Some of the oldest and most striking Christian art in existence is now on view in New York at the Museum of Biblical Art. Visitors to Angels of Light: Ethiopian Art from the Walters Art Museum said they were fascinated at its glimpse into a distinctive medieval Christian culture in sub-Saharan Africa.
The Ethiopian paintings, manuscripts and crosses on display at the Museum of Biblical Art are all on loan from the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, Maryland. Gary Vican, director of the Walters, visited New York for the opening of the exhibit, and said the works are as significant as more familiar early Christian art from Byzantium, Italy and Northern Europe.
"What makes this different from those is it's virtually unknown,” he said. “And it's not unknown because it's lesser. It's unknown simply because it was from a faraway place and it tended to stay in that faraway place."
Westerners and Africans alike may assume that missionaries brought Christianity to Africa. Vican said that’s true, but they came from the Middle East, not Europe. And they were in Africa long before the 19th century.
"The missionaries we're talking about were in the fourth century,” he said. “So, when Constantine was still bowing down to Jupiter up there in Rome, here in the heart of the Horn of Africa, people were practicing Christianity. And probably most people don't know, and would in fact be very surprised to learn, that the first empire to put the cross on their coins was Ethiopia.”
Vican says vibrant colors and simple design are hallmarks of Ethiopian Christian painting. "The other thing that's very striking about Ethiopian icons is the eyes,” he said. “They're huge, and the pupils are black and round. So, there's a kind of penetrating quality that's without parallel. There's nothing exactly like that."
The crosses of Ethiopia also are unlike those of other Christian cultures, with lace-like loops and swirls reminiscent of Islamic art. But the precise influences have not yet been traced out, Vican said, because the scholarly study of Ethiopian Christian art began only recently.
"The first Ethiopian exhibition of any dimension took place at my museum, I'm very proud to say, in 1993,” he said. “Can you imagine that? And these things have been around for centuries. So, it's opening a whole new chapter, a whole new book, in the history of medieval culture. And what is so amazing about Ethiopia is it is a living tradition. Right now in Ethiopia people are still doing manuscripts on vellum. No place else in the Christian world is this still practiced."