Unknown Artist, The Crucifixion of Jesus Christ and the Life of Bishop Selama, Detail, Around AD 1855, Tigray, Ethiopia.

The Many Narratives in an Ethiopian Painting of the Crucifixion

Unknown Artist, The Crucifixion of Jesus Christ and the Life of Bishop Selama, Around AD 1855, Tigray, Ethiopia.

Unknown Artist, The Crucifixion of Jesus Christ and the Life of Bishop Selama, Detail, Around AD 1855, Tigray, Ethiopia.


The British Museum
Great Russell Street
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Room 3
Church and Emperor:
An Ethiopian Crucifixion

March 6-May 5, 2008

An extraordinary African painting of the Crucifixion of Christ is on display In celebration of the first Easter of the Ethiopian millennium. 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 use a unique calendar, which is 7-8 years behind that, used by the most of the rest of the world. On the September 12, 2007 Ethiopians around the world celebrated Enkutatash, New Year 2000 and the beginning of a new millennium.

This 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 tells multiple stories — with layered meanings about Christianity and the Ethiopian empire. The painting was made in the mid 19th 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 smaller scenes; three relate to the Passion of Christ while eight illustrate 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 painting follows traditional Ethiopian painting conventions 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 shows how secular aspects of life can permeate church painting, communicating complex ideas of faith and history through image. This particular painting, which layers the life of Christ above the story of a Christian Priest, offers great insight into the complex relationship between church and state and allows a greater understanding of modern Ethiopian history. The painting has been extensively conserved by British Museum conservators to help preserve it for future generations. In 2007 scientists analyzed 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 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 continue the legacy of this millennium celebration. There will also be a temporary display of Ethiopian paintings exploring themes of royalty and everyday life that 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.

Ethiopia has a very long and rich tradition of painting. As early as AD 620 two wives of The Prophet Mohammed described the beauty of the murals of St Mary Zion Church at Aksum. Most painters were priests and monks who learnt the art of painting under the guidance of an experienced church artist. Their work was commissioned by wealthy Ethiopians and illustrated and explained stories from the Bible and of the lives of saints. Church art was intended to be both informative and to inspire devotion.

This painting was made for the church of the Saviour of the World at Adwa in northern Ethiopia. As with most Ethiopian church paintings we do not know the name of the artist.

The main purpose of this painting was to inspire devotion through the depiction of Christ's crucifixion. It shows several episodes from the crucifixion story as if taking place at the same time. Christ’s followers are shown at the foot of the cross with tears running down their faces. The Virgin Mary is supported by St John the Evangelist, and Mary Magdalene embraces Christ’s feet.

Near the base of the cross is the skull of Adam — according to the Bible, the first man on earth. The crucifixion took place at Golgotha, the exact place where Adam was believed to be buried. Christ’s blood pours into the skull, indicating that the blood of Christ will bring salvation to everyone.

Around the edge of the painting there are 11 smaller scenes which celebrate the life of Bishop Selama, Head of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church from 1841 to 1867. The painting also depicts the coronation of Emperor Tewodros II in 1855. Dejazmatch Wube and Biru Goshu, key political figures in the mid nineteenth-century Ethiopian politics of church and state are also shown.

Church paintings at this time were an important means of communication and observers would have been able to identify the recent events shown.

The painting was donated to the British Museum by the archaeologist James Theodore Bent in 1893 and is part of a comprehensive collection of Ethiopian material he put together while travelling in Ethiopia.

British Museum conservators have recently relined the painting and mounted it on a flat board. This helps preserve it, while a full analysis of the painting carried out by Museum scientists has allowed a greater understanding of the construction of the painting.

Unknown Artist, The Crucifixion of Jesus Christ and the Life of Bishop Selama, Detail, Around AD 1855, Tigray, Ethiopia.