Art: Huge-eyed saints star out from the examples of Christian Ethiopian art acquired by the Walters. Their unflinching gaze tells a centuries-long story of spiritual devotion.


August 11, 1996|By Mike Giuliano | Mike Giuliano,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

There is a timeless integrity to the Orthodox Christian art of Ethiopia, as its iconic images stare us down through the %J centuries. Make eye contact with them and it's hard to look away.

Although this art is rarely encountered other than in the museums, churches and monasteries of Ethiopia itself, Baltimoreans were fortunate when the exhibit "African Zion: The Sacred Art of Ethiopia" came to the Walters Art Gallery in 1993.

Our good fortune is no longer fleeting, as the Walters' purchase of 17 panel paintings, brass processional crosses, illuminated manuscripts and coins from the 13th through 18th centuries enables the museum to showcase this art within the context of the iconic art it already owns in the Byzantine, Russian and early Italian traditions.

This acquisition is large enough to allow us to see how Ethiopian artists developed their basic devotional forms.

The Ethiopian processional cross, for instance, was subject to modification. A 12th- or 13th-century processional cross with leaf-evocative forms surrounding the central cross makes a powerfully simple symbolic statement about life growing out of death.

By contrast, an 18th-century cross has much of its surface covered with incised scenes of Mary and her Son, various saints and stories from the Crucifixion and Resurrection. Its storytelling function must have impressed churchgoers who watched this cross as it was carried around.

The iconic painted panels also tell stories. These diptych and triptych formats generally rely on a large central image of Mary and her Son flanked by images of saints and scenes from the life of Christ. One saint you can count on seeing repeatedly is St. George riding a horse. For Ethiopian nobles roaming their highland holdings on horseback, St. George held obvious equestrian appeal.

Although these icons certainly were subject to stylistic shifts in how figuration and coloration were handled over the period covered by the Walters' acquisitions, little changes in terms of the lineup of saints and scenes depicted.

Likewise constant is the directness with which the saints face us. Their eyes are huge. If the eye can be thought of as the window to the soul, these figures are primed for spiritual communication.

But there's no need to be intimidated by figures who gaze our way so unflinchingly, because moments of great tenderness also appear in Ethiopian art.

An early 16th-century triptych of Mary with her Son, Christ teaching the Apostles, scenes from the life of Christ, and SS. George and Mercurius has a high enough population count to keep our eyes occupied as we take them all in. We naturally gravitate to Mary, whose robe has so many folds and abstract patterns that it seems like an individual garment rather than a generic holy robe. And Mary has the sad expression of a mother fated to know dramatic loss.

There's also a keen sense of dramatic construction in a 17th-century triptych depicting Mary and her son, Christ teaching the Apostles, the Crucifixion and Entombment, the raising of Adam and Eve, and SS. Sebastian, Honorius, Takla Haymanot, Ewostatewos and the ubiquitous George.

What really stands out in this large dramatic roster is the Crucifixion scene, in which angels collect the dying Christ's blood as it drips from his ankles and wrists into their waiting chalices.

Most Ethiopian paintings were done on wood panels, but the Walters also has a rare liturgical fan from around 1500. Its vellum surface is painted with a holy sequence of Mary, the archangels, Apostles and prophets. This fan originally would have been waved over the communion cup during the liturgy to keep flies away.

Also remarkable is an illustrated Gospel from the early 14th century that is a copy of a lost original from the sixth century. This illuminated manuscript offers early looks at the Holy Land. Most notable are two facing pages that show the Crucifixion and women gathered at Christ's tomb.

There is no body on the jeweled cross, though a Lamb of God symbolizing Christ's triumph over death stands above the cross. It is known that such a cross stood in the chapel of Golgotha in Jerusalem in the sixth century.

The tomb scene incorporates columns and a dome that represent Jerusalem's Holy Sepulcher in the sixth century. These landmarks of earliest Christianity were destroyed in 614. But leave it to tradition-conscious, medieval Ethiopian artists to ensure that such images survive.

Ethiopian art

Where: Walters Art Gallery, 600 N. Charles St.

When: Opens Wednesday. Gallery hours are 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays. Admission charge except Saturdays before noon.

$ Call: (410) 547-9000

Pub Date: 8/11/96

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