It is always an out-of-the-way pleasure to visit the Ethiopians who live on the roof of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. Now another surprise about this ancient civilisation has arrived via Oxford: pictures and analysis of three books of Gospels of astonishing antiquity.
They were preserved in the monastery of Abba Garima at Madara in the north of Ethiopia, in what was once the Aksumite kingdom, which looked north to Egypt. One of the Gospel books (Abba Garima III in the jargon) is the earliest in the world to have portraits of the four evangelists and decorated Canon Tables. It was made as early as 330 AD, according to carbon dating.
In full-page illuminations, on coloured backgrounds, golden-haloed, large-eyed Sts Matthew, Luke and John stand, holding their Gospels in one hand respectfully cloaked in their bright vestments, the other hand held in blessing. St Mark, in a classical cloak and tunic, sits in a chair covered in a leopard-skin pattern (pictured here). His dress, we learn, resembles that worn by Virgil in a third-century mosaic found at Sousse, Tunisia. More familiarly, these are the clothes that Abraham wears in the sixth-century mosaics at San Vitale in Ravenna.
A magnificent study, The Garima Gospels, has been edited by Judith S McKenzie and Francis Watson, with lots of colour photographs of the manuscripts taken in Ethiopia by Michael Gervers, who found them in a “deplorable condition”, since improved.
This art might not be what some expect out of Africa. But Ethiopia, worshipping in its own ancient language of Ge’ez (in which these Gospel books are written), took much from the Church of Alexandria. This accounts for another surprising element in the decoration of these manuscripts.
Abba Garima I has a full-page picture of a circular pavilion, its conical tent roof (on which exotic birds perch) supported by curly-capitalled marble pillars very unlike the rectilinear columns of Ethiopian rock churches. This tholos (a neutral Greek word used by the editors) does, however, bear a resemblance to pavilions depicted in ancient manuscripts in Armenia – far, far away in an utterly different culture.
The suggestion is that the isolation of Ethiopia, like the mountain fastnesses of Armenia, preserved traces of the art of antiquity that did not survive elsewhere. The tholos was part of the culture of Alexandria under the Ptolemies, the Greeks who ruled Egypt from 305 to 30 BC. The most famous ruler in this dynasty was Cleopatra VII, the lover of Julius Caesar. I think the best known tholos is the central upper feature like a kiosk on the rock-cut temple known as al-Khazneh at Petra in Jordan.
The architectural origin of the tholos is not the same as its meaning. In later Armenian writings, the tholos in a paradise garden is related to the Church as a successor to Solomon’s Temple. From the Temple flows the water of life. The birds shown have their allegorical meanings (such as the peacock standing for eternal life).
Armenian writers also relate the symbolic tholos to the Canon Tables appended to the Gospels. These are tables drawn up by the churchman Eusebius of Caesaria (c 265-340) that list correspondences between each of the four Gospels.
These are the columns of text between pillars on the pages of the Lindisfarne Gospels, for example, which often mystify casual readers.
According to Armenian commentators, the beautiful illuminations of the Canon Tables suggest the invisible beauties of the Scriptures that can be discovered with their help.
The Garima Gospels: Early Illuminated Gospel Books from Ethiopia by Judith S McKenzie and Francis Watson, with photographs by Michael Gervers, is published by Manar al-Athar, University of Oxford, (£49.95).