Gold coin minted by King Ezana of Axum (r. 320-360).

Gold coin minted by King Ezana of Axum (r. 320-360).

(via artofthedarkages)

Brass processional crosses (circa. 1100s-1400s) made to be held by monks and priests in ecclesiastical ceremonies.

All of them found at different monasteries in Ethiopia and currently on view at the Walters Museum in Baltimore.

Notice the details- are those animals? people? biblical allusions perhaps? 

Notice how the structure and intricate designs on each cross both differ and are alike- maybe there is more to the interlace and shapes than one may expect.

These two bronze coins are the final evidence of the political history of Axum; nothing remains that documents any subsequent kings.

They were minted by King Armah of Axum in the early 600s AD, and are held at the British Museum.

The decline of the Kingdom of Axum can be seen in several details on the coin:

(1) the material of the coin is bronze, rather than gold or silver, meaning that it was meant for local circulation,

(2) the inscription, although attempting to mimic Greek sayings ("Let gladness be to the peoples"), is written in Ge’ez rather than Greek, so that only a local audience could understand it, and

(3) the cross-topped arch on the reverse of the second coin is, according to one theory, a representation of the Holy Sepulcher; a reference to the Arab conquest of Jerusalem in 637.

Was the emphasis on Christianity in the coins’ iconography meant to invigorate Axum’s sense of identity in the face of defeat?

Was the (possible) reference to the conquest of Jerusalem meant to display Axum’s friendship and subservience to the new Rashidun Caliphate? 

These are two illuminated gospel books were made between 300-700 AD at Abba Garima Monastery in Ethiopia.

The Garima Gospels contain twenty eight full-page illuminations; each one bursting with color. The remarkably extant book covers are decorated with gold, silver, and holes where gems had been placed.

According to the oral history of the monastery, the manuscripts were scribed and illustrated by Abba Garima himself in the 490s AD. Thus, the Garima Gospels were acknowledged by the monks as being extremely old and religiously valuable.

The handful of Western scholars who managed to venture to Abba Garima Monastery upon their inspection of the manuscripts suspected some Mediterranean influence, but concluded that the illuminations were within a firmly conventional and uninteresting style of 12th-14th century Ethiopian painting.

It was not until 2000, when the French scholar Jaques Mercier brought fragments of the manuscripts’ parchment to Oxford University for radiocarbon dating, that the Garima Gospels were pushed into the international spotlight as one of the oldest (and most well preserved) illuminated gospel books.

Now, the Garima Gospels are considered one of the artistic wonders of the world: a priceless treasure from the ancient world preserved in the most unlikely of places.

The difficulty of actually seeing these extraordinary manuscripts—many of them are hoarded away in the mountain monasteries of Ethiopia—has kept the art historical community from bringing to light what could be a vast and beautiful strain of Late Antique painted religious books.

Additionally, it was not until scholars found a possible connection that the manuscripts shared with the “Western tradition” that they decided it was worthy of actually being looked at!

The Garima Gospels are both heartening and frustrating in this regard…

A 6th century monastery situated atop Debre Damo mountain near Adigrat, Ethiopia.

Basilica-type monasteries such as the one at Debre Damo can be found throughout the highlands of Ethiopia, serving as a spiritual escape for Ethiopian Orthodox monks from the worldly pleasures and burdens of society.

Many of these religious enclaves were established by Byzantine holy men fleeing religious persecution in the Mediterranean world by traveling south to the the royal court at Axum.

Original materials preserved since the monastery was built 1,500 years ago include wood and limestone bricks, carved wood ceiling panels with images of animals, and Axumite relics (including manuscripts).

British architect D.H. Matthews led the restoration of the monastery in the 1950s.

Painted icons were presumably made within the past 200 years. Unfortunately, very little information about the objects held in the monastery at Debre Damo are available online.

The stelae field at Tutu Fella, Ethiopia, is a 9th-14th century graveyard filled with one hundred and thirty rounded stone columns—each with linear or anthropomorphic carvings—that mark the burial sites of local aristocrats (and supposedly commemorate the reigns of local rulers).

Theme of the Month: The Splendor of Axum


Axum, an ancient city state located in Ethiopia, holds the status of a glorified footnote in contemporary Medieval scholarship.

A powerful sub-Saharan civilization swept into oblivion by modern prejudices, merited only for adopting Christianity at a relatively early date (4th c).

For the month of August, I’m going to examine the various material remnants of the Axumite Empire and its legacy in the Ethiopian Orthodox Church.


Destruction caused by raids and economic decline has left the quantity of book and icon painting to be lacking during the period covered in this blog, so I’m going to make an exception and include works up until the 17th century so as to illustrate the vibrant breadth of Ethiopian ecclesiastical art.

map of the Axumite Empire:


***I wrote a research paper on the genre of Ethiopian battle paintings in the 20th century, and that is about the extent of my expertise on Ethiopian art. If anyone would like to contribute/correct my errors, they would be most welcome to do so!***

End of Theme of the Month: Decorative Initials

imageI hope over the last month you’ve been able to appreciate and enjoy the creativity and conventions of these small treasures!

I really enjoyed looking up these manuscripts, and if you have any comments, questions, or observations please do not hesitate to message me.

My own conclusion about these letters is that the Frankish, Celtic, and Anglo-Saxon monks who painted them were seeking to add worldly value (via common metalworking designs) to a spiritually empowering objects (the manuscripts).

For the next Theme of the Month, we’re going to go down south to Ethiopia…

Gospels, MS 58, Trinity College Dublin

257r, Gospels, MS 58, Trinity College Dublin

31, 132, 138, 199, 211, 313, 317

Gospels, MS 34, Jura Cantonal Library

246r, Gospels, MS 58, Trinity College Dublin

246r, Gospels, MS 58, Trinity College Dublin

118r, Gospels, Sang. 53, Stiftsbibliothek

118r, Gospels, Sang. 53, Stiftsbibliothek

67r, Gospels, Sang. 51, Stiftsbibliothek

67r, Gospels, Sang. 51, Stiftsbibliothek