Feature

Spirits in Paint

Ethiopian icons from ancient times to today.

Ethiopia’s incredible heritage of visual art has earned the nation international recognition. Short figures in patterned robes, wide almond-shaped eyes, and a palette of bright yellows, reds and greens — these are just a few of the visual features that have become identified with Ethiopian culture, appearing on everything from book covers to restaurant menus.

Such elements are, in fact, borrowed from religious images deep in Ethiopia’s medieval past, although they continue to appear in paintings created by modern artists who stick to the traditional style, working on wooden panels and parchment like their predecessors.

Stroll the souvenir shops on Churchill Avenue in Addis Ababa, right across from the Main Post Office, and you will find dozens of newly painted icons ready for sale. Or visit the home of an Orthodox family, where you are likely to spot at least one of the modern-day images on the walls. In fact, devout Orthodox families sometimes set apart a whole room where members can retreat to light candles and pray before selected paintings on saints’ days.

To learn about the history of Ethiopian icon-making is to learn about the history of the entire nation — and an easy starting place is the Ethnographic Museum of the Institute of Ethiopian Studies on the grounds of Addis Ababa University.

If you have the opportunity, however, why not go right to the source, visiting one of the ancient monasteries scattered across the country? You are almost sure to be rewarded by an encounter with a true “original”: a wide-eyed, robed character painted in the 13th or 14th century who still glimmers back at you in distinctive red and yellow, staring as if to say, “I have been here all along. What about you?”

To get to the highly acclaimed monasteries at Lake Tana, you’ll have to drive 11 hours north from Addis Ababa, and then hire a boat. Alternatively, from the mountain town of Lalibela, you can reach the oldest monastery by riding a mule two hours up a steep, rocky slope.

And then there is the famous Debre Damo monastery, occupying a fortress-like plateau east of Axum. A visit there requires being lifted straight up a cliff.

The founder of the latter site was a sixth-century Syrian monk who could not have climbed the cliffs if not for a fabled python who hoisted him, becoming a sinuous feature in subsequent icons. Today, monks do all the lifting, but the rope they use requires nearly as much faith as trusting the python, being hand-pleated from worn leather.

Once on top, you will be amazed by remarkable wood carvings, painted ceilings, bronze processional crosses and illuminated manuscripts that link you right back to one of the most beloved leaders of the early Orthodox Church, Abune Aregawi — a determined pilgrim who somehow traveled by sailboat and foot all the way from Damascus to this remote mountaintop more than 1,500 years ago.

Centuries-old craft

Getatchew Haile, an expert on Ethiopian religious literature, explains that one of the earliest icons painted by native artisans in Ethiopia was likely a copy of an eighth-century image of the Virgin Mary, mother of Jesus, which was kept at a convent in distant Syria.

This primal icon was believed to sweat miracle-working oil, and according to the illustrated Miracles of Mary kept in Lalibela, 12 Ethiopian priests went expressly to view the painting. Upon sighting the sacred object ensconced in a canopied window, dripping oil into an alabaster bowl, they became so enamored that, as the author of the book of miracles describes, “They started . . . clapping with their hands and tapping with their feet. They went round the icon of Our Lady Mary with a bright heart and with joyous mind, skipping before it like a calf.”

Medieval Ethiopia might have remained cut off from the larger world, due to the Red Sea and a formidable ring of mountains. By the 14th century, however, King Dawit had sent an ambassador all the way across the Mediterranean to Venice, asking for a painter to train local icon makers.

Eventually, a school of Ethiopian iconography formed under the most skilled of the local painters, Fre Seyon, who brought a wonderful Eastern sensibility to the work, offsetting simple human features with rippling, patterned clothing.

In medieval Ethiopian monasteries, just as in European monasteries, monks were often trained to work in scriptoriums, where they copied religious texts and painted icons. The main rule, as Getatchew Haile points out, was to “copy faithfully.”

Since these artists were copying straight from paintings brought from the Holy Land, they felt that the images might be real pictures of actual people, including not only the Virgin Mary and Jesus, but also apostles and saints. As a result, they did not want to deviate.

With each subsequent generation, the same reverence was shown so that, for example, Mary and the baby Jesus have continued to be pictured in the same time-honored fashion: caught in an intimate embrace as the baby lifts one hand to the mother’s heart or chin. Likewise, they have remained flanked by the same winged archangels, Michael and Gabriel, who typically peer at the pair intently, swords raised for protection.

Naturally, as local Ethiopian saints became canonized, a greater degree of artistic freedom became possible. As a result, the contemporary visitor is likely to recognize a delightful set of indigenous figures, such as beloved Tekle Haymanot, who was said to have stood praying so long that one of his legs broke, forcing him to stand one-legged.

Or Gäbrä Mänfäs Qeddus, who was known to wander in the wilderness clothed by nothing but his hair, represented as a tangled drape. He felt a deep compassion for wild animals, so he is typically pictured with lions and leopards at his sides.

Meaning in the paint

Even in ancient times, such attention-grabbing images caused controversy, especially if they were attributed with miraculous powers.

In part because of this phenomenon, the role of icons has been misunderstood by people outside Ethiopia, insists Dr. Ralph Lee, a professor at Holy Trinity Theological College in Addis Ababa. As he explains, Ethiopian Christians — who are members of the Oriental branch of Orthodox Christianity — have always been comfortable with mystery.

In the Protestant West, Professor Lee maintains, spirit and body tend to be kept neatly separate, whereas in the East everything is spiritual, body included. Ethiopian icons, like the figure of Jesus whom they depict, are a paradoxical attempt to represent spiritual reality physically.

“Everything the iconographer does has meaning,” Professor Lee explains. “For instance, they always start with dark colors and move to light.”

“The eyes are always bigger,” Getachew Haile adds. “Good people’s faces are seen fully, but bad people are seen sideways, in profile. Also, bad people are always given ugly faces.”

Current-day iconography

For nearly a thousand years now, Ethiopian artists have been giving distinctive form to religious images, whether painting on rock walls or cured hides, and that tradition has certainly not ended. Making icons remains an important vocation.

Some of the new artists have little formal training and paint only for the commercial market, producing images that cater to foreign interests — for example, some depict the celebrated Queen of Sheba (also known as Makeda), who bore King Solomon a son named Menelik, thought to have brought the Hebrew Ark of the Covenant to Ethiopia.

Others have more traditional training, such as Gebre Merha, an artist in Addis Ababa who was raised in Axum, considered by some to be the cultural heart of Ethiopia.

Gebre apprenticed under his grandfather, Yohannes, a priest who painted for churches at Axum and at the clifftop monastery of Debre Damo. Gebre recalls fondly how his grandfather used to prepare black paint from the wood-smoke carbon that accumulated on cooking pots. “Art was built up inside my blood and soul,” he says. “I was brought up in premises where the air always smelled of painting colors.

Today, Gebre carves and paints on wood supplied by his siblings back in Axum or on canvas and animal hides. He tends to focus on the figures of Mary and Jesus, capturing biblical events. However, he also produces popular saints like St. George, the Syrian dragon-slayer who became prominent in Ethiopia after an important battle in 1896, when colonial Italian forces invaded Ethiopia. After defeating the Italians at Adwa, some of the Ethiopian troops claimed they had been rallied by a mysterious warrior on a white horse: St. George himself.

In Ethiopian icons, St. George is generally featured on the inside of a hinged cover that can be opened to reveal Mary and the baby Jesus. Once opened, this cover shows the knight on his horse, spearing a writhing serpent. Behind him in a tree is the maiden he has rescued, but his eyes are fixed on the far panel where Mary holds the baby Jesus.

To spend time contemplating such a painting is to look through a window — a portal to Ethiopia’s remarkable past — connecting viewers to the master painter Fre Seyon and his 14th-century Italian tutors, to cliff-climbing Aregawi being lifted by a python, or even to the eighth-century image of Mary that dripped healing oil into an alabaster bowl in Syria.

Whether you find the paintings at a museum or monastery, or on the wall of someone’s home, you will be invited back in history, and each visit is worth the time spent.

Tim Bascom is the author of Chameleon Days, a memoir about his childhood in Ethiopia, as well as a number of travel pieces — including about his honeymoon going awry in London, finding unexpected peace at an Indonesian temple, and understanding his father better through a shared trip to the ancient churches of Lalibela. He teaches creative writing at the University of Missouri.