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

Understanding Miracles of Mary Paintings

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

October 6, 2023

How should you read a Miracles of Mary painting?

Täʾammərä Maryam paintings often consist of what scholars call “synoptic narrative art”.

Paintings often depict consecutive actions in a single image. Although some stories are illustrated with full page paintings that each represent a moment in time and a single location, many compress multiple moments and locations into a single painting. That is, a single parchment page can have a single painting that nevertheless depicts multiple moments in the tale, providing a series of vignettes representing different plot points. These paintings often omit any internal borders between the vignettes so that the moments appear as if they are happening simultaneously. 

The vignettes sometimes appear in the chronological sequence familiar to Europeans, moving from left to right and top to bottom. Yet a quite a few do not. Some Täʾammərä Maryam paintings have vignettes that move in a counterclockwise sequence, or from bottom to top. If a painting has two horizontal vignettes, the bottom one sometimes depicts the first event in the sequence. Thus, the paintings cannot easily be read on their own, without a knowledge of the narrative. In this, the PEMM episode descriptions are very helpful.

The rationale for the varied sequences of vignettes in Täʾammərä Maryam paintings has not yet been studied, but in other narrative-art traditions spatial hierarchy is determinative; that is, the most important people appear in the most important positions. In Täʾammərä Maryam, space is determinative in another way: the vignettes chosen to represent a story are often locked by location. If a story has six plot points that happen in three locations, there will usually be three vignettes, not six. For instance, the story of the cannibal of Qəmər takes place in four locations—a town, a farm, a road, and heaven—and usually has four separate vignettes, one for each location.

Most illustrators of Täʾammərä Maryam manuscripts performed their work the way the scribes did, by copying or adapting a previous text. For this reason, paintings from the same region and period can be quite similar. Human figures are rarely individualized beyond their gender and age, so painters do not seem to have worked from human models. Yet they clearly worked from observing life around
them, depicting local weapons, writing utensils, musical instruments, clothing, domestic objects, animals, churches, castles, and more. People are shown performing a range of human activities as they are done in highland Ethiopia. 

Research is still needed on the copying process. For instance, it is unclear why basic elements sometimes shift within a manuscript’s paintings for a single story. In a few cases, the same figure may have a different appearance in other vignettes: a character has gray hair in one vignette but black hair in two others on the same page. The same dog may be depicted as gray in one part and tan in another. Or, while a character’s clothes might remain the same, the color of their garments may switch on the same page. Given the long-standing inclination in highland Ethiopia toward depicting patterned fabrics in paintings, perhaps the painters simply enjoyed rendering multiple patterns.

The artist who executed the paintings and the scribe who copied the story were almost always different people. This may be another reason, in addition to copying models from other manuscripts, that images do not exactly match the text. A passage may mention a character carrying a bow and arrow, whereas the painting has him carrying a spear (as happens with the cannibal of Qəmər). Often these differences reflect technological changes over time, with the tools and utensils in a particular story changing over the centuries. Other differences between image and text can yield fascinating insights into how the story may have changed through oral transmission. If the text does not mention that the character has a wife, but she appears in the image, perhaps he was given one in contemporary oral versions of the story. Finally, illustrations found in a single manuscript may not all have been executed by one artist; sometimes novice artists trying their hand at painting have added images at the beginning or end of manuscripts.

Hand gestures and body postures in Täʾammərä Maryam paintings, and in Gəʿəz manuscript illuminations in general, constitute entire symbolic systems. While research has been done on this aspect in Roman, Byzantine, and medieval art, and some of these gestures appear in highland Ethiopian paintings as well, more work is needed on their meaning. One ancient sign is a person depicted with the index and middle fingers of one hand extended, which is a gesture signaling that the person is speaking. Other hand gestures are religious, indicating praying, giving a benediction, or making a sign of the Trinity. Raising the right hand signals that someone is making a vow and is a sign of conversion.

Some gestures seem distinctively Ethiopian, like picking someone up by the wrist. In older illustrations, hand gestures rather than facial expressions most often convey emotions, such as sorrow or amazement. Holding the left hand to the forehead is a traditional Ethiopian gesture of pity and sorrow; placing a hand on or over the head is a sign of grief or terror. In one case, the hand over the head seems to have been used to depict a child’s pleading for a certain food. Two hands clasped to the cheek with the head tilted indicates that the person is sleeping, even if that individual is shown vertically on the page as if standing.

Human bodies in Gəʿəz manuscript paintings must not be read literally but, rather, allegorically. For instance, the size of people depicted in Täʾammərä Maryam paintings often indicates their rank and status. Our Lady Mary therefore almost always appears larger than anyone else, while servants are shown as small and seemingly childlike. Evil or non-Christian characters are often portrayed in profile, with only one eye showing, while good people are never shown this way. The patrons often appear in the manuscript, standing, kneeling, or lying prostrate at the feet of Mary.

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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