Field and river

20th International Conference of Ethiopian Studies (ICES20)
Mekelle University, Ethiopia

"Regional and Global Ethiopia - Interconnections and Identities"
1-5 October, 2018

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MESERET Oldjira, Princeton University, Department of Art and Archaeology

In studies that describe the stylistic traits of Ethiopian illuminated manuscripts produced prior to the sixteenth century, the term “conservative” is often uncritically deployed to define both stylistic and iconographic attributes. Implicit in such definitions are ideas of artistic limitations and lack of innovation on part of Ethiopian artists, particularly when compared to foreign sources. The aim of this paper is to unpack some of the complex issues surrounding the use of the term “conservative” to describe the style of some of the earliest surviving Ethiopian illuminated manuscripts. Central to this aim is to examine how, if at all, is the term itself defined, what kind of vexed questions of quality it assumes, and what sort of unchallenged assumptions its use presupposes. More importantly, this paper will draw attention to aspects of manuscript production and illumination that are often left out of discussions on “conservative” style - aspects such as patronage, function and symbolic meaning of Ethiopian illuminated manuscripts. Two illuminated Gospels from the monastery of Däbra Hayq Estifanos, produced decades apart between the late thirteenth century and the early fourteenth century, will serve as the case studies for my localized and contextualized investigation.