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Ethiopia (Place created)
about 1480 - 1520
Tempera on parchment bound between wood boards
Closed: 36.5 × 27 × 11.4 cm (14 3/8 × 10 5/8 × 4 1/2 in.)
The Gospel book, which contains the New Testaments texts of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, is the main liturgical book used in the Ethiopian liturgy, as it was in the early Middle Ages in Europe. This example belongs to a group of manuscripts executed in the so-called Gunda Gundé style. Named after a Stephanite monastery in the Christian highlands of Ethiopia, Gunda Gundé illumination is characterized by a bright palette of primary colors, and monumental figures with rounded outlines and prominent, almond-shaped eyes. Intricate interlace patterns frame miniatures and decorate canon tables.
Particularly extraordinary in this Gospel book is a lengthy and unusual cycle of prefatory images displaying seventy-two prophets arranged in two registers one above the other. The first miniature in this series is anchored by the figure of Abraham embracing the prophets Jacob and Isaac. This series of single figures fills four double-page spreads, creating a powerful and graphic expression of seminal biblical authors within the Christian faith. The serial imagery of the prophets in this manuscript was an important visual motif developed in Gunda Gundé manuscripts, and this Gospel book contains a particularly beautiful and lengthy example.
The cycle of miniatures at the beginning of the manuscript culminates with a depiction of the Virgin and Child flanked by the archangels Gabriel and Michael holding swords. Veneration of this iconic image was instituted by Emperor Zar'a Ya'eqob (1434-1468), and this miniature represents an early and distinctive manifestation of the iconography. In addition, each Gospel is prefaced by a portrait of the evangelist who composed the text that follows, and each author is shown in the act of writing. Both the image of the Virgin and Child and the evangelist portraits are typical features of Ethiopian Gospel books.
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