Tuesday, 17 October 2017

History Book Review: African Zion: The Sacred Art of Ethiopia by Marilyn Heldman

Pros: deals with an under researched topic, lots of high quality images, excellent supporting information for catalogue items

Cons: parts are very dry and academic, a few catalogue items have no images, out of print

The book consists of the following chapters: 1) Introduction, 2) Dreaming of Jerusalem, 3) Ethiopia Revealed: Merchants, Travellers, and Scholars, 4) Church and State: 16th to 18th Centuries, 5) Ethiopic Literature, 6) Ethiopian Manuscripts and Paleography, 7) Linear Decoration in Ethiopian Manuscripts. 
After dealing with the background information, it continues with the Catalogue, consisting of 8) Maryam Seyon: Mary of Zion, 9) Aksumite Coinage, 10) the Heritage of Late Antiquity, 11) the Zagwe Dynasty: 1137-1270, 12) the Early Solomonic Period: 1270-1527, 13) the Late Solomaic Period: 1540-1769.

I found the introduction to be quite dry and academic. While the information was interesting, the delivery was such that I had trouble paying attention. This is followed by a section on Ethiopian contact with the outside world, that is, writings about Ethiopia by outsiders, which was quite interesting and engaging. Then follows several slightly more in depth chapters dealing with the Christian church in Ethiopia through the centuries. These give a bit more grounding in the monarchy and how it used the church to maintain cohesion and power. There’s a tiny bit of information on conflicts with Muslims and contact with Europe (and Jesuits) in later centuries. The chapters on literature and manuscripts were both very interesting. I was amazed by how many Ethiopian manuscripts have been preserved via microfilm and digitization, mainly by the HMML (Hill Museum and Manuscript Library). [If you’d like to see their collection, viewing manuscripts online requires a free account. Your application is reviewed by one of their librarians before being granted.] The final chapter before looking at the manuscripts themselves gives a cursory examination of harag decoration. Similar to Celtic knotwork in appearance, harag are “a type of illumination made of bands of colored lines interlaced in a geometrical pattern and used to frame the pages of Ethiopian manuscripts” (p.63). The artwork changed over the centuries.

The catalogue begins with a discussion of the importance of Mary, the mother of God, in Ethiopian devotion, and comprises numerous images of her. There are some comparison images that give local context for some of the elements (for example, a photo showing the entrance to a holy sanctuary with a checkered design around it that explains the checkered background for an icon of Mary). 

The second chapter of the catalogue goes over Aksumite coinage. I didn’t expect it to be as interesting as it was. It’s a great example of how historians must glean information from minimal sources. In this case, the Aksumite kingdom has left little trace, so much of what is known about their kings is due to their names on coins. The coins are shown to scale, which makes the images quite small and it’s sometimes hard to see details.

Most of the catalogue images are shown in colour on black backgrounds. The rest are inset with the descriptive text in black and white. In some cases more than one image of an object is used (both sides of a processional cross, several manuscript pages) but not always. With manuscripts, all of the miniatures are mentioned, even if only a few pages are displayed. Similarly, in cases where only one side of a double sided object is shown, the other side is described in the text. I love how some entries have supplementary images to help show how different aspects of art influence each other. Unfortunately, in a few cases images of the catalogue items themselves are omitted.

While there are a few things I disliked about this volume, on the whole it’s an exceptional collection of Ethiopian sacred artworks. It’s a real shame that this book, created for a specific exhibition, is now out of print, because it’s a much needed look at a rarely studied country. Ethiopia doesn’t get much mention in medieval (my focus) or other history textbooks, so this is a brilliant addition for anyone wanting to expand their understanding about the rich history and artistic traditions of this amazing country, if - like me - you can find it used.

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