Ethiopian Art in Swiss Collections by Meseret Oldjira

Trips to Zurich’s Museum Rietberg and to Geneva’s Ethnography Museum, or Musée d’ethnographie de Genève (MEG) offer exciting opportunities to view Ethiopian Art in Switzerland. Both museums contain an extensive array of artworks and material culture from Africa, Asia, Oceania, and the Americas, although their approach to exhibiting these works is strikingly different. In keeping with the museum’s historically oriented approach, the Rietberg’s display of Ethiopian Art focuses on pre-modern religious artworks, which are on permanent loan to the museum from a private collection. The objects on view include two impressive panel paintings – an early-eighteenth-century triptych and a fifteenth-century diptych. Without an accompanying text elaborating on these objects, I assume their dating is based on stylistic grounds. The large triptych illustrates the Virgin Mary and the Christ Child surrounded by multiple registers portraying saints and two Christological scenes. Its crowded composition is dominated by the active poses of the figures and the bright color palette of yellows, blues, and reds. Inscriptions in Ge’ez name some of the key figures across the three panels. In the central panel, the seated Virgin and Child are flanked by the protective figures of the archangels Michael and Gabriel with outstretched wings and raised swords. The lower register of this panel, which is separated from the upper register by a row of the Twelve Apostles, shows the equestrian saints Gelawdewos (Claudius) and Tewodoros (Theodore) vanquishing their enemies.

The left panel of the triptych consists of three registers portraying a Christological scene along with local Ethiopian saints and Saint George. At the top register we find a representation of the Harrowing of Hell, where a large figure of an elaborately dressed Christ stands victoriously over trampled demons, while angels fly above the rescued Adam and Eve standing behind Christ. Below this scene, the central register portrays the three Ethiopian saints Tekla Haymanot, Ewostatewos, and Aregawi looking toward one another as if in conversation. The third register at the bottom depicts Saint George rescuing the young woman Birutawit from a dragon, which lies crushed under the saint’s white horse. The right panel of the triptych similarly depicts a Christological subject alongside portraits of local and other Eastern Christian saints. The most prominent part of this panel is the bloodied body of the crucified Christ flanked by the sorrowful Virgin Mary and John the Evangelist. A soldier on horseback identified by an inscription as Longiwos (Longinus) pierces the side of Christ with a lance. Another prominent figure in this panel is Saint Gebre Menfes Qidus, a revered saint in the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, who is depicted with his characteristic long hair, orans pose, and accompanying lion and leopard. 

The second Ethiopian artwork at the Rietberg is a diptych possibly representing scenes from the life of Saint George on two long rectangular panels. The panels illustrate the martyred body of Saint George at the center of a tightly packed crowd, who stand in front of a stylized arcade topped by a gabled roof against a bright red background. The configuration of the figures, their modelled faces and flowing drapery achieved through gentle gradation of color contrast sharply with the frontality and flat surfaces of color and pattern seen in the larger triptych.

In the left panel of the diptych, a group of men described by the Ge’ez inscription as “the bishops and the people” mourn over a shrouded body in the center. The “bishops” are distinguished from the “people” by their broad trimmed headgear. In the right panel of the diptych, the same crowd is once again labelled as “the bishops and the people,” and, here, they hold the dismembered body of Saint George. They are accompanied by the additional figure of the archangel Michael, identified textually by an inscription and visually by his halo and outstretched wings. The flaking of the paint on the lower part of Michael’s wings has revealed the underdrawing, offering some insight on the panel’s material production. An inscription at the top of the panel describes the scene as “How the angel [ ] the body of Saint George.” Although the verb in the inscription is no longer visible, we can see in the image that the angel Michael appears to bless the martyred saint. 

The display of Ethiopian Art at Geneva’s Musée d’ethnographie includes a wider array of artworks and objects such as elaborately designed hand crosses belonging to priests; pectoral crosses; private devotional objects such as healing scrolls; and large secular paintings from the twentieth century.

One of these secular paintings represents a grand royal banquet at the court of the Ethiopian Empress Zewditu. According to the museum, the painting dates from around 1920 and was completed by the artist Bähaylu Gäbrä Maryam. As the focal point of the painting the Empress Zewditu sits enthroned at the center of composition, not unlike the Virgin Mary of the triptych at the Rietberg. The painting portrays a microcosm of the Empress’s court from the lowliest servants to dukes and princes, and even foreign dignitaries. Although secular paintings such as this are rare in Ethiopian Art prior to the nineteenth century, we can see some of the lasting stylistic legacy of religious paintings such as the panels discussed above. This legacy is particularly apparent in the composition, which favors frontal figures in a variety of active poses; in the brightly colored and patterned surfaces; and in the use of registers to suggest spatial depth. 

Among the Ethiopian artworks at the MEG, I was most intrigued by a small object identified by the museum as a pendant in the form of a miniature bible. This pendant, which according to the museum dates from the twentieth century, bears remarkable similarity to European miniature book pendants from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Composed primarily of ivory and glass beads, this pendant represents a miniature book with a cover that contains a sculpted scene of the Crucifixion. I rarely encounter such objects in other museums with an Ethiopian Art collection. Much like the diptych at the Rietberg, this miniature book pendant left me with several unexpected questions, which I hope to pursue further.

Hope and Artistic Creativity by Ittai Weinryb

During my time as part as a fellow at Global Horizons, I was working on two different projects. The first, a book which centers on the circulation of art and material culture in the Black Sea during the Middle Ages, where I examine how Europe negotiated with its frontier societies in the Black Sea and especially the Crimea, and deployed new technological means in artistic creation to subjugate indigenous population in its frontier territories. The study hopefully will combine, for the first time, an analysis of colonial European art and indigenous art produced by local populations. Amongst other, I hope my study will also shed new light on the origins and foundational aspirations of European Globalism in the 16th-19th centuries. Because of the Covid pandemic, while in Europe, I was not able to travel to the Ukraine and Russia, and so decided to focus on another book-length project.

This project, centers on the sentiment of Hope as a category for artistic creativity. This is a cross-disciplinary project, still in stages of development, involves not just the visual arts but also comparative literature, psychology, anthropology of religions, and sociology.

Fig. 1

This project had benefited greatly from my stay in Bern. One rainy morning, together with another Global Horizons fellow, Samuel Luterbacher, I embarked on a research trip to the remote Hermitage and church of Notre-Dame de Longeborgne which is located nearby the small village of Bramois, in the heart of the Valais. The hermitage, first constructed in 1522, when the residents of the village of Barmois handed over some of the caves located in the wild forest mountainous region (Fig. 1) to a group of Franciscan monks whose have maintained the hermitage and erected a church to the Madonna. The church then swiftly became a popular pilgrimage site throughout Switzerland. Apart from two altars, the interior of the hermitage is covered with more than 185 painted panels known as ex votos (Fig. 2). These rectangular wooden painted panels, each displaying some earthly misfortune which, surprisingly, is intersected and saved by divine intervention.

Fig. 2

Three centuries of painted ex-votos are visible in Longeborgne. They represent the most important collection of ex-votos in the Valais. An ex-voto such as the ones in the church, are painting, object, or plaque bearing a formula of recognition, which is placed in a church, a chapel in fulfillment of a vow or in gratitude for a grace obtained. The term comes from the Latin “ex voto suscepto” (in accordance to a vow made). These votive panels are the clear expression of an aftermath of an event, where the sentiment of hope, was a catalyst in its making. The painted panels themselves, are the outcome of the sentiment of hope. Their existence is a fulfilment of a vow, who’s in its heart lies hope. Hope that was made into a vow, and was fulfilled and therefore a panel came into existence. The formulaic representation on these panels always narrates an event containing divine intervention. The examples at Longeborgne are striking. An ex voto dated to 1847, shows, in somewhat Caspar David Friedrich manner, a man standing in front of the Hermitage, with the Madonna and Sorrow hovering in the skies above (Fig. 3).

Fig. 3

For the man, the ex voto could have either given as a sign of Hope or as a thank you for wish received. The Hermitage and the surrounding nature all mark the centrality of the place in relations to hope. Hope is accomplished or fulfilled when devotee and sacred place intersect. The votive panel is a testimony for human wish and place intersecting. In another, earlier example, a man kneeling, hat thrown on the grounds before him, marking a completion of a pilgrimage, and harnessing relations between sacred space and pilgrim (Fig. 4).

Fig. 4

His hands are brought together, marking hope for a wish to be fulfilled. Another panel, dated to 1775, shows a man kneeling in front of the Black Madonna (Fig. 5). The panel seems out of place, for the Hermitage at Longeborgne is dedicated to Our Lady, and the Black Madonna has a shrine dedicated to her in the monastery of Einsiedeln more than 200 kilometer away. We can only assume that the panel was offered at Longeborgne because the devotee, whose name is missing from the panel, could not make the long journey from Valais to Einsiedeln in east Switzerland.

Fig. 5

Maybe one of the striking examples at Longeborgne is the panel displaying a carriage accident (Fig. 6), where the hope for the intersection of the Virgin Mary of Longeborgne has saved the humans in their misfortune. The two men standing to the left of the carriage, seem shouting in distress for the Virgin to Help them, they are not begging, but almost demanding divine intervention.  Hope is an image for the moment, a visual manifestation of psychologically driven physical desire. It is a visual proclamation grounded in the history of gestures that is embedded in something deep, that connects to the sincerest moments on interiority, when the soul manifests itself physically. At the Hermitage at Longeborgne, the votive panel marks hopeful desires that are unique for the time and the place but at the same time could be found throughout, Switzerland, and beyond.

Fig. 6

Temporal ramifications of “layering” as an art historical methodology by Samuel Luterbacher

During my time as part of the Global Horizons project, I examined aspects of Iberian imperialism in Asia and artistic production in the larger Indo-Pacific region through the lens of export lacquerware in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Its focus is a type of lacquerware  made in Japan as well as Southern China for a European market. These pieces are known in modern scholarship as “Nanban” lacquerware, meaning “Southern Barbarian” in Japanese. Local artisans responded to the influx of Iberian merchants and missionaries by modifying their craft. After extracting and refining the sap of a species of trees common to East Asia to yield the lacquer polymer, they applied various decorative techniques of embedding gold powder and bits of mother-of-pearl upon successive layers of the wet, binding substrate. This research examines lacquerware’s production and afterlife from the perspective of maritime trade, looking at its production and movement through the port cities of Goa, Macao, Nagasaki, Manila and Acapulco. A process of material layering inherent to the lacquer tradition— that is, of piecing together and binding different elements upon a single surface— parallels these objects’ alterations and material accretions in the hands of multiple far-flung recipients.

Fig. 1: Portable lacquered shrine (1580-1630) with crucifixion painting (signed by Joseph Almorín, 1778), collection Jorge Welsh, Lisbon.

The portable shrine (fig. 1) shown here exemplifies the continuous “layered” artistic histories created through this maritime zone. Produced in Japan for a Catholic consumer base at the turn of the seventeenth century, it traveled  across the Pacific to Colonial Mexico, via Manila. It landed in the hands of a local artist who painted this picture of the Crucifixion directly upon its lacquered ground, creating a shimmering surface of glistening paint, gold and pearl. This shrine testifies to the disparate materials and distant makers who were spread across wide geographical, temporal, and cultural coastal realms.

My time at Global Horizons offered the opportunity not only to conduct research and visit local collections, but also a crucial place to workshop ideas for an essay and wider book project with the scholarly team. The generous comments, discussions, and suggestions shared among the group offered me  a space to reconsider the temporal ramifications of “layering” as an art historical methodology, one that subsequently moves beyond the frameworks of hybridity that have long pervaded discourses of cross-cultural contact. This meant not only addressing the multiplicity of materials and makers which compose these travelling objects, but accounting for the aesthetic effect that such layering creates.​

Fig. 2: Reverse glass painting with Holy Face and Relics, Spain, c. 1600, Vitromusée, Romont, Switzerland

These reflections coincided with visiting collections to examine comparative objects traded along Indo-Pacific routes and their subsequent surface effects. This included a visit to the Vitromusée in Romont, which is dedicated to the arts of glass. The collection holds one of the largest collections of reverse-glass painting in the world. This process entails painting an image on a piece of glass and viewing  the finished picture through its overturned side. While the technique has precedents in antiquity and the medieval period, it found a new stage of development in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries in Northern and Southern Europe, particularly in the production of popular devotional images (fig. 2). The sheet of glass acted as a protective layer for the image, making it an equally portable medium which accompanied missionaries on their travels to Asia. This would initiate fabrication of reverse- glass painting in India, Japan and China, even prompting an export production in the Portuguese colonial enclave of Macao (fig. 3).

Fig. 3: Reverse glass painting with the circumcision of Christ, Macao, c.1750, Vitromusée, Romont, Switzerland

The Indo-Pacific operated as a space for the encounter of different light reflective technologies, including  reverse-glass painting, copper painting, mother-of-pearl, featherworks, and lacquerware. The case of reverse painting on glass becomes particularly interesting in relation to lacquerware, as many European observers compared lacquer’s translucent qualities of glass and mirrors. In both the lacquered export shrine and reverse glass paintings, the experience of viewing the devotional picture is articulated through a translucent and light-reflective exterior. However, while scholarly discussions of surfaces often focus on an object’s optical effects, this made me consider the tactility of these materials. Indeed, lacquer and glass painting possess a smooth and seamless surface, which invites touch. Furthermore, in a pre-industrial era, smooth and seamless surfaces entail a labor-intensive production process, one that paradoxically conceals any hint of manufacture. As a metaphor and model for this project, “layering” highlights an accretive multiplicity of makers and materials as the world became connected through new systems of exchange. At the sametime, it can also inform acts of artistic superimposition and colonial erasure in an era of imperialism. (Sam Luterbacher)