The Anglo-Ethiopian Society

Book Review - Picturing Apocalypse at Gondär - A Study of the Two Known Sets of Ethiopian Illuminations of the Revelation of St. John and the Life and Death of John

Robin McEwan (edited by Dorothea McEwan)

Reviewer - Geoffrey Ben-Nathan

News File readers will, I trust, forgive me for discarding the formal convention of referring to author and editor by surname in favour of the more familiar ‘Robin’ and ‘Dorothea’ by whom they are better known to almost all members of the Society – Robin McEwan as a member of our Executive Committee for, alas, all too short a time, and his wife Dorothea, a most active member who has so often enriched us with her talks on Ethiopian art.

The production of this book has been a family effort and a labour of love. Dorothea and daughter Fiona, and their cousin Jeffrey Otis, accompanied Robin on a field trip to Ethiopia in February 2002 where they visited the church of Däräsge Maryam. The church is located outside the village of Mäkanä Berhan in the precipitous southern Simien mountains some sixty miles north east of Gondär.

Robin discovered in this church an illuminated copy, in Ge’ez, of the Book of Revelation and Acts of St. John. This is the only known illuminated example of this work in Ethiopia. The manuscript is dated to the nineteenth century. Robin was given permission to photograph the manuscript in its entirety. The result is that, in just over ninety 12cm x 6cm colour reproductions, all the Däräsge Maryam (DM) illuminations of St. John’s Revelation are reproduced in this book. This alone makes this book a unique and worthwhile possession.

There is just one other illuminated manuscript in Ge’ez of the Book of Revelation. This second manuscript is to be found at the British Library into whose possession it came after the 1868 Napier expedition. The manuscript, BL Or. 533, is dated to the eighteenth century. It is magnificently illuminated in, we are told, the second Gondärine style, a style characterised by vivid colour, European and Indian influence not as evident in comparison to the first Gondärine style. Twenty four even larger (12cm x 12cm) of its very beautiful illuminations are reproduced.

BL Or. 533 was commissioned by Queen Mentewwab (‘how beautiful’) (1706–c.1773) for the church she founded at Qwesqwam near Gondär, whilst DM was commissioned by Hayla Maryam, Dedjatch Webe (c.1800–1867) for Däräsge Maryam.

Thus it was the object of Robin’s PhD dissertation at SOAS to conduct a comparison between the BL Or. 533 and DM manuscripts. This task was cruelly curtailed when he collapsed and died in the midst of his endeavours. We owe so much therefore to Dorothea and her family in bringing Robin’s work to fruition and even expanding his research beyond a PhD dissertation into this comprehensive book.

The book is in two parts. Part one gives historical background to the life and times of Queen Mentewwab and Dedjatch Webe and the role of the Church. There is a chapter on Ethiopian painting and the significance of the Book of Revelation and apocalyptic ideas in Ethiopia. Robin speculates most interestingly upon why the benefactors should wish to endow their respective churches with illuminations of St. John’s vision of the Apocalypse.

Part two, much the larger section, is a folio by folio comparison of the illuminations of the two manuscripts with an indication of which verses from which chapter of the Book of Revelation the illuminators are picturing. Reference is made, as necessary, to the tergwame qalamsis (an Ethiopian commentary to the Apocalypse of St. John) and the andemta (an Ethiopian exegesis on religious texts).

Readers should know that St John’s book, written between 69 and 96 CE, is variously referred to as ‘Revelation’ or ‘Apocalypse’. More confusing is the identity of the author: was he St. John the Apostle, St. John the Evangelist or St. John of Patmos? Or were all three of them one and the same person?

Picturing Apocalypse at Gondär is a work of consummate scholarship. The book will be essential to the shelves of all ethiopicists. It extensively elaborates our knowledge of Ethiopian Christianity, the political sub-text of aristocratic munificence, and above all, the breathtaking beauty of Ethiopian illuminated art.

There is no finer way by which Robin could have been memorialised by his wife, by his family and by his friends.

Picturing Apocalypse at Gondär by Robin McEwan (edited by Dorothea McKewan), published by Nino Aragno Editore, Turin, 2006.
Softback: 266 pages
1 map, 142 colour ill.
ISBN: 888419296X
Price: 50 euro

The publisher’s contact details are:
Nino Aragno Editore
Strada Santa Rosalia 9
12038 Savigliano


First Published in News File Summer 2007

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