Image Recalls Christianity’s Arrival in Ethiopia

Image of the Week: The visual retelling of the Gospel stories came at a time when the African nation was just beginning to be discovered by Europeans.

John of Oppava, St. Matthew’s Mission in Ethiopia evangelistary, 1368. Parchment, 375 by 256 mm.
John of Oppava, St. Matthew’s Mission in Ethiopia evangelistary, 1368. Parchment, 375 by 256 mm. Ősterreichische Nationalbibliothek, Vienna

This image is part of a weekly series that The Root is presenting in conjunction with the Image of the Black in Western Art Archive at Harvard University’s W.E.B. Du Bois Research Institute, part of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research.

This remarkable visual account of the bringing of Ethiopia into the fold of Christian nations comes from a masterfully executed 14th-century illuminated manuscript known as an evangelistary. Its large-format pages contain a compilation of stories derived from the four biblical accounts of the Gospels, books of the New Testament that relate the life and ministry of Jesus. Priests read passages from this liturgical text to the congregation during the divine service of Mass.

The manuscript was produced for the Habsburg ruler Albert III, duke of Austria, an avid patron of the arts and early supporter of the University of Vienna. It is a striking example of late-medieval manuscript illumination from the circle of the Prague court of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles IV. The artist is John of Oppava, a scribe and miniaturist who also served as a church official in the imperial regions of Moravia and Bohemia. It is the only known work from his hand, unless he is to be identified with Johann von Neumarkt, an influential artist active at the imperial court.

The evangelical activities of Jesus and his apostles are illustrated in a series of five full-page illustrations, each containing 12 scenes. The first sequence relates the missionary activity of Matthew, the despised tax collector called to a new life by Jesus. It starts with the well-known biblical account of his conversion. The following scenes, however, depart from the text of the apostle’s gospel to focus on his subsequent ministry to lands and people outside the Holy Land. Most of the scenes are derived from a popular noncanonical source, the compilation of sacred lore known as The Golden Legend. The erudite Dominican priest Jacopo da Varagine compiled this influential work in the second half of the 13th century.

In the panels seen here in the top row, the apostle confounds two light-skinned sorcerers before a gathering of dark-complected Ethiopians. After preaching to the crowd, Matthew again defeats the false miracle workers by raising the son of the king from the dead. Subsequent scenes not shown here depict the evangelist founding a church, baptizing the king, writing his account of the life of Jesus and, finally, his martyrdom at the hands of the king’s successor.

Matthew’s conversion of the Ethiopians makes a timely appearance in the evangelistary. Ethiopia was only beginning to be discovered by Europeans after more than half a millennium of isolation. Before the early 20th century, Europeans often referred to this land as Abyssinia. The name “Ethiopia” has also been applied externally to this land from at least the time of the ancient Greeks and occurs within its own culture in royal inscriptions as early as the fourth century.

One of its most powerful attractions for the Christian West lay in the eventual identification of its ruler with Prester John, the fabled, long-sought monarch of the East who was destined to provide a bulwark against the onslaught of forces hostile to European interests. An impeccable pedigree was claimed for the mighty ruler, who was said to descend from one of the three Magi as well as the queen of Sheba. Attempts to find Prester John continued as late as the 17th century, with never more than illusory success.

Direct, formal contact between Europe and the actual kingdom of Ethiopia increasingly occurred during the late medieval period. Ambassadors from Ethiopia had been received throughout Europe in the early 14th century, requesting aid against the Muslim threat of invasion. In the following century, representatives of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church journeyed to Florence in an attempt to unify the various schismatic factions of Christianity.

Ethiopia believed itself to be the direct successor to the ancient kingdom of Israel, stemming from the well-known biblical account of the meeting of Solomon and the queen of Sheba. From this sanctified context came the first well-documented phase of Ethiopia’s history. The kingdom of Axum emerged from an earlier civilization during the fourth century B.C., flourished for several centuries, then slowly waned before its last ruler was overthrown around the year 1000.