Listen to the article
Shared iconographic canons are evident among diverse Christian traditions, reflecting their common roots and themes. However, a particularly strong connection emerges between the Ethiopian and Syriac heritages, due to the influential presence of evangelizers and missionaries in Ethiopia. Furthermore, the linguistic proximity between Ge’ez and Syriac, both belonging to the Semitic language family, has fostered and deepened certain artistic similarities. At the heart of this rich iconographic tradition lies the Syriac Maronite Gospel of Rabbula.
The historical encounter between Ethiopia and Lebanon unfolded within the context of evangelization and the integration of Christianity into Ethiopian culture. This significant interaction commenced in the 4th century with the arrival of Frumentius of Tyre, whose missionary efforts laid the foundation for the Christian faith in Ethiopia. In the following century, the arrival of Syriac monks further deepened the cultural exchange between these two regions. The influence of these Syriac monks cannot be disregarded, as they played a pivotal role in the development of Ethiopian monasticism and the translation of Ge’ez literature. This influence is particularly discernible in the canons and iconographic themes.
In Ethiopian artistic depictions, figures are presented within self-contained compositions framed by arches supported by columns. This artistic convention draws inspiration from a broader Christian tradition, with its origins traced back to the Syriac Maronite Gospel of Rabbula, also known as the Codex Rabulensis. This ancient manuscript, dating back to 586, is currently safeguarded in Florence, cataloged as Laur. Plut. I. 56. The concept of utilizing arches as a visual framework was initially conceptualized by Bishop Eusebius of Caesarea (+340). His aim was to establish a standardized structure that would harmonize the four Gospels within a cohesive narrative.
Eusebius has developed a systematic approach to organizing the Gospel texts through the implementation of numbered verses. His method involved grouping together verses where two, three, or all four evangelists recounted the same event. These compiled lists of numbered verses were then arranged between two columns, forming arches that gave birth to a unique architectural structure. This architectural design became closely associated with concordance tables known as Eusebian Canons.
These arches symbolically envelop the characters and bestow upon humanity a renewed sense of dignity, positioning them within a timeless sphere. Within this context, the Codex Rabulensis played a significant role in defining the physiognomy of the apostles, a visual code that resonated across Eastern and Western regions, enduring until the Middle Ages. Jules Leroy highlights the depiction of “Mark and Luke in their prime, while Matthew is portrayed as an elderly figure.” Everything adheres to principles of frontal depiction, conveying a sense of immobility, spirituality, and a hieratic style.
The Apostles and Evangelists stand within an intricately designed arcade supported by slender columns. This whimsical architectural setting is adorned with a rich tapestry of pagan iconography, ranging from the symbolic Tree of Life to graceful birds, flowing fountains, interlacing patterns, and confrontational depictions of various animals. It is fascinating to observe the striking resemblances between examples found in different Christian traditions. For instance, the posture of Saint Luke in the Ethiopian manuscript of Kebran (Kebran Gabriel Monastery, 1420) strongly echoes that of Saint John in the Maronite Syriac manuscript of Rabbula. Both figures are depicted seated and leaning towards the right, diligently transcribing their respective Gospels.
On the left: Saint Luke engrossed in writing within a small shrine. Ethiopian manuscript of Kebran, dated 1420. Photo: Ethiopia-Painted Manuscripts, New York Graphic Society – UNESCO 1961. On the right: Saint John, positioned on the left niche, diligently writing his Gospel, while Saint Matthew sits on the right. Syriac Maronite manuscript of Rabbula Laur, dated 586. (Laurentian Medicean Library, Florence).
Both manuscripts showcase a captivating design, characterized by concentric arches adorned with exquisite diamond-shaped patterns or swastikas. The inclusion of delicate ornamental flourishes and the presence of gracefully depicted birds elevate the aesthetic charm of these shrines.
In addition to this prevailing architectural style, grandiose depictions of scenes from the life of Christ complement the ensemble. Among the most awe-inspiring compositions are those portraying the Dormition, the Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem, the Crucifixion, the Resurrection, and the Ascension.
The Dormition of the Mother of God is portrayed with a captivating theatrical flair in two remarkable artworks. One is the medieval fresco of Saint Charbel in Maad, dating back to the 12th-13th century, while the other is the manuscript Bar-Jul. Eth.5, created in the 18th-19th century, which beautifully recounts the story of Saint Mary. In both instances, the central composition elegantly presents a symmetrical arrangement, highlighting the reclined figure of the Virgin in accordance with the established iconographic tradition. Encircling her are the apostles, with Saint Peter positioned at her head and Saint Paul at her feet. Notably, in the lower part of the scene, the Archangel Michael swiftly intervenes, severing the arm of Jephonias, who had sought to disturb the peaceful tranquility of the Virgin. These exquisite Lebanese and Ethiopian artworks skillfully depict the characters with stylized expressions of anguish, their hands reaching towards their faces, effectively conveying the profound depth of their sorrow.
In the Ethiopian manuscript of Kebran (1420), the arrival of Jesus in Jerusalem is vividly depicted, capturing the scene of jubilant crowds joyfully welcoming Him. They wave palm branches and spread their garments along His path. This portrayal of Palm Sunday can also be found in different Christian traditions, including the Maronite Syriac manuscript Syr. 118 housed in the Vatican Apostolic Library.
The manuscript is a part of the Homilies by Jacob of Sarug, originating from the Tenth and Eleventh centuries. Likewise, in the Kebran manuscript, the apostles are portrayed as a unified group, distinguished by multiple halos. It is noteworthy that, in both instances, the individuals laying their garments on the ground are depicted on a smaller scale compared to the apostles, emphasizing the subordinate significance.
Within the Codex Rabulensis, the Crucifixion is presented in the upper section of a folio, which also features the Resurrection. The characteristic stepped frame, commonly found in Syriac art, is evident in the Armenian and Ethiopian iconographies as well. Another representation of the Crucifixion can be found in the 15th century Ethiopian manuscript of Kebran. In this symmetrical composition, we witness the presence of two thieves. And on the left side, a legionnaire with a lance is piercing the side of the Christ, while the other holds a sponge soaked in vinegar on the right.
In both the Syriac and Ethiopian examples, we notice the emergence of the two celestial bodies. Saint Ephrem suggests that they serve as witnesses to the divinity of the Christ for the sun and His humanity for the moon. Jules Leroy further notes that the Crucifixion “of Kebran perfectly aligns with the Byzantine pattern, originating from a Syriac manuscript dating back to 586” (the Codex Rabulensis).
In both the Syriac and Ethiopian examples found in the Codex Rabulensis and Kebran, the theme of the Ascension is depicted through a grand composition divided into two distinct sections. In the upper section, we encounter a portrayal of the Christ enclosed within a mandorla, cradled by two angels. Surrounding Him are cherubim wings that unveil the four Evangelical symbols: the lion representing Mark, the eagle symbolizing John, the bull representing Luke, and the visage symbolizing Matthew.
The lower register upholds the symmetry observed in the upper register. Positioned at the center is Mary, accompanied by six apostles on each side. Remarkably, in the Rabulensis example, the group on the right prominently embodies the iconographic traits of Saint Peter, while in the group on the left, Saint Paul is distinguishable through his bald head and bearded countenance. In both the Kebran manuscript and the Syriac model, a sense of dynamic movement permeates among the apostles, who stand as witnesses to the momentous event. Several of them extend their hands towards the heavens, symbolically acknowledging the presence of the Christ.
These iconographic canons are shared across all Christian traditions. However, a close affinity arises between the Ethiopian and Syriac heritages, thanks to the significant contributions of evangelizers and missionaries in Ethiopia. Furthermore, the proximity between the Semitic languages of Ge’ez and Syriac has further bolstered these similarities.