Exquisite gospels bridging a vast cultural and historical gap are highlighted in an Oxford exhibition — and here in Oxford Today’s digital gallery.
St Mark in one of the Garima Gospels’ full set of evangelist frontispiece portraits and, right, the pillared structure seen also at Petra
By John Garth
Miraculously preserved in an Ethiopian monastery for a millennium and a half, the Garima Gospels offer exquisite visions of paradise. But scrutiny by an Oxford classicist has revealed previously unseen vistas: avenues of cultural connection leading back to Pompeii and Petra, forward to the High Middle Ages, and northward as far as Armenia and Georgia.
The Garima Gospels are currently the focus of an exhibition curated by Oxford classical archaeologist Dr Judith McKenzie at the Ioannou Centre. Oxford Today offers a splendid glimpse in the gallery at the foot of this article.
Dr McKenzie has written The Garima Gospels: Early Illuminated Gospel Books from Ethiopia with Professor Francis Watson of Durham University, a textual expert on the four gospels.
The Garima Gospels were once thought to be as old as the 11th century CE, but radiocarbon dating by other scholars, now corroborated by the analysis of McKenzie and Watson respectively, has showed them to be much older — between the 5th and mid-7th centuries, not long after Christianity first reached Ethiopia. ‘What I found with the art and what he found with the text fits with the dates from the carbon-14,’ says Dr McKenzie. It means the books predate both the Lindisfarne Gospels and the Book of Kells. A third volume, previously bound in with the other two, possibly belongs to the 8th–10th centuries.
Tradition has it that God stopped the sun in the sky so St Abba Garima could complete them in a single day. A look at them now gives the impression that time has indeed been suspended.
Dr Judith McKenzie at the Garima Gospels exhibition at Oxford’s Ioannou Centre
They were unknown to the world beyond their home at Madara in the north Ethiopian highlands until 1948 when monks from the Abba Garima Monastery — closed to women — carried them outside to show English art historian Beatrice Playne. Dr McKenzie became involved after bringing her wider artistic expertise to a two-day conference on the Garima Gospels at Oxford’s Ioannou Centre for Classical and Byzantine Studies in 2013, organised by the Ethiopian Heritage Fund. The McKenzie–Watson book reproduces all the illuminated pages in colour for the first time, photographed by Michael Gervers of the University of Toronto.
Within gilded copper covers, the pages are of goatskin. ‘You need something like 80 goat kids to make a gospel,’ says Dr McKenzie. The text is in the Ge‘ez language and script of the ancient Aksumite kingdom, still used in Ethiopian liturgy.
At least as significant as the Gospels themselves is the insight they yield for their milieu. They bear witness to the high culture of the Christian Aksumite kingdom of Ethiopia, and they also testify to riches now utterly lost.
A monk from the Abba Garima Monastery displays two of the gospels, as they were preserved bound together
Differing styles of illumination in the two older volumes point to divergent schools of art for which no other evidence now survives. ‘You had enough gospel painting going on in Ethiopia before this to have branched out. This is the tip of the iceberg.’ The styles point outward, too, to closely related visual material found in Syria, Armenia, Greece and Georgia.
Here inside ornate illuminated frames are canon tables (inter-gospel concordances as devised by St Eusebius of Caesarea), a standard feature in later gospels. Commentaries by Professor Watson show how the canon tables operate.
There are earlier gospels from elsewhere with frontispieces depicting the evangelists, but the Garima volumes are the first to have ‘the full set’, says Dr McKenzie. Matthew, Mark, Luke and John are wearing the robes seen on Egyptian monks and priests in contemporary Coptic art. Mark’s seat, in a leopard-skin pattern, seems another allusion to Egypt, whose pharaonic priests wore leopard skins.
Dr McKenzie reached Ethiopia circuitously from Petra in Jordan. The Khazneh or treasury, cut into the rock walls of Petra in the early first century CE in the shape of a steep, pillared circular pavilion known as a tholos, was similar to older depictions in Pompeiian wall painting. To understand the process of cultural transmission, the Khazneh had to be dated.
‘That’s how I came to be living in a cave in Petra. I was there about six months on and off between visits to Amman, doing my PhD in the 1980s from Sydney. At the end of the day all the tourists would leave the valley, and there would just be us and the Bedouin.
‘Showering consisted of warming up a bucket of water once a week. There was a gas canister in the kitchen, which had a water tank filled by a donkey brought by a little boy. About every two weeks we’d go back to Amman to de-grime ourselves but also to develop the film.’
In 1986, having completed her PhD, she came to Oxford to turn it into her 1990 monograph The Architecture of Petra. ‘Then one thing led to another and I seem to still be here.’ She currently directs a project on monumental art of the Christian and early Islamic East, funded by the European Research Council, and the free Manar al-Athar online photo-archive [LINK: www.manar-al-athar.ox.ac.uk ]
The tholos of Petra steered Dr McKenzie towards Pompeii, towards the architecture of Alexandria (on which she wrote a volume in the Pelican History of Art series), and towards depictions of similar structures in gospel manuscripts of the 8th century and later. ‘I realised there was a whole lot more to this,’ she says. ‘But there was a gap of many hundreds of years between these things. That was a big problem.’
The illuminations in the Garima Gospels were made in the middle of that long gap. As Dr McKenzie says, ‘This is the key, the missing link.’
View our digital gallery of images here:
The Hidden Gospels of Abba Garima, Treasures of the Ethiopian Highland runs until 12 April in the Outreach Room, Ioannou Centre for Classical and Byzantine Studies, 66 St Giles. Open Mon–Fri, 9am–5pm depending on teaching (please call 01865 288391 first). Admission free.
The Garima Gospels: Early Illuminated Gospel Books from Ethiopia, by Judith S. McKenzie and Francis Watson, with preface and photographs by Michael Gervers, is published by Manar al-Athar, University of Oxford, at £49.95.
Garima Gospels images by Michael Gervers. Portrait of Judith McKenzie by John Garth.