Gospel Illuminations. Ethiopian Paintings and their European Models

Contacts and comparisons: Idiosyncrasies in the illuminated tetraevangelium of Märtula Maryam.*

The Märtula Maryam Gospel Book, a manuscript book c. 1650, presents a blending of foreign ideas as seen in the Evangelium arabicum with Ethiopian usage and intermittent non-adherence to theologically approved traditional solutions. The language of European visual explanations was transformed and translated into Ethiopian indigenous solutions. This process should not be seen

as ‘occidentalismes’, as if the idiosyncrasies noticeable in the Märtula Maryam Gospel Book were inserted on purpose to continue with a visual language the Jesuits brought, but doing so long after their expulsion in 1632.[1] Rather, this process signals the dialectical energy of the old and new images, their polyvalence. Different cultures see and represent things differently. When the Ethiopian painters encountered in the European paintings novel details, with which they were not familiar, they could either leave them out or they could opt for keeping them in the picture. They did both in Märtula Maryam Gospel Book and the interplay of these two strands is strongly present. The freedom to express movement, vistas in perspective, representations of imposing architectural settings as well as costume details, mark out this book on the cusp of a development of new stylistic expressions. In this way the short Jesuit interval in the history of Ethiopia had a much longer lasting influence on the artistic production and visual culture of Ethiopia than the actual presence of the Jesuit mission in the 16th and 17th centuries.


* This lecture draws on the research in the filiation of images in the Märtula Maryam gospel book conducted by Annegret Marx over a number of years. She studied and analysed the painted images of the gospels in the Märtula Maryam Gospel Book, kept in the DEEDS database in Toronto. During her extensive investigation she discerned the filiation of images of the woodcuts of the Evangelium arabicum by the Ethiopians. I thank her for showing me her results before publication. Her initial research provided the stimulus for the collaboration in conjunction with myself in the past two years. I remain greatly indebted to her for sharing her scholarship, her insights and research findings.
[1] Claire Bosc-Tiessé, ‘Narga ŚƏllase’, EAe, vol. 3, 1148-1149b, mentions that in the middle of the 18th century the painters of the paintings in the church of Narga ŚƏllase took their inspiration from several types of documents, among them ‘occidental engravings, especially the copies of the collection book conceived by the Jesuit Nadal’.


Dr. Dorothea McEwan
Hon. Fellow
The Warburg Institute
University of London
Woburn Sq
London WC1H 0AB
Cite this article as: Dorothea McEwan, "Gospel Illuminations. Ethiopian Paintings and their European Models," in Africana, 13/10/2017, https://africana.hypotheses.org/276.

Dorothea McEwan

The Warburg Institute, University of London.

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