Church and Emperor: An Ethiopian Crucifixion

6 March – 5 May 2008
Room 3
Admission free

To celebrate the first Easter of the Ethiopian millennium an extraordinary African painting of the Crucifixion of Christ will be on display in Room 3. Ethiopia today is a country of many faiths and cultures founded on an ancient kingdom established at Aksum over two millennia ago. The Ethiopian church and state uses a unique calendar, which is 7-8 years behind that, used by the rest of the world. On the 12 September 2007 Ethiopians around the world celebrated Enkutatash, New Year 2000 and the beginning of a new millennium.

This remarkable painting comes from Tigre in northern Ethiopia and was donated to the museum in 1893 by James Theodore Bent. As an icon of one of the world’s oldest states, it tell multiple stories – with layered meanings about Christianity and the Ethiopian empire. The painting was made in the mid ninteenth century for the Church of Medhane Alam, The Saviour of the World at Adwa. It tells the life story of Abune Selama, patriarch of the Ethiopian Church from 1841 to 1867 and a key political and religious figure at the time. The Crucifixion dominates the centre of the painting and is surrounded by eleven smaller scenes; three relate to the Passion of Christ while eight illustrate key moments in the life of Abune Selama. It is a painting of great religious passion, glorifying Christ’s ultimate sacrifice for mankind, a witness to the very moment of his death and the fulfilment of biblical prophecy.

The Crucifixion of Christ follows many traditional Ethiopian painting conventions both in style and composition. The fundamental objective of a church art is to convey the message of Holy Scripture and to inspire devotion. The inclusion of historical narratives illustrates the way secular aspects of life could permeate church painting, communicating complex ideas of faith and history through image rather than word. This particular painting, which layers the life of Christ above the life story of a Christian Priest, offers a great insight into the complex relationship between church and state and allows a greater understanding of modern Ethiopian history. The painting has recently been extensively conserved by the British Museum conservators to help preserve it for future generations. In 2007 scientists carried out a full analysis of the painting and discovered colours that have over time completely disappeared. A reconstruction of the painting with the original colours restored can be seen in the exhibition.

As part of the British Museum’s celebration of Ethiopian art and culture a short season of Ethiopian films will be screened every Friday evening and gallery talks will run throughout the period of the exhibition. On 3 May the Museum will host a day of Ethiopian music, dance, art and culture with gallery talks and workshops for all the family. Virtual tours on the Museum’s website allow worldwide appreciation of Ethiopia’s rich heritage, while projects with colleagues at the National Museum of Ethiopia and with the Ethiopian community in London will continue the legacy of this millennium celebration. There will also be a new temporary display of Ethiopian paintings exploring themes of royalty and everyday life will lead visitors into the Sainsbury Africa Gallery, where many of the objects illustrated can be seen. Further permanent displays in Gallery 66 celebrate the diversity of Ethiopian culture and Ethiopia’s connection to Coptic Egypt.

For further information or images please contact Katrina Whenham on +44 (0)20 7323 8583 or kwhenham@britishmuseum.org