The Anglo-Ethiopian Society

Lecture - Tuesday 16th September 2008

The Painting of the History and Legend of King Lalibela

Given by - Gerald Gotzen

Reviewed by - Margaret Derrett

Merigeta Afework with one of his Lalibela paintings
Photo © Gerald Gotzen

This fascinating lecture showed how ancient and modern links together in the amazing town of Lalibela. Many of us are familiar with the story of Solomon and the Queen of Sheba as told in the famous traditional paintings sold all over Ethiopia to tourists. The history and legend of King Lalibela is another wonderful traditional story - with the added interest of the history of the painting in modern times.

Gerald Gotzen and his wife have close links with Lalibela, having managed the Seven Olives Hotel in the 1960s and have kept in close contact with Ethiopia and her people since.

Forty years ago Merigeta Afework used a room in the Seven Olives as his studio to paint a version of King Lalibela's story. There were 18 pictures, painted on skin. Merigeta Afework, a devout man, is said to have prayed before every stroke of the brush. Copies of the painting were sold but none was kept and there was not a single one available to be displayed in the Institute of Ethiopian Studies in Addis Ababa. Merigeta Afework is now 97, frail but alert in his mind.

Haile Mariam Tedesse with two of his Lalibela paintings
Photo © Gerald Gotzen

Gerald has kept in touch with both Merigeta Afework and the artist Haile Mariam Tedesse, who, 20 years later, painted his version of the Lalibela legend, also in traditional style, this time in oils on canvas in twenty-four pictures. Haile Mariam founded a society of painters in Lalibela. Copies of this version can be seen in the Institute of Ethiopian Studies and in the National Museum in Addis Ababa.

We were shown several illustrations on PowerPoint of Haile Mariam Tedesse's new painting. It deals comprehensively with the story of King Lalibela who, according to legend, caused the rock churches of Lalibela to be built with the help of angels.

A Twenty-four panel painting of the Lalibela story by Haile Mariam Tedesse
Photo © Gerald Gotzen

The twenty-four pictures deal with the episodes in the legend. They start with Lalibela's birth, when bees recognised that he would be king, his baptism and an episode when, like Christ, at the age of twelve, he talked to priests with authority. His brother, Gabre Mariam, who was then king, was jealous of Lalibela and the greatness which was prophesied for him. He poisoned Lalibela's talla and Lalibela appeared to die. However, Lalibela was taken to heaven by the angel Gabriel and was resurrected after three days, again like Christ. The Angel Gabriel directed him to his future wife. His brother, the king, flogged him as a punishment for undertaking a forced marriage, but Gabriel protected him. Lalibela travelled to Jerusalem with angels and worshipped at the Holy Sepulchre. On his return, his brother was commanded by Christ to abdicate in favour of Lalibela, and plead for forgiveness. Lalibela was crowned and, with the help of angels, constructed the churches. The final episode is Lalibela's death and burial.

It was very interesting to hear from someone so involved in the story, of how ancient and modern have come together in a combination of legend and art in the wonderful setting of the unique place of Lalibela. As a culmination of his lecture, Gerald brought out his 'surprise' - a copy of Haile Mariam's painting which we were able to see at close quarters.

First Published in News File Spring 2009

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