The Anglo-Ethiopian Society

Lecture - Wednesday 14th September 2005

Picturing Apocalypse at Gondar

Given by - Dr Dorothea McEwan

Reviewed by - Tony Diggle


Numerous copies of the Book of the Revelation and Acts of St. John exist in Ge'ez, the language of the liturgy of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, but only two illuminated copies are known to exist. One is in the British Library; the other remains in a remote settlement on a southern spur of the Semien Mountains, in Därasgä Maryam near the village of Mäkanä Berhan. An investigation into the reasons behind the commissioning of these two books was the subject of a talk by Dr Dorothea McEwan on Wednesday, 14th September. This attracted a celebrity audience including the Metropolitan Seraphim of the British Orthodox Church within the Coptic Orthodox Patriarchate of Alexandria, the assistant to the Metropolitan Seraphim, Father Sergius Scott, and Professor Richard Pankhurst and his wife Rita.

"The Depiction of the Apocalypse in the Manuscript books of Qwesqwam and Därasgä Maryam" was the title of the thesis the late Robin McEwan had been working on for his PhD, his first degree having been in Ethiopian art. But his widow, Dorothea, had been on the field trip with him and, herself an archivist in the Warburg Institute, determined to complete the work.

Dr McEwan began by discussing the background to the subject matter, and said that she would be looking at it in the context of the intellectual history of ideas: something that should be taken allegorically not literally - not something to be used to attack politicians! "Apocalypse" was the Greek word for revelation, and Dr McEwan drew an important distinction between revelations and prophecies. Prophecies were messages received of God whereas revelations were visions given to somebody to be written down. They were revelations of "hidden things" imparted by God that related to events in the future. They could, of course, be powerful political ploys, and applied to current political situations to ensure results.

This is what she believed had occurred concerning these two illuminated manuscripts in connection with the Gondärine political situation in the 18th and 19th centuries. The story continued with the Chronicles of King Iyasu II (1730-55). These included five visions cited as reasons for Queen Mentewwab's legitimate claims for her son's (Iyasu's) succession. (Iyasu was an infant at the time.) Mentewwab was the Queen of King Bäkaffa (1721-30). Three of the visions claimed that Mentewwab would bear a king, would herself achieve great rank, and would have the power to confer promotion. Mentewwab had the other two visions herself. In one she saw herself flying like an eagle: this was interpreted to mean that she would rise over the whole world. In the other she dreamt of a throne or altar slabs, which she was told to kiss, and again the interpretation of this was that she would bear a royal son.

How does all this bear on the first illuminated manuscript originally at the Church of Däbrä Sehay? The church was next to her Palace at Qwesqwam. The Chronicles of her son Iyasu state that there was a Book of Revelation there, and it is likely to have been commissioned by her. But why should it have been illuminated? First, Queen Mentewwab was pious, and interested in art. She was a donor to the Church, and appears in one of its frescoes at the foot of the Madonna and Child. It would also be a sign of assertion from a new monarch, and Mentewwab had more power than most women. It could additionally represent her wish to stabilise her own rise to power, which had a whiff of a palace coup about it. It would be self-justification rather than gratitude. But her inability as a woman to lead the army may have contributed to the decisive weakening of the Gondärine monarchy.

Just over a hundred years later around about 1850 it was near the end of the Era of the Princes, or warlords, a century of internecine struggle. It was then that the second illuminated manuscript in the church of Därasgä Maryam in Mäkanä Berhan was commissioned by Dejazmach Wébe, ruler of Tigray, who had wider ambitions. Wébe was only following the model of how to do the right thing politically rather than exhibiting any personal philosophy. Such an approach could call on divine providence, impress foreign dignitaries and even enemy forces, and might help him in his administrative role.

It didn't work. He lost the decisive battle of 1855, and Tewodros II became King. The treasures gathered by Tewodros to furnish his new capital at Magdala included manuscripts. When Magdala was looted in turn in 1868, manuscripts were included again: hence the subsequent arrival of the Däbrä Sehay copy in the British Museum (though not the Därasgä Maryam version). Dr McEwan went on to compare the two books. The 18th century copy in the 'First Gondarine Style' exhibited a pronounced linearity, whereas the 19th century copy in the 'Second Gondarine Style' showed a degree of modelling, and a wider pattern of colours. The artists who created the second book undoubtedly saw the first, because the later collection is largely a copy of the first. However, the illuminations are finished with little understanding. Dr McEwan used a number of illuminations to contrast the two books including "The Coming of the Beast", "The Tree of Life", "Angels announcing the Day of Judgement" and "The Second Battle of the End".

A rapt audience was not short of questions and comments. It was pointed out that visions applied at this time in the Catholic Church during the Counter-Reformation. Asked whether there were any more illuminated manuscripts of the Book of Revelation, Dr McEwan said that no more were known of at the present time. Professor Pankhurst commented that the trees in the manuscripts were given much more prominence than was usually the case. In response to the suggestion that the Tree of Life must be an apple tree, Dr McEwan pointed out that there was controversy over this. Evidently the tree had to be taken allegorically not literally as well! A final question asked whether the Apocalypse was still used in the liturgy today. The answer was that it was used on the Saturday of Holy Week only. The Metropolitan Seraphim added that the same was true of the Coptic Church.

The 'book of the thesis' will be published at the end of September, priced about £20 (ISBN: 8884192137). Those who would like to see more of the illuminations from the two original manuscripts will not be disappointed: there are 142 in the book.

Photographs of the Därasgä Maryam Book of the Revelation
All photographs © Jeffrey Otis - 2002

First Published in News File Winter 2005

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