Art Through Time: A Global View
Converging Cultures Art: Double-Sided Diptych
African belief systems traditionally have shied away from representations of supreme deities.
Instead the focus has been on art intended to invoke the presence of mediating figures. The Virgin Mary and saints filled this role in many of the African regions where Christianity was adopted, including Ethiopia. Close ties to the Mediterranean world, and Byzantium in particular, exposed Ethiopians to Christianity early on. In the fourth century, the Ethiopian king Ezana of Aksum made it the court religion, commencing a long history of Christian art in the area.
Much of the early Christian art produced in Ethiopia was destroyed during incursions by Islamic forces in the sixteenth century, but a great body of work survives from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, when the trading center Gondar became the kingdom’s capital. During this period, new churches were built in Gondar and workshops were established that turned out numerous manuscripts and icons, such as this one. Gondarene art took orthodox Christian imagery and transformed it into something uniquely Ethiopian, characterized by simple forms, bold outlines, vibrant colors, and frontal figures with large eyes.
This particular icon features Mary, called the Holy Mother of God by Ethiopian Christians, with the Christ child on one side. On the other, the Covenant of Mercy is depicted. This scene refers to Mary’s role as intercessor on behalf of the pious, represented here by a prostrate figure in the lower right, probably the patron of the work. Like many icons produced at the Gondar workshops, this one is a diptych. Comprised of two panels hinged together, diptychs were often small in size and could be folded in half for greater portability, a quality that made them a favored form of devotional art in Europe as well as Africa. Although the primary function of icons was the facilitation of communication with the divine, in Ethiopia, icons were also believed to have the power to ward off evil. Objects such as the one pictured here were often worn about the neck as amulets.
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Ross, Emma George. “African Christianity in Ethiopia.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. The Metropolitan Museum of Art Web site. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/acet/hd_acet.htm (October 2002).
Visona, Monica B., et al. A History of Art in Africa, 2nd ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2007.