Pictures of health Art: Ethiopian scrolls, meant to scare demons from the body of a patient, make up an intriguing, if difficult, show at the Walters.

October 11, 1997|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,SUN ART CRITIC

They look as old as the Middle Ages and as young as the 20th century. And the concept behind them may sound strange, but it's really no stranger than saying, "God bless you."

"Art That Heals," the exhibit opening at the Walters Art Gallery tomorrow, features centuries-old Ethiopian scrolls, made of words and images meant to magically combat illness.

With their colorful hand-drawn pictures and handwritten text, the scrolls are like the medieval manuscripts in the Walters' own world-renowned collection. Their symbols, which look childlike and mysteriously arcane at the same time, resemble the mixture of naivete and sophistication that characterized the paintings of the early 20th-century surrealist-influenced artist Paul Klee.

But despite their often charming figures and their parallels to modern and medieval art, these scrolls are esoteric and make for an exhibit difficult to become involved in. In this case, familiarity breeds interest. Those who stay with the show will find themselves more responsive as it unfolds. But it's not the visual equivalent of a page-turner.

It helps that the show, organized by the Museum for African Art in New York, includes other Ethiopian works such as crosses, books and paintings. The Walters installation makes effective use of lighting, and supplements the New York show with some of its own Ethiopian art, a recent collecting interest of the gallery.

It also helps that the concept behind these healing scrolls, broadly speaking, is not unfamiliar: People still light candles before religious images and say prayers to help themselves or others in need; many people still carry charms to ward off bad luck.

In Ethiopia, where Christianity has been practiced since the fourth century, clerics with secret knowledge have long made protective scrolls. Measuring several feet long by a few inches wide, each scroll is a melange of talismanic pictures representing historical figures such as Solomon and Alexander the Great, stylized birds and animals, semi-abstract symbols including eyes and crosses, and text written in Ge'ez, a language of Ethiopia.

As the show's clearly written texts explain, the scrolls are created to fight a particular disease afflicting a particular person.

The process, like the art, is esoteric. A sick woman, for example, gives a cleric her name and her mother's name. The cleric uses numerology based on the letters of the names to find the woman's zodiac sign. This in turn enables the cleric to read her horoscope and determine the right words and talismanic pictures for the scroll.

A sheep or goat is then sacrificed (the animal's death is considered a substitute for the woman's) and the animal's skin is made into parchment for the scroll. "The parchment prepared from the animal's hide doubles for the patient's skin," writes curator Jacques Mercier. "Thus there is an intimate, even mirror-like link between the patient and his scroll."

The scroll is made as tall as the woman to protect the whole body, and sometimes long enough to wrap over her head and better protect it. Once the cleric has covered the parchment with pictures and text, it may be carried or hung up in the house.

The staring eyes that are a prominent feature of scrolls are particularly important. A sick person is considered to be possessed by a spirit or demon and the scroll is supposed to exorcise it. When looking at the scroll, the patient goes into a trance, meeting the gaze of the scroll's eyes. The spirit, looking through the patient's eyes, sees the eyes and other images on the scroll and is frightened into leaving the patient's body.

Once the patient has been cured, the scroll is no longer needed. Its purpose is not to guard against all illness but to cure one specific illness. Thus many scrolls have been discarded, but the two dozen in this show come from the 18th and 19th as well as the 20th century.

One of the more striking is one of the oldest, an 18th-century scroll topped with an image of an elaborate cross. The three-lobed cross arms sprout other cross images, there are circles with crosses in them between the arms. Angels at the bottom of the picture hold more crosses. Altogether, this image contains 24 crosses. The style of representation, known as geometric, dates to the 15th century, but by the 18th had fallen from fashion except in scroll production.

Another 18th century scroll shows King Solomon with a labyrinthine palace. The palace, which protected its inhabitants from wild animals outside, symbolized protection against impure spirits.

Other drawings are more abstract. One 19th-century scroll repeats a pattern of rosettes, lozenges and crosses related to both Christian and Islamic art.

The healing scroll is still used today in Ethiopia. But in recent years some modern clerics have carried Ethiopian talismanic art in new directions. Crowded talismanic paintings by two living figures, Gera and Gedewon, contain multitudes of images and resemble visionary art.

Gedewon's "Hanos" is named after a mythical sea, and its multicolored faces represent spirits that dwell in different places: green for where there are aquatic plants, yellow for where flowers bloom, blue for water and ravines. While its symbolism may derive from the past, here and there are leaves that could have been drawn by Matisse. So, like the scrolls, it recalls the distant past and the art of our own time.

'Art That Heals'

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

When: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Wednesdays through Fridays, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays, through Dec. 14

Admission: $6 adults, 44 seniors, $3 students, $2 ages 6 through 17

Call: 410-547-9000

Pub Date: 10/11/97

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