I visited the Metropolitan Museum of Art a few weeks ago for a preview of The World Between Empires. I saw so much amazing stuff there, but one thing in particular seemed to jump out and said “write about me!”. This work caught my eye in small gallery just inside the Arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas wing. It’s a double-sided religious diptych from 18th-century Ethiopia.
The Ethiopians have one of the oldest Christian traditions in the world. Ethiopia has some really spectacular rock-hewn churches, which are unique to that country. It has also produced many icons, since Ethiopia practices an Orthodox form of Christianity, like Greece and Russia do. Beyond that, I don’t currently know much about Ethiopian religious paintings, though I find their bold style quite compelling.
This small work is a diptych (two-paneled painting) with religious scenes on the front and back It was meant for a wealthy patron to wear on a necklace as an object of personal devotion. One side depicts the Virgin Mary and Christ Child as well as St. George, while the other side shows the Crucifixion and Christ resurrecting Adam and Eve shortly after His own Resurrection. All of these are pretty common scenes, but it was the style of painting on the diptych that caught my attention. There’s something so cheerful about all these figures. They all look happy. Even the figures of Mary and St. John in the Crucifixion scene have pleasant expressions on their faces. There’s something so touching about this. I don’t know if it reflects a particular theology, an artistic style, or simply an individual artist’s choice. I also love the way the figures are represented. The artist used bright colors with black outlines. The shapes and modelling are pretty simple without seeming unsophisticated. The backgrounds are quite plain, but there are also more detailed patterns like the Virgin’s drapery, the design on Christ and St. George’s tunics, and the scales of St. George’s dragon. I find myself very much reminded of the medieval manuscript illuminations I love so much. (The Ethiopians made some great examples of those, too.) Since it was meant to be worn, the diptych only measures a few inches in each direction. However, its bold colors and cheerful figures still managed to catch my attention as I was walking past it at a distance.
You can read what the Met has to say about the icon here.