Ethiopia; Tigray region
Tempera on parchment; 11 x 7 1/2 in. (27.8 x 19 cm)
Purchase, Oscar de la Renta Ltd. Gift, 2005 (2006.100)
The Tigray region of Ethiopia converted to Christianity in the fourth century and became a very important ally of the Byzantine empire, ruled from Constantinople (Istanbul), in controlling the trade routes to India. Tigray also maintained contacts with other Christian communities of the eastern Mediterranean, including those in Syria and Egypt. The compelling images on this double-sided leaf are from a group of early fourteenth-century Gospels that feature a revival of motifs that reached Ethiopia from the eastern Mediterranean, probably in the seventh century.
Both sides of the leaf are inscribed in Ge'ez, the ancient language of Ethiopia. On the front is a dramatic octagonal Fountain of Life flanked by peacocks, which are identified in the inscriptions as "ostriches" (royal birds in Ethiopia), and gazellelike "babula." The text within the domed space refers to the arrangement of the Eusebian Canon Tables, or index to the Gospels, which preceded the image in the original manuscript. On the reverse, the Crucifixion is represented by a monumental jeweled cross topped by a Lamb of God, symbol of Christ's sacrifice. At the sides are the two thieves bound to their crosses. Other leaves from this Gospel are in the Nationalmuseum in Stockholm.