መልካም የልደት በኣል: Icons on the occasion of an Orthodox Christmas in Ethiopia, 2018

January 7, 2018

 

It is Christmas in the Ethiopian Orthodox Church today as in Christian Orthodoxy everywhere. Ethiopians of all Christian denominations celebrate Christmas today.

 

 

DSC06394DSC06379DSC06375

DSC06407

DSC06377

 Very small northern Ethiopian diptych of images in oil paint embedded in a a casing of ‘native’ silver.  Unknown provenance, in private possession.  More than 40 years old.

 

Following the tenets of the faith, Christian Ethiopians believe that the meaning of Christmas is Easter.

The fast before Easter is very long and often of eight weeks.

Then the joy, jumping from valley to valley like lightning, and in a contagion of joyful ululation from street to street in the cities and towns, particularly in the north of the country, is very large.

 

 

DSC06397

DSC06405

 Very small northern Ethiopian triptych of images in oil paint embedded in a a casing of ‘native’ silver.  Unknown provenance. Private possession.  More than 40 years old.

 

 

Not that the joy is not large at Christmas.  It is. And there are two distinct fasts which precede Christmas.  One of five weeks or so ends in late December.  Its justification is taken from the Old Testament.  It is designed to concentrate the spirit on the coming of Christ.  The second fast takes place in the week of Christmas and is broken at midnight on Christmas day.

 

But a far greater joy comes at Easter for which Christmas is the  potent portent, harbinger, the necessary and joyful precondition. 

 

 

DSC06385

DSC06371

DSC06384

Small northern Ethiopian triptych of images in oil paint embedded in a a casing of carved wood.  Unknown provenance; more than 40 years old.

 

Which is why the images of these icons show the birth of Jesus not only protected by St. George and various archangels – Ethiopian angels are armed for the defense of the faith and the conversion of the heathen –  but also why these images are protected by designs of the cross on the exposed sides of their hinged covers. 

That is what you touch when you pick up, hold and move these aides to worship: the cross.  

 

In one of these three, the cross is also placed like a crown over the image.  In two, symbols of the Trinity surmount the painted image. In all three there are crosses on the hinged covers of the icon.

The images themselves were painted of old in tempera and today probably with oil paint.  They and their artisanal execution follow the conventions of a faith now seventeen hundred years old in this place.

 

 

*************************************

 

Christmas Day shortly after midnight in Lalibela:  a quadrangle of priests who chant, with alterations of beat, in the ancient Semitic language, Ge’ez. 

The priests circumambulate to the sound of drums, clapping and the call of a horn.  Surrounded by multitudes – everyone dressed in white – with women ululating periodically and everyone swaying slightly.

 Photo of unknown provenance and year taken from the net.

 

 

 A fragment of the sound of Christmas in Lalibela early on Christmas morning, 2011.  Taken from the net.

Otherworldy sounds continuing for some hours and rising to the heavens.

 

 

****************************************

 

Larger icons represent the nativity scene in the central pane and scenes from the life of  Jesus in the side panels.  Along with representations of  angels and of believers.

 

 

DSC00044

 

DSC00041

 

Triptych with Mary and Her Son Flanked by Archangels (center); Crucifixion and Resurrection, Apostles and Saints (right and left).  Ethiopian late 17th, early 18th century, tempera on wood.  Walters Art Museum, Baltimore.

 

Ethiopia is a traditional society.  Gifts are of food and drink at the breaking of the fast and for several days afterwards.

 

DSC00012

Diptych leaf with Mary and Her Son and Archangels Michael and Gabriel, tempera on wood, 1445-1480.  Fra Seyon, active between 1445 and 1480.

The museum notes that the artist transformed Byzantine and Italian models using Ethiopian colours and patterns.  Walters Art Museum, Baltimore.

 

The  greatest gift is that of human presence among members of all the complex networks of people which a traditional society sustains. 

The young people, angelically behaved themselves, circulate among the houses of their elders.   Urged at every location to eat and drink.  Food and drink are never turned down for fear of giving offense.

Then the young and even not so young head out into the secular festivities of the night…….

 

 

DSC00067

 Triptych  of Mary and Her Son, tempera on wood, early 16th century.  Walters Art Museum, Baltimore

 

 

The title of this blog in Amharic wishes you a good Christmas festival.

 

 

 

 

 

 

4 thoughts on “መልካም የልደት በኣል: Icons on the occasion of an Orthodox Christmas in Ethiopia, 2018

  1. A wonderful begining to my day, this epiphany. May we continue as with these three to be seekers after truth and follow the unique star we are given.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.