- By GARIMA GOSPELS
They were preserved in the monastery of Abba Garima at Madara in the north of Ethiopia, in what was once the Aksumite kingdom, which looked north to Egypt. One of the Gospel books (Abba Garima III in the jargon) is the earliest in the world to have portraits of the four evangelists and decorated Canon Tables. It was made as early as 330 AD, according to carbon dating.
In full-page illuminations, on coloured backgrounds, golden-haloed, large-eyed Sts Matthew, Luke and John stand, holding their Gospels in one hand respectfully cloaked in their bright vestments, the other hand held in blessing. St Mark, in a classical cloak and tunic, sits in a chair covered in a leopard-skin pattern (pictured here). His dress, we learn, resembles that worn by Virgil in a third-century mosaic found at Sousse, Tunisia. More familiarly, these are the clothes that Abraham wears in the sixth-century mosaics at San Vitale in Ravenna.
A magnificent study, The Garima Gospels, has been edited by Judith S McKenzie and Francis Watson, with lots of colour photographs of the manuscripts taken in Ethiopia by Michael Gervers, who found them in a “deplorable condition”, since improved.
This art might not be what some expect out of Africa. But Ethiopia, worshipping in its own ancient language of Ge’ez (in which these Gospel books are written), took much from the Church of Alexandria. This accounts for another surprising element in the decoration of these manuscripts.
The architectural origin of the tholos is not the same as its meaning. In later Armenian writings, the tholos in a paradise garden is related to the Church as a successor to Solomon’s Temple. From the Temple flows the water of life. The birds shown have their allegorical meanings (such as the peacock standing for eternal life).
According to Armenian commentators, the beautiful illuminations of the Canon Tables suggest the invisible beauties of the Scriptures that can be discovered with their help.
The Garima Gospels: Early Illuminated Gospel Books from Ethiopia by Judith S McKenzie and Francis Watson, with photographs by Michael Gervers, is published by Manar al-Athar, University of Oxford, (£49.95).