Seeing Faith: Ethiopian Orthodox and Roman Catholic Art during the Jesuit Interlude (1557-1632)

Conference Paper Summary

Virgin Mary and Christ child after the Virgin of Santa Maria Maggiore model, painted on the mäqdäs (sanctuary) of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church of Däbrä Sina Gorgora, c. 1620s. Photograph, Kristen Windmuller-Luna, 2013.

Jesuit art was born of the visual milieu of the Counter-Reformation, during which the Council of Trent encouraged the use of art as a teaching tool. In the Jesuit Ethiopian Mission (1557-1632), where the targets of conversion had been Orthodox Christians since the fourth century, art guided instruction and served as a visual common ground in an otherwise bitter religious dispute. This paper considers the relationship between Ethiopian Orthodox and Roman Catholic art during this mission, using case studies of imported Marian and Christological imagery to demonstrate the era’s two-way cultural exchange.

Approaching the topic from both theoretical and iconographical angles, it considers how the Jesuits promoted art that both built upon Orthodox Christian beliefs and that reflected their own theology. Contrasting Jesuit image theory—in which pathos-inducing images were a conduit to inner religious experience—with Orthodox conceptions of art as a medium for divine communication (the Jesuit imago vs. the Orthodox śeʿel), it ultimately demonstrates how the foreign and local blended to form the unique visual culture of Ethiopian Catholicism. The paper demonstrates how a focus on emotion and shared beliefs in the miraculous power of images, particularly those of the Virgin, promoted distinct iconographic transmission during the mission era, and even today. In contrast, it considers how novel images of Christ—particularly in his youthful or suffering forms—were used to introduce Jesuit doctrine on the dual nature of Christ to potential Catholic converts.

The Virgin and child; the Virgin ‘Salus Populi Romani’ from the church of Santa Maria Maggiore, Rome, standing, three-quarter length, embracing the child. Engraving, F,1.237, AN601147001. The British Museum CC BY-NC-SA 4.0.

Finally, the paper suggests reasons for the acceptance of some Catholic artistic models during the Gondärine era, discussing some major examples of transformations and rejections of imported artistic models. Images of Mary and Christ were foremost among the Catholic models selectively absorbed or adapted by Orthodox artists to create now-classic Ethiopian painting typologies of images including the Kʷərʿatä rəʾəsu (“Striking of the Head”) and the Felsata. The Virgin of Santa Maria Maggiore—first adapted by Ethiopian artists around 1600 from prints of the Italian icon—remains omnipresent in Ethiopian Orthodox art to the present day. In contrast, images deemed incompatible with Orthodoxy—such as voluptuous Maries or Jesuit saints—left little to no trace on Ethiopian art. The paper concludes by arguing that it was a shared Christian visual vocabulary that was both crucial to the fleeting success of the Jesuit mission, and to the continued relevance of some of the imagery it introduced to Ethiopian artists.


Cite this article as: kristenwindmullerluna, "Seeing Faith: Ethiopian Orthodox and Roman Catholic Art during the Jesuit Interlude (1557-1632)," in Africana, 28/10/2017,

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