The Anglo-Ethiopian Society

Lecture - Tuesday 25th August 2009

The Church Painters of Adet and the Miracles of Mary

Given by - John Mellors

Reviewed by - Margaret Derrett


This was a fascinating talk about how the ancient techniques of manuscript making and painting have survived in modern day Ethiopia.

John spoke about how his particular interest and study of the manuscripts and paintings to be seen in the British Library and the British Museum led to a quest to find where these techniques still continue.

The first section dealt with John's research, with Anne Parsons, in Andabet, south of Debre Tabor, where many scribes still carry on these skills even though all church books are now printed. They make their own black ink from carbon, usually soot from the bottom of cooking pots mixed with starchy liquid from infused cereal grains to bind it. The mixture is stirred every day for at least three months until a skin is formed which is skimmed off and dried into blocks; the blocks are then reconstituted with liquid to form the ink as and when required. Pens are made from reeds and parchment from goatskins. They have no tables or desks and simply support the parchment on their knees and laps. There are many scribes in this area but only one painter who, in the 1960s, spent some time at the art school in Addis Ababa; he is now training his son-in-law.

Guesh Germi's completed commission on parchment
The painting depicts miracle number 112 - Monk Mathew spared from the lion - from the 400 miracle version of the Ta'amra Maryam (Miracles of Mary). It was painted by Aleqa Guesh Germi who was born in Seka, in the area of Adet about 20km south of Aksum. Aleqa Guesh was 28-years-old when he produced this piece and he had been painting for six years. He works mostly on items for the tourist industry including painted icons, hand crosses, and scrolls.
Photo © John Mellors

The search for painters started in Aksum where there are not only supplies of white clay and red soil to make paint, but, of course, a thriving tourist industry to provide a market. In Aksum there are two cathedrals, one 18th century and one built in the 1960s. Both contain traditional paintings, which include the sequence of the Miracles of Mary. Most of the painters in the area live in villages south of Aksum, especially in Adet which is 20 km south of the town.

The Miracles of Mary (Ta'amra Maryam) provide an interesting and sometimes amusing saga. Of course there are the more familiar scenes such as the Annunciation and the birth of Christ. Then we have the flight into Egypt, with a donkey hidden in a tree which seems to be a favourite story as it reoccurs in many painters' work. There are many legends of people being saved by Mary, as well as a drunken monk, cannibals and the servants who dropped baby Jesus. Pictures of her triumphing over the Devil are also popular. They end with her death, ascension, and crowning.

Painters make sketches of the paintings in churches, graduating through stages: painting main figures and clothing, then the shadowing, then faces. They make sample paintings to take to churches to get custom and commissions. They also do wedding paintings of bride and groom, and the well known paintings on leather, wood and canvas for the tourist trade. Usually the paintings for tourists are left out in the sun to 'age' before being sold.

Aleqa Adisalem Gebremedhin painting a commission on parchment
Aleqa Adisalem Gebremedhin painting a commission on parchment
Aleqa Adiselam, who was 18-years-old in September 2007, painting miracle 226 - a man asks Mary for his wife to go to heaven. He said that he had been painting for three years and paints because he enjoys it; he has now finished school, so paints full time. His work, mainly icons, is for the tourist shops. He was born and still lives in Seka.
Photo © John Mellors

I found particularly fascinating the way that the paints can be made from natural sources. As mentioned before, white is made from kaolin clay, and red from red soil as well as red fruits. Yellow is made from yellow rock, maskal flowers, daisies, thistles and aloe; blue from delphinium, sweet peas and a plum-like fruit; and green from leaves. The coloured material is ground with grindstones and mixed with water and a binding agent, usually PVA glue. Some painters use their fingernails as a palette to mix colours.

John and Anne commissioned scribes to write the stories of the Miracles of Mary and gave them to painters to be illustrated. They also produced two booklets: Scribes of South Gondar and Ethiopian Bookmaking with details and photos of the scribes and bookmakers. John and Anne hope that their research and exhibition of the commissions, will raise awareness of the work of these craftsmen.

First Published in News File Winter 2009

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