Sacred Mysteries: Ancient Ethiopian echoes of Roman antiquity –

by Zelalem

In full-page illuminations, on coloured backgrounds, golden-haloed, large-eyed Sts Matthew, Luke and John stand, holding their Gospels in one hand respectfully cloaked in their bright vestments, the other hand held in blessing. St Mark, in a classical cloak and tunic, sits in a chair covered in a leopard-skin pattern (pictured here). His dress, we learn, resembles that worn by Virgil in a third-century mosaic found at Sousse, Tunisia. More familiarly, these are the clothes that Abraham wears in the sixth-century mosaics at San Vitale in Ravenna.

A magnificent study, The Garima Gospels, has been edited by Judith S McKenzie and Francis Watson, with lots of colour photographs of the manuscripts taken in Ethiopia by Michael Gervers, who found them in a “deplorable condition”, since improved.

This art might not be what some expect out of Africa. But Ethiopia, worshipping in its own ancient language of Ge’ez (in which these Gospel books are written), took much from the Church of Alexandria. This accounts for another surprising element in the decoration of these manuscripts. 

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