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.