Ethiopia Illustrated: Manuscripts and Painting in Ethiopia – Examples from the Seventeenth to the Nineteenth Century

The newly published anthology Ethiopia Illustrated: Church Paintings, Maps and Drawings is a result of my appointment as Associate Fellow of the Ethiopian Academy of Sciences in 2017. The suggestion was aired to publish a volume with my research articles on Ethiopian manuscripts and paintings, which had previously appeared in a variety of journals accessible to readerships in Europe and North America, but which were not easily accessible in Ethiopia. Such a project necessitated obtaining permission to republish the articles, which fortunately was quickly forthcoming. But it also necessitated obtaining funding to print not only seven articles, but also no fewer than 146 illustrations in one volume. The Ethiopian Academy Press was keen to do so, but asked if financial assistance was available.

It was at this juncture that to my delight the German Historical Institute London came to the rescue. There were fortuitous connections after all: two chapters in the anthology deal with Georg Wilhelm Schimper, the German botanist whose two manuscript books—now kept in the British Library in London—were published in a digital format by the Institute in 2015, edited by Andreas Gestrich, Stefan Hanß, and myself. With financial help from the GHIL, the Ethiopian Academy Press was able to move forward with the project.

This new volume bears the fruit of some twenty-five field trips I undertook in Ethiopia over the years, where I visited churches and studied their wall paintings and the books in their care—among them the so-called Miracles of Mary, Christian gospels, and the books of Revelation. This work complemented my analysis of manuscripts by European scientists, craftspeople, artists, and explorers who had worked in Ethiopia, and whose records are now kept in archives and collections in Europe. Such a breadth of topics necessitated the assistance of a number of experts. Research in Ethiopia required a great deal of help with photographing churches, paintings, and manuscripts, for example. I was also fortunate to be able to rely on experts on Amharic and the church language Ge’ez, on local coinage, the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church, and religious and genealogical history.

Those great collections of manuscript and pictorial materials, the British Library and the British Museum in London; the Institute of Ethiopian Studies of the University of Addis Ababa; the DEEDS Project in Toronto with its database of photographs from Ethiopia; the German Historical Institute London; the Austrian Embassy in Addis Ababa; the congregation of the Daughters of Charity in Addis Ababa; a number of private collections in Europe and Ethiopia; and colleagues at the Warburg Institute in London were all extremely generous with their time, providing helpful bibliographical references, financial assistance, and practical support with publication and travel permissions.

These acknowledgements are important, as I hope they give an idea of how difficult it is to produce academic work on topics like those presented in Ethiopia Illustrated. But the aim was always clear. As Shiferaw Bekele notes in his foreword (vii-ix), this ‘very laudable initiative’ is meant to make essays by senior scholars ‘available to Ethiopian researchers and university students, who could not easily get access to materials put out by prestigious scientific journals across the world.’

The volume makes available seven articles grouped in two parts—the first analysing art produced by Ethiopian artists on sacred topics, and the second discussing the botanist Georg Wilhelm Schimper’s map-making and the draughtsman Eduard Zander’s pictorial representations of scenes of everyday life in mid nineteenth-century Ethiopia. Each chapter is richly illustrated, presenting paintings alongside commentaries on their religious, social, and historical contexts.

Chapter one, ‘An Ethiopian Crucifixion: A Pictorial Interpretation of the Passion and Crucifixion of Christ and the Triumphs and Tribulations of the Metropolitan Abunä Sälama III’, presents a painted biography of Abunä Sälama, the metropolitan bishop of Ethiopia from 1841 to his death as a prisoner of the Ethiopian emperor in 1867. The pictures tell a unique story, combining the religious message of the death of Christ with events in Sälama’s life in Ethiopia (Fig. 1).

Fig. 1: An Ethiopian Crucifixion scene in a painted biography of Abunä Sälama, p. 3.

Chapter two, ‘The Pictorial Representation of Equestrian Saints and Their Victims: A Case Study of St. Claudius and Sebetat’, is an in-depth investigation of a composite creature called a ‘Sebetat’—a hybrid monster with the head of a human, the body of a lion, and one or two snakes as its tail, with no equivalent in European bestiaries. Sebetat is an evil-doer, although we are not told what he has done. He is often depicted under the hooves of richly caparisoned horses ridden by St. Claudius or sometimes St. Victor—both noble-born martyrs and saints wearing beautiful clothes. The Ethiopian Orthodox Church has a whole cavalry of military saints, who gallop on the north wall of painted churches—the men’s wall—and trample their enemies (Fig. 2).

Fig. 2: ‘How St. Gelawdewos Killed the Sobäd’at’, wall painting, Narga Sellase Church, p. 48.

Chapter three, ‘The Wall Paintings of Däräsge Maryam Church, in the Sämen Mountains, Ethiopia, and in particular the Painted Procession on the East Wall’, focuses on the lowest register of the paintings on the east wall of this important church. From the early nineteenth century onwards, painted churches showed not only religious scenes, but also historico-political interpretations of local events. In Däräsge Maryam, the paintings on the lowest register show a procession of political agents and their adversaries; the new emperor; ecclesiastical dignitaries and their acolytes, musicians, and so on; and possibly the first ever visit of a Coptic Patriarch to Ethiopia, that of Cyril IV in 1856 (Fig. 3).

Fig. 3: Emperor Tewodros II, the abbot of Däbrä Libanos Wäldä Maryam, the metropolitan bishop Abunä Sälama, wall painting, Däräsge Maryam Church, p. 76.

Chapter four, ‘Contacts and Comparisons: The Illuminations of the Gospel according to Luke in the Tetraevangelium of Märtula Maryam’, delights us with paintings of gospel scenes created c.1655—some two hundred years before the paintings we see in the chapters. The scene is instantly recognizable, despite the Ethiopianized treatment (Fig. 4).

Fig. 4: ‘The Messiah Enters Jerusalem’, Luke 19:28–38, manuscript painting, p. 121.

The next three chapters turn to secular topics. They introduce two Germans, Georg Wilhelm Schimper and Eduard Zander, who lived in Ethiopia for forty and thirty years respectively.

Fig. 5: Map of the eastern shore of Lake Tana, p. 146.

Schimper collected plant specimens, dried them, and sent them to European herbaria and collections. His work forms the largest corpus of Ethiopian plant specimens to date. He was also an acute observer of the country’s geology, geography, mineralogy, meteorology, ethnography, food production, healing customs, and politics. His two manuscript books have been published online.1 Chapter five, ‘Botanist and Explorer, Geologist and Mapmaker in Northern Ethiopia 1837 to 1878’, introduces the reader to Schimper’s work, his life in Ethiopia, his scientific methods, family life, and map-making processes (Fig. 5), while Chapter six, ‘The Region of Adwa and Begemder on the Manuscript Maps of 1864/65 by G. W. Schimper’, is a case study of Schimper’s meticulous research notes (Fig. 6).

Fig. 6: Page from Schimper’s manuscript book and pen sketch of the rock formations of mountains in Tegray, p. 170.

Chapter seven, ‘Eduard Zander, His Life and Work in Ethiopia, 1847–1868’ then introduces the artist Eduard Zander (1813–1868). He was a trained painter and draughtsman who made pen and ink drawings of scenes of everyday life, which are kept in the British Museum, London. His catalogue raisonné was published by me in 2018.2 Many of his drawings were sent to Germany from Ethiopia in the nineteenth century, but were lost in the Second World War. His 1859 treatise on agriculture has survived along with around 100 drawings, some of them only as engravings in published books. His sketchbook has also survived and is kept in the British Museum’s Department of Prints and Drawings (Fig. 7).

Fig. 7: Drawing of Abyssinian women in Däräsge Maryam, among them Zander’s second wife, 1853, p. 200.

The sacred paintings and secular maps and drawings thus bring together facets of intellectual life in Ethiopia, a country with an old culture of painting and writing. It is to be hoped that despite political uncertainties, this beautifully produced, yet inexpensive volume will help Ethiopians to study their own culture and Europeans to understand Ethiopia that much better. Since Ethiopia is regretfully still somewhat cut off from the international book market, accessing the volume outside Ethiopia is difficult. If you wish to obtain a copy, feel free to contact the author at dorothea.mcewan@sas.ac.uk.


The featured image shows part of the cover of Ethiopia Illustrated, whose illustration shows the wall painting on the east wall, lowest register, at Däräsge Maryam Church. Photographs courtesy of Dorothea McEwan.

  1. Andreas Gestrich, Dorothea McEwan, and Stefan Hanß (eds.), Georg Wilhelm Schimper—In Abyssinia: Observations on Tigre (London, 2015), at [http://exist.ghil.ac.uk:8079/Schimper/index.html], accessed 24 May 2021. []
  2. Dorothea McEwan (ed.), Eduard Zander: His Life and Work in Ethiopia, 1847–1868 (Dessau, 2018). []

Published by

Dorothea McEwan

She is Honorary Fellow of the University of London, first and long-time archivist at The Warburg Institute, and has been elected member of the Ethiopian Academy of Sciences in recognition of her impressive publication record and outstanding contribution to research in the intersection of religious history and art in Ethiopia in 2017.

One thought on “Ethiopia Illustrated: Manuscripts and Painting in Ethiopia – Examples from the Seventeenth to the Nineteenth Century”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.