The Anglo-Ethiopian Society

An Ethiopian Crucifixion

Author - Dorothea McEwan

We all owe a vote of thanks to the Museum Assistant in the Africa department of the British Museum, Heidi Cutts, for having convinced her colleagues of the importance and quality of one painting in their collection — the Ethiopian Crucifixion. After a long process of conservation the painting, monumental in its dimensions, height 230 cm, width 180 cm, and in its importance, yoking the passion and crucifixion of Christ to the life of Abuna Saläma, was chosen as the exhibit to celebrate the first Easter of the Ethiopian new millennium.

What is known about the painting is not much: it was probably painted in the mid-l9th century in Northern Ethiopia. In 1893, James Theodore Bent, the English explorer and archaeologist, whilst in Adwa, saw the painting in the church of The Saviour of the World in 1893. It was dirty, discarded, the colours had faded and after some negotiations with the Head Priest, Bent was allowed to purchase it. He deposited the painting in the British Museum in the same year — where it has been ever since, kept in a large glazed wooden frame.

The British Museum Ethiopian Crucifixion.
Photo - © Trustees of the British Museum

What is remarkable is the overall painting programme. In the centre, as befits a ‘Crucifixion’, is Christ on the cross, with the usual scenes of the soldier Longinus piercing Christ’s side, the two thieves in the background, the group of mourning followers of Christ at the base of the cross, with tears running down their faces, among them Mary, the mother of Christ, supported by St. John, the Evangelist, and Mary Magdalene embracing Christ’s feet, and angels collecting Christ’s blood from his hands in their cups and blood flowing from Christ’s feet into the skull of Adam, a motif of salvation.

This monumental crucifixion is full of details about which I could go on at length. But so are the additional scenes around the cross, like a wreath, which firmly link the story in the centre, the crucifixion, to the travails and triumphs of Abuna Säläma, conflating the two histories. Säläma was Head of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church from 1841, when he came into the country, sent from Alexandria as a young man of 21. As such the double-layered painting presented instances of Säläma’s life from his anival in Ethiopia to the day when he crowned the new emperor in 1855. It is a completely unique composition, where whilst the religious scene, the crucifixion in the foreground, dominates the painting, the secular scenes, although in the margin or even background, are the reason for the painting. Why did the painter or the patron, who commissioned the painting, chose scenes of the life of the Abuna until the coronation in 1855 to display on a painting of his crucified Lord? It smacks of a political statement as to the importance of the Abuna just as much as to the importance of the new emperor, whom the Abuna has crowned. Earthly power lies with them both.

The painting could also be read as a statement from the centre to the periphery. Christ in the centre has a direct bearing on what is happening in the scenes in the margin. And the other way round, the scenes in the margin are the result of the action being played out in the centre. Thus soldered together, the periphery is not possible without the centre.

In order to ‘read’ the painting in its entirety, it is necessary to describe the scenes in the periphery, starting on top of the cross with a row of angels on the background of a blue sky dotted with golden stars. The following scenes follow to the left, in anti-clockwise direction:

1 An angel pointing to the temple in Jerusalem, its curtain rent in twain.
2 The scourging of Christ and a traditional Kwerata Reesu scene, Christ with a crown of thorn.
3 The coronation of Emperor Tewodros II (c. 1818 — 1868) by Abuna Säläma, in the redhooded cape, in Därasge Maryam in 1855. Next to the emperor stands his first wife, Tewabech (1831-1858).
4 Abuna Säläma is received by the priests of Gondär.
5 The Echage, the most senior monk, Mahsentu, expels Abuna Säläma from Gondär, because of disagreement over church doctrine, in 1847.
6 Abuna Säläma then moves to Tigre and is welcomed by priests and monks.
7 (left, below the cross) The Echage chained in irons and imprisoned by Biru Goshu of Gojjam (c. 1800— 1850) in revenge for Säläma’s expulsion from Gondär.
8 Abuna Säläma meets Dädjazmach Wébe (1800— 1867), without headgear, hair plaited; he is surrounded by his troops.
9 Abuna Säläma celebrates mass in the church of The Saviour of the World in Adwa. The Abuna is wearing a crown and full ceremonial robes and is giving communion; 12 figures, possibly representing the Disciples of Christ, surround him.
10 A small scene next to the crucified thief: Abuna Säläma climbs up on a rope to the mountain top monastery of Däbrä Damo in 1848.
11 (top right) A bluish-grey naked devil with two horns. The inscription is very faded and the last word is lost, but the beginning says ‘the chief cries out...’.

The scenes are painted with captions, sometimes the underdrawings are still visible, where the artist had a different compositional arrangement in mind.

The painting posed conservation problems: the very fine cotton cloth, tears, etc. had to be meticulously repaired and the paints, fading and dirt, had to be cleaned. An analysis of the pigments used found that three different blues were used, that it was a ‘finished’ painting and not left unfinished, that a bright yellow mineral, orpiment, had been used which had completely faded.

This leaves me to speculate on the reason for the rather bizarre juxtaposition of the passion and death of Christ with the triumphs and travails of the Abuna. Some of the scenes centred on the Abuna could be ‘read’ as scenes from the life of Christ, e.g. no. 6, Salama on his donkey, riding as if on depictions of Christ on Palm Sunday. In another scene, no. 9, the face of the communicant is in profile, an artistic usage in Ethiopian painting denoting enemy or outsider. But why is Säläma giving communion to a man in profile, i.e. an enemy of the faith? If it is a scene reminiscent of the Last Supper, the enemy could be read as Judas. And who is impersonated by the naked devil in scene no. 11, seated, but hands stretched out as if crucified? The interpretation of this painting has only just begun...

What struck me forcefully were the garments of the women around the cross, ornamented in rich floral designs. These look un-Ethiopian, just as much as Christ’s loin cloth. The arrangement of the additional scenes is certainly striking, but in keeping with registers of mural paintings in churches. What is absolutely unique is the subject matter, a sacred story embellished or surrounded by a secular story. The latest event is the coronation of Tewodros II. We know, that it took place in 1855 and that it took place in Därasge Maryam, so would this be a pointer that the painting was painted in Darasge Maryam, more or less contemporary with the coronation? If so, we know that a European painter was active at that time in Daräsge Maryam — could he have had his hand in it? The floral design would be a clue for this. But we also know that the church depicted on the painting is captioned as being the church of The Saviour of the World. So, was it painted there? As I said, the interpretation of the subject topic of this painting has only just begun.

I wish to acknowledge my thanks to Heidi Cutts for having been very generous with supplying me with information and a translation of the Amharic captions.

All photographs © Trustees of the British Museum

(Postcards are available from the British Museum shop.)

First Published in News File Summer 2008

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