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Princeton Ethiopian, Eritrean, and Egyptian Miracles of Mary (PEMM) project

The African Library of Paintings of the Virgin Mary

By Wendy Laura Belcher, Jeremy R. Brown, Mehari Worku, Dawit Muluneh, and Evgeniia Lambrinaki

October 6, 2023

What is the history of the paintings that appear with Miracles of Mary stories?

The Täʾammərä Maryam manuscripts did not originally include paintings of the miracle stories. For instance, the royal manuscript completed in December 1400 includes only paintings of the biblical stories of the Annunciation and the Virgin and Child with archangels—not the later miracle stories. Most of the early manuscripts have paintings of Mary's life, not paintings of Mary's miracles performed after her death. 

Starting in the mid-1600s, however, scribes began to produce manuscripts with illustrations for about thirty-two of the earliest Täʾammərä Maryam stories, a sequence often called Akkonu bəʾəsi (meaning “Was he not a man?,” taken from the incipit of a hymn about these stories). Most of these stories originated outside of Ethiopia.

Scholars have often stated that no other Täʾammərä Maryam stories are illustrated, but PEMM has conclusively demonstrated that is not the case. Over one hundred stories have paintings in the PEMM manuscripts. A royal manuscript dating to the reign of King Bäkaffa (r. 1721–30) is particularly distinctive in this regard, illustrating forty-one stories that had never previously received images, such as the story of the ring found in the fish.

Scholars sometimes say that Täʾammərä Maryam manuscripts with story illustrations appear only in the 1690s or early 1700s, but PEMM has conclusively demonstrated that is not the case. PEMM has catalogued eighteen illustrated Täʾammərä Maryam manuscripts created in the 1600s and the earliest securely dated one was made during the reign of King Fasilädäs (r. 1632‒67). This suggests that the practice emerged by the 1660s at the latest and perhaps even by the 1630s. 

Illuminated manuscripts from the 1600s are executed in the First Gondär style, in which paintings have a blank background and angular faces and bodies. Filled-in or slightly banded backgrounds appear early in the Gəʿəz manuscript tradition, so this blank background represents an innovation, not an absence. 

The Second Gondär style was developed later, in the court of King Iyasu I (r. 1682‒1706). One example is a magnificent Täʾammərä Maryam manuscript at Princeton that dates to the first half of the eighteenth century. The Second Gondär style is characterized by a gradient background (with horizontal bands of solid red, yellow, and green), rounder faces and bodies, and highland Ethiopian details in clothing, animals, architecture, utensils, and the like. Individual facial features are marked by age and gender, often through gray hair and neck creases, respectively. Some other markers of the style are angels with winged cherub heads (that is, without bodies), figures in three-quarter poses, richly patterned textiles, and elements of the image extending beyond the painted frame. 

Of course, quite different styles coexisted within highland Ethiopia. Some striking paintings produced beyond the Gondärine court are composed entirely of brown paint and black ink, with elongated faces and bodies abstracted into geometric patterns.

Täʾammərä Maryam manuscripts with painted stories continued to be made into the late nineteenth century. In the 1900s the tradition faded. The latest known illustrated Täʾammərä Maryam manuscript was created in the 1950s, but it illustrates only two of the Marian stories.

pricenton ethiopian eritrean & egyptian miracles of marry project

The Princeton Ethiopian, Eritrean, and Egyptian Miracles of Mary (PEMM) project is a comprehensive resource for the 1,000+ miracle stories written about and the 2,500+ images painted of the Virgin Mary in these African countries, and preserved in Geʿez between 1300 and the present.

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