"Let books be your dining table, / And you shall be full of delights. / Let them be your
And you shall sleep restful nights" (St. Ephraim the Syrian).

Tuesday, June 30, 2020

On Black Icons of the Jewish Jesus and His Mother

This moving and powerful image, of the Mother of God cradling her dead Son, is making the rounds today for obvious reasons, and it has set off some foolish white people who claim to be Catholic while understanding little about theology and even less about iconography. So herewith a brief note about some relevant books on iconography, which I teach regularly, with special reference to a tradition I deeply love, the Ethiopian.

General Studies:

Of the three primary traditions of iconography one finds in the Christian East, the Ethiopian is perhaps the least known. The Byzantine tradition is of course far and away the most widely and popularly practiced, not least because of its associations with the empire of that name. When people typically think of Eastern or Orthodox iconography, it is the Byzantine style that they almost invariably imagine and turn to. There are hundreds of books about this tradition, including many that have been published just in the last two decades, and most of these by Western Christians suddenly "inventing" (in both senses of the word) the tradition and eager to explore its riches. Searching on here using the relevant labels (at bottom of this post) will bring up dozens and dozens of posts about recent publications, scholarly and popular. If you asked me to name just 3 for those with no background, I would recommend the following:

First, for your average Roman Catholic today, start with Sr Jeana Visel's book (which I reviewed here). Second, for those desiring more historical and theological depth, then Lossky's book has long been a standard text. Third, for still more depth and detail, Ouspensky's two-volume set has long had an obligatory place on every bibliography.

Finally, for those who clearly do not understand the doctrinal approval (albeit ambivalent) given to the use of images, and who do not realize that such approval said absolutely nothing at all about what we today would call "racial" or "ethnic" differences, then this new book--one of several in an invaluable series from Liverpool University Press--will bear careful reading about the acts of Nicaea II in 787. Precisely as the defined and received doctrinal teaching of the Catholic and Orthodox Church, and precisely because it was, after all, given at an ecumenical (="whole inhabited world") gathering, we should not expect to find the diverse divines there assembled forbidding or requiring that Christ, the Theotokos, and the angels and saints be portrayed as Africans or Greeks or Copts, Romans or Armenians "for all are one in Christ Jesus."

The Coptic Tradition:

But there are other traditions within the Christian East, including the Coptic, which differs sharply from the Byzantine for all sorts of complex historical (and other) reasons we will not get into here. But this tradition lacks the vast number of books in English that the Byzantine tradition has. For those who read French, this is not a bad, if now dated, overview. For those who want a scholarly overview of iconography in all the so-called Oriental Churches, including the Coptic and Ethiopian, then Christine Chaillot's book reads like a dissertation.

For those who want to begin to understand the historical complexities around what could even be said to constitute "a tradition," as though such a thing exists in isolation from other traditions, then Magdi Guirguis's recent book will take you into some fascinating cultural alleyways.

To see Coptic iconography situated in a wider cultural context, there are numerous books, including this one, this one, and this one. I would also recommend the respected work of the scholar Nelly Van Doorn-Harder in several places, including this book which has a chapter on Coptic art.

Ethiopian Christianity and Iconography:

And now to the Ethiopian tradition. For some general studies that will give you historical context, there are several recent volumes. See, e.g., this one. For those who read German, this book (which I have only skimmed) appears to offer a wide-ranging overview. Like the Guirguis book above, this scholarly study looks at the complex cultural connections between Ethiopian iconography in a period of turbulence and transition.

Narrowing in slightly on Ethiopian churches and monasteries, which of course feature icons, we are starting to see several books devoted to these appear in English in the last decade, including this one. Just this year we had an historical overview of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. I have not read it yet, but the author, John Binns, is a respected scholar at Cambridge whose other works I have read and recommended.

This book treats just one form of images/symbols, viz., Ethiopian crosses. This book, from the invaluable Gorgias Press (which all those interested in Eastern Christianity should keep regular eye on), does something similar in a more scholarly way.

This book looks at royal connections between Ethiopian art and court.

This book looks at illustrated Ethiopian manuscripts at Oxford. Similarly, this book looks at Ethiopian illustrated gospel books.

Finally, turning to iconography proper, let me end by recommending two "coffee table" type books I sometimes look at again and again just for the sheer exuberance and joy of the colours and details: African Zion: The Sacred Art of Ethiopia by M. Heldman and S. Munro-Hay. Published by Yale University Press in 1993, there are still copies floating around for those who are interested.

And then this hefty collection, now twenty years old, but still worth tracking down: Ethiopian Icons : Catalogue of the Collection of the Institute of Ethiopian Studies Addis Ababa University by Stanislaw Chojnacki.

There is, let me note in conclusion, still ample work to be done here studying this tradition if there are aspiring graduate students out there. There are, as I noted at the outset, often dozens of new books in English alone in one year alone devoted to the Byzantine tradition alone. The Coptic and Ethiopian (to say nothing at all of other lesser known Eastern Christian traditions--e.g., the Georgian, Armenian, Syro-Malabar, etc.) traditions are still comparatively poorly understood by anglophone historians and theologians; but the Ethiopian is a profound, venerable, beautiful tradition deserving of all the once and future love we call scholarship that we can devote to it.

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