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A fine Eastern Pende Panya-Gombe African mask. Coll.: David Norden

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Ethiopian Art


at PaceWildenstein in New York in October 2005

Art of Ethiopia
Location: Pace Wildenstein, 7th floor, 32 East 57th Street, New York, NY 10022

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Dates: 18 October to 29 October 2005
Opening hours: Monday to Saturday, 10.00 am to 5.30 pm
Catalogue: The exhibition will be accompanied by a fully illustrated catalogue, price £25

read also: PaceWildenstein Estate Property and Dealers: A Case History : PaceWildenstein Gallery --- Pace sells much of their holdings in Primitive art to collectors of 20th Century painting and sculpture, probably more than to collectors of African and Tribal arts.---


Ethiopian art- Gorgon headEthiopian art: Gorgon head from a large talismanic scroll
19th century. 35 x 25 cm

Sam Fogg, one of the world’s leading dealers in Medieval art, will stage the first selling exhibition of Ethiopian art ever to take place in America at Pace Wildenstein, 32 East 57th Street, New York, from Tuesday 18 to Saturday 29 October 2005. Art of Ethiopia will include material from the collections of the Emperors Takla Haymanot I (r.1706-1708) and Dawit III (r.1708-1721) and William Randolph Hearst (1863-1951) as well as a group of some of the finest large icons in existence from an Italian private collection.

Ethiopia holds a unique position as an ancient Christian culture in the horn of Africa, surrounded by tribal and Islamic communities. From early on Ethiopia has had a strong artistic language, receptive to a broad range of outside influences which were assimilated and transformed into its own distinctive style. Although related to both Byzantine and African arts, the art of Ethiopia has been mostly ignored by scholars and, until recently, little attention had been given to the great works that this culture produced. However, the study of Ethiopian art is now growing and most objects can be reliably dated, based on documented pieces. 

The origins of the civilization and culture of highland Ethiopia lie in extreme antiquity with roots that can be traced to both ancient Africa and the pre-Islamic world of Southern Arabia. Attracted by Ethiopia’s natural wealth and its position on important trade routes between Africa, the Mediterranean and the Orient, colonists from Southern Arabia introduced writing, stone architecture and kingship. The immigrants merged with the indigenous population resulting in a distinctively Ethiopian civilization and by the end of the 3rd century AD the kingdom of Axum, now part of Eritrea and northern Ethiopia, was, with Rome and Persia, one of the three great powers of the antique world. 

Ethiopian art-Mounted Warrier Detail of a mounted warrior from an icon, c.1700
Tempera on linen covered wooden boards
59 x 63 cm (open)

Christianity was adopted as the state religion in the middle of the 4th century, linking Ethiopia culturally and politically with Byzantium and the Eastern Mediterranean civilisations. In the early Medieval period there was considerable contact with Christian communities in Egypt and Syria and later traces were left by Judaic and Arabic invasions. The earliest piece in the exhibition is a cast bronze processional cross, 24 cm high, dating from the 12th or 13th century and therefore extremely rare. Two simple, central crosses have been enclosed in a pear-shaped frame with flame-like extensions, a design associated with King Lalibela (c.1185-1225), credited with building the eleven famous rock-hewn churches in the Lasta mountains.

During the 15th century the highlands of central and northern Ethiopia saw a magnificent flowering of paintings on wooden panels and, especially, of manuscripts as well as wonderful processional crosses. At this time a new influence arrived with a number of Italian painters who visited Ethiopia including the Venetian artist Nicolò Brancaleone. The influence of western European painters is evident in the change of perspective and the introduction of light and shade for more realistic representation, both given a unique and compelling Ethiopian appearance. 

The late 15th century also saw the emergence of the Stephanite movement, which arose following the martyrdom of the monk Est'ifanos by Emperor Zär'a Ya'eqob for refusing to recognise royal authority. His followers, who were subsequently declared heretics, produced crosses and manuscripts which are among the greatest masterpieces of Ethiopian art, such as the Gospel Book of around 1480 on display in this exhibition.

Most of the works dating from this period were destroyed during the Muslim invasions of the 1530s. However, in the 17th century a revival took place which looked back to the earliest traditions. Once more inspiration was taken from abroad, this time from engravings imported from Europe and from Christian communities in the East. This new style reached its high point in the early and mid-18th century in the royal court of Gondar. 

Among the icons dating from this period in this New York exhibition is a beautiful example dating from circa 1650 devoted to the animal-loving Gabrä Manfäs Qeddus, a popular saint who was venerated in Ethiopia. Here he is depicted as a hermit, his body concealed entirely by hair, and the side panels depict three jackals and three lions, representing wild animals that he reputedly tamed. 

A remarkable triptych icon dating from circa 1700 depicts in the central panel the Virgin and Child with Saints Gabriel and Michael and the twelve apostles below. The side panels depict the Ascension, the Crucifixion and various saints including Saint George of Lydda on horseback and the exterior decoration is extremely unusual as it is decorated with a secular hunting scene.

A diptych icon, again with a central panel of the Virgin and Child with Saints Gabriel and Michael, dating from 1750-60, is typical of the transitional style which emerged at the beginning of the 18th century. The mixture of styles and such details as the embroidered trimming at the neck of the Virgin's dress, rare in Ethiopian art, indicate that the work is by the hand of a highly individual artist who was interpreting the work of more mainstream painters. The saints represented on the panels, some on horseback, are all identified in inscriptions such as “How St George killed the dragon and rescued Birutawit” and “How St Claudius killed the king of Quz”.

After the middle of the 18th century there seems to have been a decline of creativity in Ethiopian art with only items distant from the royal court retaining any vitality. This can be seen in particular in the magic scrolls, made by traditional scholars with knowledge of magic and the occult. These strips of parchment, painted with Christian and magic symbols and prayers, are intended for healing and protection against demons. Scrolls were used by the general population whereas priests, nobles and scholars used books with similar content. 

A huge scroll in the exhibition, dating from the late 18th or early 19th century, is made from three vellum membranes with three columns of text separated by borders decorated with motifs. At the top of the scroll is a 'gorgon' head of a formidable red and blue demon with large eyes and serpent-headed horns. St George and the dragon are represented in the centre of the scroll and the bottom is decorated with another saint, an angel and demons. The scroll’s texts include verses, a list of archangels and prayers against such troubles as colic, chest pains, foreigners and the evil eye, as well as prayers for pregnant women and suckling infants.

Ethiopian art-Processional cross Processional cross 
12th/13th century
Height: 24 cm  

Europeans were fascinated for centuries by the land of the legendary King Prester John, a Christian king who would save Europe from the Muslims, and examples of Ethiopian paintings and manuscripts arrived in the West from an early date. There is a manuscript in the Laurentian Library in Florence that must have reached Italy in the 15th century, travelers in the 18th and 19th centuries brought back items and a great quantity of material came to the West after the taking of Magdala by the British in 1868.

Sam Fogg is one of the world’s leading dealers in Medieval art, both Western and Oriental, with a primary focus on manuscripts and miniatures but also encompassing sculpture, ivories, enamels, stained glass and small precious objects. He also deals in Islamic manuscripts and paintings, Indian miniatures, Asian miniatures, Chinese and Japanese books, Islamic objects as well as in the unusual fields of Ethiopian and Armenian art.

In 2001 he held the first ever selling exhibition of Ethiopian art in London which was widely acclaimed and he has sold Ethiopian works to the Musée du Louvre, Paris, the British Library, London, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Detroit Institute of Art and Walters Art Gallery, Baltimore, as well as to many private collectors. Art of Ethiopia will now offer the American public the opportunity to admire and acquire rare treasures from one of the world’s most ancient civilizations.

read also: Ethiopian art It Was Multicultural Before Multicultural Was Cool

... It is also one reason it remains little studied. It requires scholars equally conversant in European, Islamic and African art - a tall multicultural order. ...

PaceWildenstein Estate Property and Dealers: A Case History : PaceWildenstein Gallery --- Pace sells much of their holdings in Primitive art to collectors of 20th Century painting and sculpture, probably more than to collectors of African and Tribal arts.---

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