The History of Ethiopian Art
Men of letters in Ethiopia are commonly said to have two faces, one turned toward the light (which is the Christian faith and spiritual life) and towards the shadows (which represent the practices of magic and healing that are dignified with the collective name of wisdom.) The same may be said of Ethiopian art. The introduction of magical or talismanic art fro the Hellenistic cultures of the eastern Mediterranean probably dates from the fourth century, the same period that saw Christianity spread throughout the country.
While the craft of writing was considered a minor art for the most part (in the West), this talismanic art enjoyed a different status to civilizations of the East. For the diciples of Plato or Pythagoras, and later the alchemists and kabbalists, the letters of the alphabet were endowed with a significance that was integrally linked to the creation of the universe. The art of writing in its most erudite form was a powerful and creative art. But while the physical or plastic expression of this thinking did not progress in the West and in the eastern mediterranean, it underwent a prodigious development in Ethiopia, evolving in the course of certain hybridizations into an art form. These figures, with both talismanic and Christion aspects usually combined with texts on scrolls, had therapuetic as well as devotional powers. Unlike the other Orthodox communities, Ethiopian Christians did not use icons in their homes for their devotions, although these were commissioned for parish churches; instead, they employed scrolls to safeguard the body as well as the soul. A priest would be summoned to the home to bless the inhabitans and read these scrolls.
Alongside this healing tradition, Christian art experienced three different periods of expansion and triumph, the Asumite period (4th to mid-7th century), then from 1400 - 1500, and finally, between 1660 and 1760. Its monuments experience terrible damage during times of political and religious upheaval specifically around the tenth and sixteenth centuries.
When the West became aware of Ethiopian art in the late 1800's, it was essentially through the illuminated manuscripts from the royal library, many of which were painted during the previous century in a style that appealed to European tastes. The destruction ordered by the Muslim leader Imam Ahmad in the sixteenth century offered little hope of retrieving any earlier works, until a seriess of finds over the past 50 years revealed the art of the fifteenth century. Today, this century is considered the GOlden Age of wthiopian civilization. However, although the art of Ethiopia may now be better documented than that of other parts of the Christian East, our knowledge of its infancy.