Tag Archive: churches

Ethiopian Orthodox Art

Mary and Jesus with Archangels (similar to a piece from the exhibition)

Mary and Jesus with Archangels

This past Saturday I was asked to give a talk on Ethiopian Orthodox Church art for an exhibition that has been going on since March at our church. Though I have training in Museum and Gallery Studies, and especially art with my Art History undergraduate degree, I had never actually given an art talk. So it was both nerve-wracking and exciting for me, and I spent about three weeks researching the topic (which was rather complicated and hard to summarize, but everyone in attendance seemed to enjoy it). A parishioner and member of the church committee that I’m a part of called Faith Through the Arts, allowed us to use her pieces for this first exhibit. They consisted of Ethiopian Orthdox Church icons on wood and goatskin that featured brightly colored images of the Virgin Mary, Jesus and the Apostles, St Gabriel and St Michael and the Tinity, amongst others. Below is the paper I wrote for the art talk.

Jesus Washing the Feet of His Disciples

Jesus washing feet of disciples

The History of the Eastern Orthodox Church and Its Icons and Crosses 

Ethiopians became polytheistic starting in the first millennium BCE. Around 960 BCE the Queen of Sheba visited Jerusalem and met the famous King Solomon. When she came back to Ethiopia, she bore him a son. Once the son got older, he visited Jerusalem and brought back Levites (who were in charge of religious duties in the city) and supposedly the Ark of the Covenant (which held the 10 Commandments). “A replica of these tablets, known as a Tabot, is placed in the Holy of Holies [what we refer to as the sanctuary] at the heart of each Ethiopian Orthodox church building.”[1]

Christianity became the official religion in the 4th century CE. However, there were Christians there much earlier than that. “In the Acts of the Apostles, [Chapter] VIII: 26-40, we are told of a certain Eunuch, who went with the treasures of Queen Candace of Ethiopia, to Jerusalem to worship the God of Israel. There he met Philip the Deacon and was baptized by him. Ethiopian tradition asserts that he returned home and evangelized the people. In his Homily on Pentecost, St. John Chrysostom mentions that the Ethiopians were present in the Holy City on the day of Pentecost.”[2]

The Ethiopian Orthodox Church was founded after a Christian philosopher and two relatives, Frumentius and his brother from Phoenicia (modern-day Lebanon), ran out of supplies and were stranded in the capital city of Axum. Frumentius helped spread Christianity in the city before being appointed the archbishop of the country. He converted the king and it became the state religion. “In fact, the EthiopianChurch exists today as self-governing, though it traditionally shares the same faith with Egypt’s Coptic Church. Until 1955, its Patriarch was a Coptic bishop sent from Alexandria, though that changed in 1959, and ever since then, a native Ethiopian has been the Abuna, or Patriarch. The main way that the Coptic Church is different from mainstream Orthodox Christians is that they believe that Christ has a divine nature in which the human nature is contained versus being two distinct halves.”[3] This belief has also kept them at arm’s length from Catholics and Protestants. “Wishing to stress that Christ has only one, simultaneously human and divine nature, the Orthodox Church of Ethiopia also refers to itself as the Tewahedo (also spelled tewahido), or “Made One / Unity,” Church.”[4]

Christians in Ethiopia have had their faith tested by the Muslims, who controlled Ethiopia from the 7th – 16th centuries. Today Muslims make up 25-40% of the Ethiopian population. They have also tried to protect themselves from other Christians – the Roman Catholic Church tried to bring them into the Western communion with the help of the Jesuits – but failed. The Catholics tried again during the time of Mussolini, but this attempt failed as well.

            The language spoken in the Ethiopian Orthodox Church is Ge’ez, which is a Semitic language, like Hebrew and Arabic. Unlike these two though, it is written left to right instead of right to left. Few people outside of clergy understand Ge’ez and nowadays, most services are conducted in Amharic, the official language of modern Ethiopia.Today the Ethiopian Church is unique among Orthodox communities in several respects, including the use of drumming and liturgical dance and the continuance of Jewish practices such as circumcision, the observance of dietary restrictions, and the keeping of the Sabbath.”[5] The church came to America officially in 1959 after the Abuna of Ethiopia was officially recognized as the Patriarch of the Church, but has since drifted away from the MotherChurch in Africa.

            Icons have long been a tradition in the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, as they are an important visual representation of the scriptures. Painting of books and manuscripts started as early as the 6th Century CE, though mass production of icons didn’t start until the 15th century, after a change in church liturgy occured. There were icons produced prior to that, but none have survived. The most productive time for Ethiopian Orthodox icons was the 17th and 18th centuries. “Thematically, Ethiopian iconography was strongly influenced by Byzantine models; later Ethiopian art also reveals the influence of Western religious painting. Nonetheless, the vibrancy and simplicity of Ethiopian iconography mark out a distinctive style in the history of Christian art.”[6] Like in Western churches, patrons paid for commissions to create the icons and donated them to the churches. “Stored with other sacred objects, icons were displayed on holy days and in public processionals. [This is also the case with the Tabots, the replicas of the 10 Commandments, which each church has in their sanctuary.] With the donors’ hopes of obtaining divine intercession, images of Mary, the Mother of God, are understandably the dominant theme.”[7] Large icons were created to be used in church processions, while smaller ones were created to be carried around by individuals such as the ones in Glenna’s collection.

            Each icon is painted on either paneled wood or goat skin. They have a base layer of white paint called gesso, which is put down before any actual image painting starts. Originally the paints came from natural sources, such as minerals, plants and clay. Later on, because of their extensive trade with European countries, the artists used manufactured paints.

Although Ethiopian and Byzantine iconography is very similar there are some differences. The Ethiopian icons use a wider variety of bright colors, there is no use of gold in the backgrounds, there is rarely any text and the saints and other holy figures frequently have painted rather than golden halos. They also tend to depict the Trinity, which is not encouraged in the ByzantineChurch. “Among the more favored subjects of Ethiopian iconography are the Flight from Egypt (as a reminder that Africa sheltered the Holy Family); St. George, the patron of Ethiopia, who is often seen close to Mary; Mary and the Christ Child flanked by angels; St. Michael the Archangel; the Nine Saints, who are often depicted in a circle; various events from the lives of Mary and Jesus; and Ethiopian saints, especially Takla Haymanot from the 13th century.”[8]

            Ethiopian Orthodox crosses follow four basic styles: Axumite (from the ancient capital city of Axum), Lalibella, the Star of King David and Gondor. “However within these basic four styles, there are hundreds of design variations for the main types of crosses, i.e. the large Processional Crosses used for church service, the Hand Crosses held by Priests and used for blessing the laypeople, the small ‘Cross Toppers’ for the church prayer sticks or rods used by Hermit Monks (called Batawe, who travel the country in constant prayer). There are also Pendant Crosses worn by the faithful.”[9]

[1] Taken 6/20/13 from Betsy Porter at: http://www.betsyporter.com/Ethiopia.html,

[2]Selassie, Sergew Hable and Tamerat, Tadesse. “The Church of Ethiopia: A Panorama of History and Spiritual Life” Addis Ababa: Dec 1970. A publication of the EOTC. Taken 6/7/13 from: http://www.ethiopianorthodox.org/english/ethiopian/prechristian.html

[3] Taken 6/7/13 from the Imperial Family of Ethiopia at: http://www.imperialethiopia.org/religions.htm

[5] Taken 6/14/13 from Michael S. Allen of the The Pluralism Project at: http://pluralism.org/affiliates/student/allen/Oriental Orthodox/Ethiopian/EthiopianLangAndCulture.html, 2005.

[6] Taken 6/14/13 from Michael S. Allen of The Pluralism Project at: http://pluralism.org/affiliates/student/allen/Oriental-Orthodox/Ethiopian/EthiopianIconography.html, 2005.

[7] Taken 6/14/13 from Bryna Freyer, National Museum of African Art at: http://www.nmafa.si.edu/exhibits/icons/faith.html, 2003.

[9] Taken 6/20/13 from Emahoy Hannah Miriam Whyte of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church Info at: http://www.ethiopianorthodoxchurch.info/PhotosOfCrosses.html, 2008.


Life Update and some new music

I did not get the job with the Recreation Dept that I recently applied for, though the guy who interviewed me was nice enough to call to say I didn’t get it and put me on a 3-month wait list (which means I could just take a job, instead of re-interviewing) in case another position opens. Now I doubt this happens very often, but still was better than getting blown off like every other job that I have applied for and got rejected. I did however get the Nursery Director/Teacher position, and started this past Sunday. I’m not going to just be a babysitter, but rather also teach the little ones (ages 0-4) the basics of this bible study program that the Episcopal Church is using called Godly Play. They said they wanted to teach them basics like how to pray. Now my hubby and I have had a bit of a disagreement on religion, as I would like my son raised in the Episcopal Church and then once he hits college, if he no longer wants to go to church, that is up to him. I figure he will be an adult by then and can make his own decisions. Anyways, I figure I could use the time at this job to at least help my son in the right direction. I was training with the person who will be leaving the position, so I got an idea of how things should work. She gave my son his own Toddler Picture Bible, and he loves getting new books. There were only about 3-4 kids not counting my son, and my associate’s kids/nephew, so not a bad number to start with. There was one little girl, who I managed to calm down for a little while before she started hysterically crying again. I think it’ll be a good job, just gotta get used to the 6am wake-up call.

On a totally unrelated note, I just randomly found this music video which really cracked up (great beat too, though a warning for explicit language). I found it after trying to find out if they had continued the show that I just finished, a medical drama called Hawthorne (freaking TNT cancelled it after the Season 3 cliffhanger). After seeing the video for Thrift Shop, I decided to research Macklemore and turns out he’s an American rapper who also came out with this really great song that was really sweet and made me cry. Also liked his videos for Irish Celebration and And We Danced. Definitely planning on checking out the rest of the new album.

I hadn’t done an art post in a while, and I felt inspired. When most people think of Bernini, they think of Dan Brown’s Angels and Demons, which featured the sculptures of Bernini as part of a Illuminati conspiracy. I first fell in love with Bernini sculptures in 2002, when I was doing a study-abroad to Italy during my junior year in university. The group I was touring with was spending 5 days in Rome, and I was getting up-close-and-personal with a lot of artwork that I had been studying in art history (my undergraduate degree) and the class I was taking on Italian Renaissance art, though we saw a lot of Baroque art as well. One of the first places we visited was the Galleria Borghese, the former home of Cardinal Scipione Borghese, who was a patron of Bernini. So it is fitting that four of Bernini’s sculptures are still there today. Before I get into talking about the sculptures, I should probably explain what exactly Baroque art is so you can better understand the artist’s works. Baroque, according to this page on Getty’s educational department website, is “the European artistic style of the 1600s, targeted the senses using virtuosity and realism, reaching the mind through emotion rather than reason. Baroque art has qualities of theatricality, movement, and exuberance.” After Renaissance art, Baroque art is my second favorite time period of European art.

Anyways, on to the sculptures. At the Villa Borghese, they have two amazing sculptures that I just fell in love with. First is Pluto and Proserpina, also known as The Rape of Proserpina. I find this piece so amazing because even though the subject matter has been done over and over by so many artists, Bernini seems to have done something new with it. The sculpture looks as if it has been frozen in time. Pluto grips the fleshy thighs of Proserpina (aka Persephone/Kore) even as she cries out to the heavens for help, and he is abducting her and taking her to the Underworld to be his bride. You can see the anguish on her face and her windblown hair. The three-headed dog Cerberus is at Pluto’s feet. In this piece, you can see a true Baroque work of art, with the movement and the way it is so full of life and emotion.

Pluto and Proserpina, 1621-22

The second is Apollo and Daphne. Another mythological tale, this one is about the god Apollo chasing after the chaste nymph Daphne, who turns into a laurel tree as she flees. To understand more of the story, I turn to Encyclopedia Mythica, which says that the whole story started after Apollo said that Eros’s (aka Cupid’s), arrows had no real effect on anyone. To prove him wrong, he shot two arrows “one tipped in gold, one blunted and tipped with lead. The arrow dipped in gold had the power to create insatiable lust in a person, while the other created absolute abhorrence towards all things romantic and passionate. The unfortunate soul who was struck with that arrow would have no desire to love anyone. The arrow dipped in gold struck Apollo, but the arrow dipped in lead struck fair Daphne. Daphne was the daughter of the river-god Peneus. Apollo chased down the maiden, desperate for her love, but she wanted nothing to do with him, and she ran from him endlessly. Soon, she grew weary in her running and that Apollo would ultimately catch her. Fearful, she called out to her father for help. As all gods of water posses the ability of transformation, Peneus transformed his daughter into a laurel tree.” The sculpture captures Daphne’s final moments, as Apollo reaches out to catch her and she is growing leaves and branches to transform into a tree.  We see the theatricality of the piece in the way she is turning from the god, and the way his cloak billows in the wind. I thought it was interesting to learn, as I was researching for this post on the Galleria Borghese website, that in order for Cardinal Borghese to justify owning such a pagan piece of art, he got another cardinal to compose a moral couplet about it. It read “Those who love to pursue fleeting forms of pleasure, in the end find only leaves and bitter berries in their hands,” which basically translates into don’t go seeking earthly pleasures because things will end badly for you.

Apollo and Daphne, 1622-25

My next favorite piece is located in a small chapel off the church Santa Maria Della Vittoria. It is the Ecstasy of St Teresa. Now this piece can be interpreted many ways, depending on who is looking at it. The original idea for the piece came from St Teresa of Avila’s autobiography, which explains how “an angel carrying a fire-tipped spear with which he pierces her heart repeatedly, an act that sends her into a state of spiritual rapture. ‘The pain,’ she writes, ‘was so severe that it made me utter several moans. The sweetness caused by this intense pain is so extreme that one cannot possibly wish it to cease, nor is one’s soul then content with anything but God.’ (The Life of Saint Teresa of Ávila by herself, Chapter 29)” Even though the saint is basically receiving a vision from God during this scene, and this is the way her body is reacting to the presence of God, the piece can also easily be analyzed in a sexual light, as the author of this post explains. “To a common eye, how can the boy not be perceived as part angel and part cupid?  The arrow is pointing toward her center. He is above her at the moment of her altered emotional state. And regardless of the historical wishes of the patrons who commissioned this work, it appears Bernini was intent on portraying ecstasy – regardless if the ecstasy came from spiritual or sexualHeavenly or Earthly, or tactile or cognitive sources or stimulations.The sculpture is a congress of the spiritual and the sexual.  The sculpture may often confuse those who wish only to see the spiritual.  And the sculpture may put a knowing expression on the faces of those who have experienced the sexual, the physical – the rush of tactile, emotional, and coital intoxication.” I see it as a beautiful work of art, with a mix of both religion and sensuality.

The Ecstasy of Saint Teresa, 1647-52

The final piece that I would like to discuss is Bernini’s Baldacchino over the high altar in St. Peter’s Basilica. This work is really part sculpture/part architecture, but I think it is worthy of including just for the sheer size as well as the interesting back story. Baldacchino basically translates into large canopy. It is very impressive to see, being over 95 ft tall and done in the bronze taken from the roof of the Pantheon. The base of the Baldacchino rest on four marble pedestals which feature the coat of arms of the Barbarini family, the family of the Pope (Urban VIII). The spiral columns are supposed to signify the column of Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem. According to this blog, “In the original fourth century church, the tomb and altar were surrounded by a ciborium of spiral columns called “Solomonic columns.” Some believe that these columns were the actual columns from Solomon’s Temple, later imported by Constantine. The four columns have also been said to represent the Four Evangelists. In Christian tradition, the Four Evangelists refer to authors of the four Gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.” The top part of the columns are decorated with olive and bay leaves, symbols of the Barbarini family, instead of the traditional grape vines. The top of the Baldacchino has four bronze angels at each corner of the canopy. There’s more to the design, but I’m trying to keep this post relatively short.

The interesting thing that I found out from that blog post was the use of bees, another symbol of the Barbarini family but also a spiritual one. I had never heard of bees as a spiritual symbol, so I investigated. According to this website, “bees, like the clergy and religious men and women in the Church, work unceasingly for the common good of the hive and obey without question their superiors, and above all their queen. The bee is also a symbol of wisdom, for it collects nectar from many flowers and turns it into nourishing and pleasing honey, which is the ‘gold’ of bees.  The symbolism of bees also signifies the way the Church generates her spiritual fruits because bees are virginal, they don’t have any sexual contact (1). As the Church gives grace through the purity of her divine Sacraments, so the bees give us honey and wax by the labor of their pure bodies. This is why their wax, considered the fruit of a virgin labor, is worthy to burn in the candles on the altar at the offering of the Holy Sacrifice.” Very interesting.

Baldacchino, 1624-33

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