’Art & Soul: BN Goswamy | Ethiopia’s canvas of devotion : The Tribune India

’Art & Soul

’Art & Soul: BN Goswamy | Ethiopia’s canvas of devotion

Bold, emphatic lines tell the story of Archangel Michael and how his paintings adorn church walls in the country

’Art & Soul: BN Goswamy | Ethiopia’s canvas of devotion

St Michael slaying a dragon. Siena, Italy. 14th century

BN Goswamy

Ethiopia always has a special place in my imagination and the prospect of visiting Ethiopia attracted me more strongly than a trip to France, England, and America combined. I felt I would be visiting my own genesis, unearthing the roots of what made me an African. — Nelson Mandela

All I knew about Ethiopia was from a few records that I like, as well as what I read about the famine. But you get there and it is another world. It’s filled with art and music and poetry and intellectuals and writers — all kinds of people. — Flea, American musician

Admittedly, this piece relates to Ethiopia, specifically to some art in that large African nation, but in fairness to myself, I should put down first what I did not, till now, know about it. And there is a great deal of it. I did not know, for instance, that it is the 13th most populous country in the world, and the second-most populous in Africa after Nigeria. Nor that ‘anatomically modern humans’ — homo sapiens — are believed to have emerged from ancient Ethiopia and spread out to the east in the middle Paleolithic period. As long back as the 9th century BC, a great kingdom flourished in Ethiopia, taking the history of the land to a long, long way back. I knew that what we now call Ethiopia was once called Abysinnia but that the ancient name was revived only in 1945 I was not aware of, at least of the year in which it happened.

Saving a boat from the stormy seas. Walters Art Gallery (WAG), Baltimore. 17th century

As many as 88 languages are spoken in Ethiopia, spread over the impressively diverse ethnic groups. Some great athletes, among the greatest, in fact, especially in the track and field areas — Olympic stars — have come out of Ethiopia. I did not, however, know that we also owe coffee to Ethiopia for it was in that land that the first coffee beans were discovered. [It is a temptation not to leave this without mentioning an interesting legend attached to this ‘discovery’, which runs like this: An Ethiopian goat herder named Kaldi noticed his goats were eating the ‘beans’ off certain plants, coffee plants, and that when they ate these fruits, they would become extremely energetic and refuse to sleep at night. He reported this observation, and people started using these ‘magic beans’ for trade. The legend of this energising bean grew, and by the 15th century, coffee was moving all over the Arabian peninsula.]

The Archangel Michael bringing sinners back to life. WAG, 17th century
Singing and chanting in the streets during a festival in honour of the Archangel Michael

We, certainly I, should be moving into the area of the arts, as I mentioned before. There too I need to confess two things: one that I did not know what a homiliary was. It is a collection of homilies — tributes or homages, something like our stotras — arranged in Christian churches according to the ecclesiastical calendar for reading at Matins. And, second, that the Archangel Michael — one among the four most prominent of angels, which include Gabriel, Raphael, and Uriel — has a vast following among believers, a very special place in their hearts, for he is the Protector, the one who is almost like God: defender of the Church and chief opponent of Satan. His powers and his attributes are without number or limit in Catholic belief. It is in one of the homiliaries to Archangel Michael that some great paintings, belonging to the 17th century, are found.

St Michael protecting countless people from the furies of hell. WAG, Baltimore. 17th century.

This manuscript, with nearly 50 full-page paintings, was produced during the ‘cultural boom’ in Ethiopia, one learns, something that was experienced with the establishment of a permanent, stable court by the Solomonic emperor Fasiladas (1632-1667) of the same dynasty to which, later, Haile Selassie, ruler of Abysinnia/Ethiopia, belonged, with the title of ‘Emperor’. In a style marked by vivid colours and bold, emphatic lines, the paintings tell the story of the Archangel Michael: his miracles and heroic feats, including, as has been said, ‘saving the faithful from the burning flames of hell, healing the sick, and treading on Satan’. Armed with a flaming sword and supported by large wings — which obviously had emerged as a part of his iconography — the Archangel is rendered very differently from the way in which we see him rendered, time after time, in classical, medieval European paintings. Here he is seen as a youthful figure, clad in a richly embroidered robe, head surrounded by a ‘halo’ of black curly hair, large eyes staring at nothing in particular, body firm and resilient. We sometimes see him surrounded by heaps of bodies rescued from the fires of hell, sometimes stabilising a large boat in which devotees have travelled over rough waters, at other times kicking Satan and sending him into perdition. It is highly stylised work, and visibly simple, leaving everything but the essentials of a narrative, an episode, out: concentrating exclusively on catching, and presenting, the very essence of the event.

When we see the Archangel Michael standing with his sword resting on his shoulder and one wing lifted in the air, as if he has just landed at this spot, there is no change of expression on his face. His large staring eyes — taking one back to orthodox Icons, or Coptic works — remain unmoving; and one sees perfect calm in his demeanour as he performs the miracle of bringing a boat to safe haven just by holding on to a wooden knob. Seeing this, one knows that a work like this is born of deep conservatism on the one hand and of belief in the faith that binds devotee and deity together. Church wall after church wall in Ethiopia bears traces of paintings, some of them going as far back as the 4th century when Christianity was introduced in the land. From the walls, the style descended into illuminated manuscripts with natural ease.

It is not painting alone, one needs to remind oneself, that bring to mind the immediate, here-and-now presence of the Archangel Michael in the heart of Ethiopia, but also the countless festivals, the singing and chanting in the streets, the sounds in the churches, with thousands participating. He is special, very special.

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