Tuesday, 8 October 2019

Book Review: Hidden Treasures of Ethiopia by Maria-Jose Friedlander and Bob Friedlander

Pros: beautiful photographs, incredibly detailed descriptions of all of the paintings, good background information

Cons: not enough photographs

This is a photographic travelogue of a series of remote churches in Ethiopia. The first three chapters are background information: The Architecture of the Churches, Ethiopian Christianity and Saints, and The Jesuit Interlude. These help you understand the context and material discussed in the following three chapters: The Churches of Tigray (detailing eleven churches), The Gondarine Churches (three churches) and The Churches near Lalibela (three churches). As appendices the book has a chronology of Ethiopian royalty and the Ethiopian calendar (which differs significantly from the Gregorian calendar the Western world uses).

When I bought it I wasn’t sure what churches were covered, so I was disappointed that some of the ones I was looking for (like the main Lalibela complex) did not appear here.

Ethiopian Christianity is practiced differently than Christianity elsewhere in the world, having closer contact with Judaism before being effectively cut off from other Christian nations for centuries. This allowed it to remain largely unchanged until the present day, despite efforts by Jesuits to convert them to Catholicism and Muslim invasions. I greatly enjoyed the first chapters of the book, which taught me a lot of useful terms as well as stories of local saints I was unfamiliar with.

For the churches, if there’s significant paintings, the authors put in numbered diagrams with explanations of what image is where for each wall, then more detailed information - including Biblical quotations and more descriptions of saints lives - in order to understand the stories being presented. There’s a wealth of information here that’s sadly lessened by the fact that there are so few pictures. Quite often I would read a description and want to see the painting only to find it wasn’t included in the handful of images each church received.

The pictures that are included are gorgeous and cover a wide range of religious subjects (so you’re not getting only Virgin and Child pictures from each church). I was very happy to discover that for a few churches the authors included images and descriptions of a few of that churches’ treasures, publishing photos of a few manuscript photos, one fan, some metal processional crosses, etc.

On the whole it feels like this book is designed to be used in situ, with each chapter explaining how to get to the church in question. Alas, most readers will never have the chance to visit these edifices, though if you can find a book with more photos of the interiors, this book would be indispensable for identifying the subjects in question.

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