COPTIC INFLUENCE ON ETHIOPIAN ART
Coptic influence on Ethiopian art, comparable to the Coptic influence in the eighth century on Nubian art, would have been probable because of the dependence of Christian Ethiopia for more than a millennium upon the Coptic patriarchate of Alexandria. We must perhaps attribute the general absence of such an influence to the power of native traditions.
One notable exception, however, is the Bieta Mariam church at LALIBELLA in the province of Lasta between Addis Ababa and Axum. Of some ten churches of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries grouped in this provincial capital, it alone is decorated with themes and details of Coptic art of the Fatimid period on the ceilings and on the lower curves of the arches that rest on columns. On the ceilings, within quadrangular compartments divided into four and also in a band separating them, circles are occupied by rosettes of eight petals—such as are found in the mosque of Ibn Tulun in Cairo and in the fabrics of the following centuries—alongside meandering patterns interrupted by a cross patté; some of these are inscribed in a Solomon’s seal (du Bourguet, 1968, fig. 87; 1980, p. 240).
In the central nave, on a vertical panel adjoining a pilaster adorned with rosettes in circles, are busts of both bearded and beardless saints. They support a parchment on each shoulder with the hand of the same side. Their expression is close to that of the Coptic monks, without any relationship to the style common to representations of Ethiopian visages (Gerster, 1968, figs. 61-63).
This unusual fact confirms the tradition that under the Fatimids, some Coptic monks who had come to Ethiopia were among the counselors of King Lalibala. This coincided with the persecution of Christians in Egypt by the sultan al-Hakim, a circumstance reputed to have caused the flight of Copts as far as Ethiopia.
The first known biography of Muhammad, a travel narrative by an Arab woman, mentioned the mural paintings decorating the first cathedral of Axum. No other detail is supplied, although the first Ethiopian liturgical decoration imitated models seen by Ethiopian Christian travelers in Egypt, whence the Ethiopians took their faith (du Bourguet, 1980, pp. 240ff.)
We cannot report any other Coptic impressions on the Christian art of Ethiopia.
- Bourguet, P. du. L’Art copte. Paris, 1968.
- . Peintures chrétiennes: couleurs paléochretiennes, coptes et byzantines, pp. 239-48. Geneva, 1980.
- Gerster, G. L’Art éthiopien. La Pierre-qui-Vire, 1968. Leroy, J. L’Ethiopie. Archéologie et culture. Paris, 1973.
PIERRE DU BOURGUET, S.J.