The Anglo-Ethiopian Society

Visit - Monday 3rd April 2006

British Library Visit

Given by - Dr Dorothea McEwan

Reviewed by - Geoffrey Ben-Nathan


Following Dr Dorothea’s McEwan’s lecture to the Society last September about the only two known illuminated Ethiopian manuscripts of the Book of Revelation (see News File Winter 2005), some who had attended remarked how wonderful it would be to see the one held in the British Library. On Monday 3rd April a very small group (numbers being limited by the BL) were able to do just that.

Under the watchful eye of the Keeper of MSS of the Christian Middle East, Dr. Vrej Nersessian, we gazed in awe at the illuminated folios of three of the Library ’s greatest Ethiopian treasures: OR 510, the Miracles of Mary; OR 481, a single illustrated volume of the Old and New Testaments; and OR 533, the Book of Revelation (this being the manuscript studied by Robin McEwan, Dorothea’s late husband, for his PhD thesis).

Dorothea McEwan used all three MSS on show to explain the illuminator’s art. She explained how a single illumination told many stories – not just one. Painting space was generally too precious for only one scene to be depicted. She interpreted many illustrations for us. Each one told a variety of stories. Symbolism was abundant.

Typically, the magnificent pieces of art of the kind we were being shown would be stored in an ‘iqa bet, Church Treasure House, to be paraded under parasols at festivals or at times of threatened or actual disaster.

Our afternoon was further enhanced by the presence of Liqa Me’meran Abebau Yigzau who provided us with instant translation from the Ge’ez original. This was very useful. It turned out that all the Holy Books served a double function: one spiritual; the other, very earthly. Documentation recording land transactions was frequently inserted into the back cover of a Holy Book. Thus it was, we were told, that a Bible would be trooped into Court to provide evidence of land ownership.

All in all, a wonderful and memorable couple of hours. Our great gratitude to Dr Nersessian and to Dr. Dorothea McEwan whom we congratulate in perpetuating Robin’s memory in such an appropriate way.

First Published in News File Summer 2006

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