Russian icon museum showcases Ethiopian art

CLINTON – The items on display in the Museum of Russian Icons have become legendary, part of the largest collection in North America.
Other cultures, however, have icons in their traditions, and through April 18, icons from the African nation of Ethiopia will be featured in an exhibit called “The Vibrant Art and Storied History of Ethiopian Icons.”
russia and ethiopia
The exhibit features 60 icons and artifacts, most borrowed from a private collection in Europe. At least one featured icon may remain behind, as museum founder Gordon Lankton eyed it as a possible addition to the museum’s collection.
The icons are very different from the Russian styles.
Influences from Europe and the Middle East combined with Ethiopian culture create a different look, exhibit curator Marc Loerke said.
The general themes are largely the same. But Ethiopian icons add in more stories, such as that of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, whose son, Menilik, played a role in Ethiopia adopting Judaism. Later, Christianity took hold as monks arrived and missions were established.
The Ark of the Covenant is reputed to be in Ethiopia, brought back by Menilik from Jerusalem after a visit to his father, and protected by monks in Ethiopia since.
“It was very important for them that the Ark was brought back to Ethiopia,” Loerke said.
On display are numerous icons, manuscripts featuring colorful illustrations and crosses, including metal and carved examples.
“Ethiopian culture is one of the oldest Christian cultures in Africa,” Loerke said, with churches dating back to the 11th and 12th centuries.
The icons are part of the history of Ethiopia, he said, but feature “things you won’t see in other Orthodox lands like Russia.”
He pointed out one large example copied from a 9th-century woodcut Jesuits brought from Rome. It was copied as a standard image, complete with an error showing four fingers on one hand. The example on display was painted in the 18th century.
Ethiopians developed their own style, Loerke said, including preferred colors and showing people in profile. The images show the influence of Coptic and Byzantine icons brought back from pilgrimages to Jerusalem.
Despite the nation’s people being dark-skinned, light-skinned portrayals dominate the works; over time, that was explained as white being the color of purity.
The images, from icons to manuscripts, feature bold figures and bright colors, some reminiscent of typical African style.
And a patron of an icon might be found in the work itself, usually lying down in the image.
Manuscripts and magic scrolls (prayer scrolls) feature an early Ethiopian language, Ge’ez, according to Laura Garrity-Arquitt of the museum. The language, once the official language of the Kingdom of Aksum, is now used primarily for liturgical purposes.
Ethiopian icons, which developed in the 16th century, were found in monasteries, churches and the homes of the wealthy.
Illuminated manuscripts and magic scrolls, however, brought the images into nearly every Christian household. Examples include manuscripts and carved images to be carried, often in boxes hung from the neck.
The exhibit runs through April 18 at the museum, 203 Union St., Clinton. The museum is open Tuesday through Friday from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., Thursday until 7 p.m. and Saturdays 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Admission is $10 for adults, $7 for seniors and $5 for children.

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