The Anglo-Ethiopian Society

Lecture - Tuesday 9th October 2012

The Iconography of the Suffering Christ in Fifteenth Century Ethiopian Art

Given by - Jacopo Gnisci

Reviewed by - Geoffrey Ben-Nathan


What a shame you weren't there! If you were, you'll know that this report does not, cannot, do justice to a feast of art that overwhelmed our perceptions. Our speaker is a man of atmosphere: "I would be burning incense here if I could." Well, he did the next best thing. He filled the room with sound and sight. In no time at all, we were transported into mediaeval Ethiopia, and here and there around the world. To what purpose? A very scholarly one.

We were here to answer a question: Why is the motif of the suffering Christ absent from Ethiopian iconography? It is not, our speaker noted, until the fifteenth century that we find the first examples of the Crucifixion with the dead Christ. This is the triptych (IESMus 3450) located in the Institute of Ethiopian Studies at Addis Ababa.

The absence of the suffering Christ in Ethiopian iconography is most puzzling. As Jacopo notices, the Crucifixion, for Christians, plays a seminal role in the history of humanity's salvation. Hence, it is one of the most represented subjects in Christian art.

But what are we talking about? As our speaker noted, the theme of Christ's death on the cross has three broad categories: Crucifixion in which the body of Christ is not present; Crucifixion in which Christ is represented alive upon the cross; and Crucifixion in which Christ's body lays lifeless upon the cross. It appears that the last of these three categories are absent from Ethiopian iconography until the 1400s and beyond. Why?

In a masterly survey which, in the press of a switch, took us from the British Museum to the Church of San Sabina in Rome, and elsewhere, it transpired that early Christian art as a whole preferred to depict Christ as Christus Triumphans - Christ alive, untouched by earthly suffering. This iconography dates back to the late fourth and fifth centuries. It was only in the seventh and eighth centuries that representations of Christ's physical suffering and death on the cross first appeared.

By the ninth century, the third category was well established particularly amongst Byzantine artists. For examples of this, we were transported to St. Catherine's Monastery in Sinai and to the Historical Museum of Moscow. By the twelfth century, the theme of the suffering Christ had established itself, we were told, across most of Christendom - but not in Ethiopia!

The mystery deepens: Was it because of a particular stance of the Ethiopian Church? Remember the Ethiopian church's Christology is often labelled as 'Monophysite'. Could this have anything to do with it? Also, how was the Crucifixion depicted in Ethiopian art prior to the twelfth century? The answer to this second question, our speaker told us, is that we simply do not know. Little art, prior to this century, survives.

However, twelfth and thirteenth century engraved crosses from Lalibela do survive: they depict the Christus Triumphans, the living Christ. Some are adorned with the Greek Christogram IC XC (Jesus Christ). They belie possibly Greek or Eastern influences.

But, we were told, whilst Christ's body is engraved on crosses, in Ethiopian illumination, the body of Christ is not. In explanation, our speaker, himself a budding scholar (his PhD at SOAS is on this very theme) adduced the work of modern authorities: the scholar, Ugo Monneret de Villard (1881-1954) and the great contemporary Ewa Balicka-Witakowska (La Crucifixion sans Crucifié dans l'art éthiopien, Warsaw: ZAS/PAN 1995). It seems that these scholars, too, have not reached definite conclusions.

Nevertheless, there is at last a hint of an explanation. Our speaker told us that some scholars believe that representation of the dead Christ is a touchstone between Monophysite (Miaphysite) and non-Monophysite Christianity: those that represent the dead Christ on the cross declare themselves, by doing so, to be non-Monophysites; and vice versa. In support of this, mention was made of an abbot at St. Catherine's, Anastasos Sinaites (c. 630-700). He, it is said, used the Crucifixion image representing Christ as dead on the cross to attack exponents of Monophysitism.

So, use or non-use of Crucifixion imagery does seem to elaborate a particular Christological view. The Council of Chalcedon (451) concluded in schism. Those who accepted it are called Chalcedonians. They accused the non-Chalcedonians, of which the Ethiopian Church is part, of overemphasizing Christ's divinity, thus denying his death on the cross. But, our speaker asserted, to accuse the Ethiopian Church of denying Christ's death on the cross is to misunderstand Ethiopian Church doctrine. This is not their position. The Ethiopian Church does not deny the reality of Christ's death.

So, once again, why the change in the fifteenth century. Why then, and only then, do we see radical change in Ethiopian iconography. In these cases, the answer, Jacopo said, is never clear-cut. Foreign influences may have played a role. In the early fifteenth century Ethiopia, for the first time in many centuries, was receiving foreign embassies from Christian Europe. New ideas, new art trickled into Ethiopia. The Italian artist, Niccolo Brancaleon (1480-1526) is, for example, known to have painted in the country. He naturally would have portrayed Christ in traditional Italian style. And, he would have been copied.

An evening graced by the Papal Nuncio, His Most Reverend Excellency Antonio Mennini, a lively audience, a fascinating mystery, an extremely erudite speaker, a feast of scholarship backed by glorious art - what more could one want?

As I said at the start - if you weren't, you should have been there!


First Published in News File Spring 2013

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