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.

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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.

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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.

Corresponding with the northern part of present-day Ethiopia, the kingdom of Axum rose to a position of great prominence in the region. One of its greatest rulers was Ezana, during whose reign Axum converted to Christianity in about 330. In actual fact, the new religion was brought to Ethiopia not by Matthew in the first century but by one Frumentius, a young man whose fortuitous arrival changed the spiritual orientation of his adopted land.

Despite the clear establishment of Ethiopian Christianity in the time of Ezana, the story of Matthew’s earlier evangelization of the kingdom eventually became part of accepted tradition there as well. The two accounts, one historical, the other legendary, have lived side by side ever since in the Ethiopian imagination.

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In Ethiopic texts, Matthew’s mission to Axum is broadly related to the account given in the evangelistary, although it derives from other sources. Significantly, the transmission to Ethiopia of this material occurred only with the establishment of more direct relations with other Christian lands during the 14th century. One of these, The Apostolic History of Abdias, states that Matthew spent 23 years in Ethiopia and was martyred as described in The Golden Legend. More information on Matthew’s mission to Ethiopia comes from another Ethiopian text, the Gadla Hawaryat, or Contendings of the Apostles.

The account of Matthew’s evangelization of Ethiopia in the Gadla Hawaryat tells of the miraculous appearance of Jesus to the apostle, and his somewhat reluctant response to the master’s instructions to journey to the land of priests, or kahenat, in Ethiopia. There, his conversion of the high priest of Apollo and the destruction of the pagan idols result in a sentence of execution from the king.

His martyrdom is avoided by the sudden death of the king’s son, whom Matthew revives. This latter event is illustrated, as seen above, in the evangelistary. The king and all of his subjects immediately convert to the new faith. His work accomplished, Matthew then leaves the country, presumably to evangelize elsewhere. 

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Today Ethiopia is experiencing a new wave of evangelism by Protestant Christianity, especially in the form of the charismatic appeal of Pentecostalism. In many ways, the reception of these new spiritual teachings parallels that of the first evangelization of the country almost 1,700 years ago.

For many Ethiopians, the current phenomenon lies wholly outside their traditional religious experience, as the first arrival of Christianity must have seemed in the time of Frumentius. Others, however, embrace it as an authentic response to the inherent religiosity of the Ethiopian people. The present phase of evangelization may well be a further demonstration of the cultural resilience that has sustained this great nation over the course of its illustrious three-millennia-long history.

The Image of the Black in Western Art Archive resides at Harvard University’s W.E.B. Du Bois Research Institute, part of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research. The founding director of the Hutchins Center is Henry Louis Gates Jr., who is also The Root’s editor-in-chief. The archive and Harvard University Press collaborated to create The Image of the Black in Western Art book series, eight volumes of which were edited by Gates and David Bindman and published by Harvard University Press. Text for each Image of the Week is written by Sheldon Cheek.

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The Image of the Black Archive & Library resides at Harvard University’s Hutchins Center for African and African American Research. The founding director of the Hutchins Center is Henry Louis Gates Jr., who is also chairman of The Root. The archive and Harvard University Press collaborated to create The Image of the Black in Western Art book series, eight volumes of which were edited by Gates and David Bindman and published by Harvard University Press. Text for each Image of the Week is written by Sheldon Cheek.