The Anglo-Ethiopian Society

A Missing Manuscript

Author - María-José Friedlander

It was in February 2000 that my husband and I were shown this manuscript for the first time even though we had been to the church of Yohannes Meaquddi in the Geralta area of Tigray before. It is a beautiful manuscript and we were able to photograph every one of its ten illustrated pages. The following year we took two friends to Yohannes Meaquddi and when we asked that they be shown the manuscript, the priest came up with a number of excuses as to why we could not, even though I told him that we were prepared to come back any day within the following week. This made me immediately suspicious of the whereabouts of the manuscript.

Recently I was asked to give a talk at an Ethiopian conference at SOAS on 25th August 2007 and I decided to show our photos of this manuscript in the hope that someone in the audience would know of its whereabouts. I was surprised to find that no one had seen it before. I later learned that eight of the illustrations date to between 1470 and 1540 and were most probably executed in the Stephanite scriptorium of the monastery of Gunda Gunde. What dates them to this period is the use of lapis lazuli which came from Egypt; it was never used before 1470 and it disappeared from use in Ethiopia after 1540. The style of Gunda Gunde of the 15th-16th centuries is recognised by the elongated but squat faces. The last two illustrations are of saints and they date to the first half of the 14th century.

Much to my amazement, I found a picture of the Virgin and Child from this manuscript on page 125 in Jacques Mercier's book Vierges d’Éthiopie, 2004.

The Virgin and Child

The Virgin and Child.
Photo - © Bob Friedlander - 2007

This illustration is set within an orange frame. Like all the others in this manuscript, the figures are strictly two-dimensional. All the figures wear striped garments, a characteristic often seen in works of the early 16th century.

Two archangels, Gabriel on the left and Michael on the right, stand full length on either side of Mary and Jesus. Their wings, which have triangular shapes of different colours within them, are arched above her head defining a sacred canopy above Mary who sits holding the baby Jesus with her left arm. Each archangel wears a chequered headband, reminiscent of Byzantine portrayals of angels.

Above the Virgin is written “The Virgin Mary with her beloved son”. Jesus grasps a bird in his right hand in the same naturalistic way that all babies grasp at their toys. With his left hand he points to his mother. The Virgin wears a green veil which is decorated with triangles, the arms of which are in red with white dots sprinkled across them. This characteristic of placing dots along many of the lines in the painting is often found in the 16th century works of the Stephanite scriptorium.

The whole miniature is aesthetically beautiful. The brilliant colours complement each other and the work has a profound religious feeling. Jacques Mercier in Vierges d’Éthiopie points out that he believes this to be the work of a scribe rather than a painter because of the beautiful interlace design on the stool compared to the awkward depiction of the Virgin's body. I fell in love with this manuscript precisely because the figures' sense of volume has been wonderfully achieved by a network of parallel lines placed horizontally, vertically, and diagonally in bands of different colours around each figure.

Christ in Majesty surrounded by the Tetramorph

Christ in Majesty surrounded by the Tetramorph.
Photo - © Bob Friedlander - 2007

The inscription within the triangle at the top says “This is a picture of God the Father with the four Evangelists.” The four beasts are illustrated exactly as they are described in Ezekiel 1:5-11: “And in the fire was what looked like four living creatures. In appearance their form was that of a man, but each of them had four faces and four wings. Their legs were straight; their feet were like those of a calf and gleamed like burnished bronze. Under their wings on their four sides they had the hands of a man. All four of them had faces and wings, and their wings touched one another. Each one went straight ahead; they did not turn as they moved. Their faces looked like this: Each of the four had the face of a man, and on the right side each had the face of a lion, and on the left the face of an ox; each also had the face of an eagle. Such were their faces. Their wings were spread out upwards; each had two wings, one touching the wing of another creature on either side, and two wings covering its body.”

This illustration is of exceptional interest. I have never come across a similar depiction. I believe it to be a copy of a miniature that probably hung on a wall - the twine has been depicted at both the top and bottom. However, there is another school of thought that believes the roundels to be the wheels mentioned in Ezekiel 1:15-19.

Portrait of an Unidentified Saint

Portrait of an Unidentified Saint.
Photo - © Bob Friedlander - 2007

This is one of two badly torn pages which come from an older manuscript than the previous illustrations - from a Gadla Samaetat, a book devoted to the life of saints. Several of the biographies (gadls) were introduced by a portrait of that saint. These portraits are types and are only recognised by their inscriptions.

There is a presence about this saint that goes beyond the bulk of his ample body, which is clad in a voluminous cape - his commanding facial features, the intense blackness of his beard, moustache, hair, and eyebrows make this portrait one of the most impressive depictions of a saint that I have seen in any Ethiopian illustration.

The folds of his cape are highlighted by black curved lines. His tiny hands serve to exaggerate the enormity of his body. With his right hand he holds a hand-cross in front of his chest and with his left he holds a staff that ends in a multi-coloured interlaced cross.

In Jules Leroy’s Ethiopian Painting, 1967, Plate XIV, St John has a similar stance and in Plate XV, the diminutive St Cyriacus wears a cape, the folds of which are depicted in the same manner as with this saint. But neither of these can compare with the commanding presence of this particular portrait.

I found the illustrations in this manuscript stunning and I would be very interested to hear from any reader of this article if they have seen it recently and where.

First Published in News File Winter 2007

Opinions expressed in the articles are those of the authors and not necessarily the views of the Society.
Information is offered in good faith but the Society does not warrant the status or reliability of the information contained.

© The Anglo-Ethiopian Society and Contributors 2003 - 2022