Sumptuously illustrated with over 300 color photographs, this groundbreaking study explores the vital role of devotional paintings in the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church through the lives and work of the individuals who make, commission and sell them. Designed to engage and inform the reader both visually and textually, Ethiopian Church Art will appeal to a wide and diverse audience, both general and academic, interested in art, art history, religion, history, Ethiopia and Africa.
Ethiopian Church Art is based on twenty-five years of research in the northern Ethiopian town of Aksum and in Addis Ababa, working with over two hundred individuals. Whereas Addis Ababa, the country’s capital, is a relatively new city, Aksum has been continuously occupied for over 2000 years. It was the capital of the ancient state of Aksum and the place where Christianity was introduced in the fourth century. Today it is a holy city and an important center for Orthodox painting.
As the authors, Raymond Silverman and Neal Sobania explain in the Introduction to their image-rich study, “We anticipate that some readers will open the book and want to read its text, while others will be interested in its visual imagery. We of course hope that the reader is interested in both image and text and suggest that they be explored in tandem. With this goal in mind, a good deal of thought has gone into making the book accessible as both a visual and literary text.”
Chapter 1 explores the development of Ethiopian religious painting in Aksum from the early twentieth century to the present, and introduces the painters with whom Silverman and Sobania worked. Using biographies that demonstrate the close-knit nature of Aksum’s painting community, the chapter explores the pivotal role that four generations of a single family have played in shaping the religious painting practices in Aksum and beyond.
Chapter 2 considers the dynamic tradition of patronage associated with the commissioning of paintings and manuscripts for the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. Virtually everything one finds in an Orthodox church, including the church building itself, is donated as an act of piety, a means for seeking salvation. Today this historic practice is inspiring innovations in what and how Orthodox Christians continue to contribute to the Church.
Chapter 3 explores a phenomenon that can be traced back to the early-twentieth century—the West’s discovery of Ethiopian liturgical art and the growing demand for paintings. This has led to the sale of historical religious objects, especially icons and illuminated manuscripts. It has also fostered the making of religious painting of varying quality, including work that is made to look old and used in response to expectations of tourists visiting Ethiopia and for ethnic art boutiques and galleries around the world. Interviews with artists and merchants in Aksum provide the substance for considering the relationship between paintings destined for the church, objects of piety, and those created as commodities for the market.
Chapter 4 considers the impact that inexpensive, mechanically reproduced, religious-themed, prints on paper have had on the devotional practices of Orthodox Christians and on the style of paintings being produced by artists receiving church commissions. These prints have made religious images available to many more people, have created a new class of donors to churches, and spawned a heightened interest in more naturalistic interpretations of religious narratives—a new “religious realism,” that today is especially prevalent in Ethiopia’s urban churches.
Ethiopian Church Art concludes with a short Epilogue that considers the relationship between Orthodox visual culture in Ethiopian diaspora communities in the US, where paintings have played a critical role in transforming already existing architectural structures into Ethiopian Orthodox places of worship. Some of the same artists who are producing work for churches in Ethiopia are also receiving commissions for new churches in North America and Europe.
Finally, interspersed between the four chapters are eighteen interleaves—short essays that offer additional information about some of the key topics introduced in the text. Examples include Religious Festivals and Their Markets, Making Paints, Making Parchment, Illuminating Manuscripts, and The Veneration of Mary.
In considering the processes by which religious paintings are commissioned, produced, and circulate in contemporary Ethiopia, Silverman and Sobania give voice to the artists whose names are rarely mentioned when their paintings are displayed in museums or published in books. Likewise they reveal the fascinating relationships between painters and patrons that result in a painting being produced. And they highlight the role that today’s shopkeepers can have in shaping the creative practice of artists producing both objects of faith and piety as well as commodities for global souvenir and art markets.