Gospel Book
Getty Conversations

Did you know that Ethiopia has one of the longest standing traditions of Christian practice in the world?


A conversation with Kelin Michael, Graduate Curatorial Intern, Manuscripts, Getty Museum and Dr. Beth Harris, Executive Director, Smarthistory, in front of Gospel Book, c. 1504–05, Ethiopian. Tempera, 34.5 x 26.5 cm, Ms. 102, 2008.15. Getty Museum, Los Angeles.

Did you know that Ethiopia has one of the longest standing traditions of Christian practice in the world? Let’s explore this Gospel Book, which dates to the early 1500s, and includes textiles, illuminations, and details that tell of travel, trade, and diaspora.

Getty has joined forces with Smarthistory to bring you an in-depth look at select works within our collection, whether you’re looking to learn more at home or want to make art more accessible in your classroom. This six-part video series illuminates art history concepts through fun, unscripted conversations between art historians, curators, archaeologists, and artists, committed to a fresh take on the history of visual arts.

Additional resources

View this work on the Getty Museum’s website

Bryan Keene, Toward a Global Middle Ages: Encountering the World through Illuminated Manuscripts (Getty Publications, 2019)

Eyob Derillo, “Textiles in Ethiopian Manuscripts at the British Library,” British Library Collections blog (December, 17 2021)

Digitized manuscript collection of the 15th-century Ethiopian monastery at Gunda Gunde (University of Toronto)

Taddesse Tamrat,  “Some Notes on the Fifteenth Century Stephanite ‘Heresy” in the Ethiopian Church,” Rassegna Di Studi Etiopici, vol. 22 (1966), pp. 103–15

Eyob Derillo, A short introduction to the Ethiopian manuscripts collection in the British Library (video).

Smarthistory images for teaching and learning:

[flickr_tags user_id=”82032880@N00″ tags=”geez,”]

More Smarthistory images…

[0:00] [music]

Dr. Beth Harris: [0:04] We’re in the Manuscript and Drawing Study Room at the Getty Center.

Kelin Michael: [0:08] What we’re looking at is an Ethiopian Gospel book from the early 16th century. A Gospel book is a compilation of the four books of the Gospel written by Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.

Dr. Harris: [0:20] We’re going to start with a special page, an image of the Virgin and Child enthroned.

Kelin: [0:26] It’s a full-page illumination, so it has a sense of importance.

Dr. Harris: [0:30] It’s interesting to consider this book, because when we think about Christian manuscript traditions, we too often just think about Europe and not about this amazing tradition in Ethiopia.

Kelin: [0:41] Ethiopia has a very long tradition of Christianity.

Dr. Harris: [0:45] The context for this manuscript is the Solomonic dynasty, and this time we have an emperor, Zara Yakub, who is especially interested in the Virgin Mary, both personally but also interested in promoting her during the liturgy. There is a book about the miracles of the Virgin Mary that was important during this time.

Kelin: [1:08] That was in the mid-15th century. This manuscript is from the very early 16th century, so it demonstrates how that tradition impacted Ethiopian manuscripts over a period of time. What’s interesting about this page is that there’s a fabric piece over the Virgin and Child, so at first you don’t see the Virgin and Child.

Dr. Harris: [1:26] We can imagine a priest, perhaps during the liturgy, moving through this book and then revealing the Virgin Mary.

Kelin: [1:34] This particular manuscript, we don’t know exactly where it came from, but there are about seven manuscripts in this style that we know are from the Gunda Gundé Monastery.

Dr. Harris: [1:43] What I’m noticing are very rounded forms, from the Virgin Mary’s face, even her forearm looks like a large oval, these elongated almond-shaped eyes, this rounded throne, and this flattening of the forms with a lot of decorative patterning.

Kelin: [2:03] This two-dimensional effect is given by the flat application of color. In some other manuscripts, you might see some more shading to give a sense of volume, but here the pigment’s applied to have a very striking design and geometric effect.

Dr. Harris: [2:19] It’s the textiles that lend her a sense of royalty, this image of her as the queen of heaven.

Kelin: [2:26] The designs on the textiles often evoke patterns that are found on textiles that were imported into Ethiopia.

Dr. Harris: [2:35] The Virgin is situated within this architectural space, and then on either side, we see angels bearing swords.

Kelin: [2:43] The two figures are the archangels Michael and Gabriel. They’re holding swords because they’re serving as protectors.

Dr. Harris: [2:50] Some art historians have seen these angels bearing swords as reflecting the practices in the court of the emperor himself, that there would’ve been armed guards on either side. And so a parallel between the earthly court of the emperor and the heavenly court of Mary and the Christ Child.

[3:11] This is such an interesting moment in the history of Ethiopia, because the emperors of the 15th century were sending out diplomatic missions to parts of Europe, to what is today Spain, to what is today Italy, looking to visit special religious sites, but also bring back craftsmen to beautify Ethiopian churches.

[3:33] What makes this manuscript so unique is the presence of Mary here, right at the beginning of the manuscript. We know that’s partly due to Zara Yakub, but there’s a wider context of the monastery that likely this was from, which was Stephanite. That is, a reform order that criticized the extent of the emperor’s veneration of the Virgin Mary, and yet here she is at the very front of this manuscript.

Kelin: [3:59] Even though the Stephanites criticized Zara Yakub, the tradition of putting the Virgin Mary in the front of these still remains after his rule.

Dr. Harris: [4:07] There are other marvelous things about this book. In addition to the veiled image of the Virgin and Child, we have canon tables that help the reader to follow the story of the life of Christ through the various books of the Gospels.

[4:23] I’m really fascinated by the geometric patterning but especially the interlacing at the top of the canon tables.

Kelin: [4:30] The interlace that’s used, both on top of the canon table pages — also on the facing pages of the evangelist portraits — are something that is very Ethiopian but is also used in other traditions as well.

Dr. Harris: [4:44] Let’s look at one of the author pages.

Kelin: [4:47] Here we’re looking at John. At the top of the page, we have an inscription written in Ge’ez, the official liturgical language of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. This portrait of John is in a long line of author portraits that appear in manuscripts across Europe and into Ethiopia and through Byzantium as well. It features the evangelist writing their Gospel.

[5:10] Here we have John seated. He has all of his writing implements, stylus, probably a reed pen in his hand. He has his inkwell and perhaps his pigments.

Dr. Harris: [5:19] He has this large round golden halo that is so large it interrupts the frame above him. His body is composed of these very broad, rounded forms that almost look like his body is encased in a halo.

Kelin: [5:35] It also looks like he’s enveloped in those luxurious textiles. Another place where these textiles show up are paste-downs that are in the front and back covers of these manuscripts.

[5:46] This has one of these paste-downs. We’re not exactly sure when this textile dates from, but it does show this tradition of using foreign, imported textiles to decorate these books.

[5:57] Often these imported textiles were worn by the elite in Ethiopia to show their wealth, and so having a little swatch of this fabric in these Gospel books endows this book with that same luxury.

[6:08] [music]

Cite this page as: Kelin Michael, "Gospel Book
Getty Conversations," in Smarthistory, March 28, 2022, accessed July 19, 2024, https://smarthistory.org/gospel-book-getty-conversations/.