"Heroes": Principles of African Greatness Part 3— Ethiopia—Divine Endurance

Join us for the third of 7 dispatches from "Heroes," exploring artworks from the National Museum of African Art’s permanent collection that tell the story of key heroic principles and personages in Africa’s arts and history, through art, biography, quotes, interviews, and music.

Heroes: Principles of African Greatness Exhibit Entryway (2019) by Brad SimpsonSmithsonian National Museum of African Art

A long-term permanent collection installation at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of African Art.  


Curated by Kevin D. Dumouchelle

Heroes Exhibit Banner (2019) by Sakinya Washington and Lisa VannSmithsonian National Museum of African Art

Be your best. This is the quest that the greatest of heroes model for us. Through their journeys, struggles, and triumphs, exceptional individuals exemplify values that we celebrate in tales of heroic accomplishment—epics that outlast heroes themselves. Africa’s history abounds with such tales.

Battle of Adwa (2019) by Franko L. KhourySmithsonian National Museum of African Art

Part 3: Ethiopia—Divine Endurance

Ethiopia has need of no one; she stretches her hand unto God.
—Emperor Menelik II, renouncing Italy’s claims to Ethiopia, 1893

Battle of Adwa paintings (2019) by Brad SimpsonSmithsonian National Museum of African Art

Ethiopia’s long, legendary history—from the establishment of one the world’s oldest extant Christian faith traditions to its role as one of the earliest members of the League of Nations, and beyond—forms the bedrock of this section. 

Heroes Series 3 (2021-01-07) by Kevin DumouchelleSmithsonian National Museum of African Art

Heroes and Artist of Part 3 (3:15)

Battle of Adwa paintings (2019) by Brad SimpsonSmithsonian National Museum of African Art

One of two series that focus exclusively on artworks and histories from a single African country, this group brings many of the central Heroes motifs together, focusing their shared and overlapping histories in one place. 

All four of the works in this section also belong to one, broad art historical genre—narrative painting, born in a devotional setting. To that end, they also provide a visual narrative of gradual change, within an overall context of continuity. Together, these four artists continue Ethiopia’s long tradition of hand(s) stretched unto God—in this case, with pigments in the other.

Heroes: Principles of African Greatness - Dispatch 3 Themes (2021) by Marc BretzfelderSmithsonian National Museum of African Art

Each principal in Heroes is represented by an artwork and a specific historic African person who embodies the value expressed in the selected work. In this third dispatch we explore art and heroes who are Pious, Illustrious, and remain Resolute.


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Ethiopian icon in the form of a diptych (1630/1700) by Ethiopian artistSmithsonian National Museum of African Art

Pious

Christianity is deep into its second millennium as an African religion. 

Icon in the form of a diptych

Ethiopian artist
Vicinity of Gondar, Amhara Region, Ethiopia
c. 1630–1700
Distemper, gesso, and cloth on wood
Gift of Ciro R. Taddeo in memory of Raffael and Alessandra Taddeo, 98-3-3

Ethiopia is home to followers of all three major monotheistic religions—Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Indeed, Ethiopia’s Coptic Church (c. 331–340) predates Rome (380) as a Christian state religion. 

This masterful 17th-century icon is a highly charged devotional work, depicting multiple moments in the life of Jesus and the Holy Family. 

The artist, working in what is known as the Early Gondarene style, situates these figures in a world of Ethiopian visual references. 

From the point of view of a devout Orthodox viewer of this work, the artist is clearly rendering Jesus and the Holy Family as heroes in their own rights.

An object of veneration and devotion, this icon partook in Ethiopia’s long, ongoing history of pious participation in the Christian world. 

Over the millennia in which Christianity developed as an Ethiopian faith practice, it provided not only a means of connection to the outside world, but also a deep reservoir of moral and cultural confidence...

...a strength demonstrated in the country’s openness to nine immigrant refugees in the 4th century.

Nine Saints (2019) by Lisa VannSmithsonian National Museum of African Art

The Nine Saints

Immigrants and refugees, they helped to establish Ethiopia as a Christian kingdom.

(Abba Aftse, Abba Alef, Abba Aragawi, Abba Garima, Abba Guba, Abba Liqanos, Abba Pantelewon, Abba Sehma, Abba Yem’ata)
Active c. 4th–5th century around the kingdom of Aksum

Intro to Ethiopia's Nine Saints (2019) by Augustus (Gus) Casely-Hayford and Michael BriggsSmithsonian National Museum of African Art

The Nine Saints (1900/2000) by Unknown ArtistSmithsonian National Museum of African Art

The Nine Saints

Abba Pentalewon Monastery, near Aksum

Photograph by Ondřej Žváček, Feb. 13, 2009 

· Driven out of Byzantine provinces (including Syria, Constantinople, Anatolia, and Rome) following a series of doctrinal conflicts, these missionaries were welcomed by King Ella Amida into the kingdom of Aksum in northern Ethiopia.

· The Nine Saints established a number of monasteries throughout Aksum, winning converts to the Christian faith broadly. The Garima Gospels, said to have been written by Abba Garima, are now considered to be the world’s oldest extant Christian illuminated manuscripts. 

· King Ella Amida’s son and successor, King Ezana, was baptized and established the Ethiopian Orthodox Church as the kingdom’s state religion. 

Selections from the Heroes Playlist




Bob Marley and the Wailers – “Exodus”
Lyrics by Bob Marley
Exodus. Island Records, 1977.
Reggae

Story of the Queen of Sheba (1940/1960) by Afewerq MengeshaSmithsonian National Museum of African Art

Illustrious

Through her example, she birthed a dynasty—and a legend.

Story of the Queen of Sheba

Afewerq Mengesha
b. 1944, Ethiopia
Mid-20th century
Paint on canvas
Gift of Joseph and Patricia Brumit, 2004-7-61

According to the Kebra Nagast (The Glory of the Kings), a 14th-century recounting of the Ethiopian royal line, Queen Makeda, ruler of the realm, traveled to Jerusalem in the 10th century B.C.E. to witness the fabled wisdom of King Solomon. 

While there, she bore a son by Solomon.

As a young adult, her son Menelik returned to Jerusalem to meet his father. 

Upon coming home, Menelik founded Ethiopia’s Solomonic dynasty (through which descent was traced until Emperor Haile Selassie’s abdication in 1974) and is credited with bringing the Ark of the Covenant to Ethiopia. 

Scenes from the Kebra Nagast—and, in particular, from the life of the Queen of Sheba—became one of the most important and widely reproduced sets of images as painters in mid-20th century Ethiopia began to adapt to new markets for their work. 

Afewerq Mengesha, who worked for the Ethiopian Tourist Trading Corporation, was one of the most inventive and distinctive artists working in this market. His distinctive style of figures with enlarged eyes and digits is immediately recognizable. 

Königin Sheba (Queen of Sheba) (2019) by Lisa VannSmithsonian National Museum of African Art

Queen of Sheba

This queen’s fame stands the test of time. 

May have ruled Sabaean kingdom from Ma’rib, or kingdom of D’mt; dates disputed.

Intro to the Queen of Sheba (2019) by Augustus (Gus) Casely-Hayford and Michael BriggsSmithsonian National Museum of African Art

Sheba (Queen of Sheba) (1405) by Konrad KyeserSmithsonian National Museum of African Art

Königin Sheba (Queen of Sheba)

Konrad Kyeser
From manuscript, Bellifortis, 1405
Image on parchment
Staats-und Universitätsbibliothek Göttingen, Germany

. . . And this Queen of the South was very beautiful in face, and her stature was superb. Her understanding and intelligence, which God had given her, were of such high character that she went to Jerusalem to hear the wisdom of Solomon. This was done by the Will of God and it was His good pleasure. Moreover, she was exceedingly rich, for God had given her glory, and riches . . .
—Description of the Queen of Sheba in the Kebra Nagast

· While recorded in many of the sacred texts of the region, basic facts about the life of this remarkable woman remain unresolved. 

· Accounts describing the Queen of the South, or the Queen of Sheba, may refer to Bilqīs, a queen of the Sabaean kingdom of D’mt (modern Eritrea and northern Ethiopia).


· Trading regularly with Israel, the queen learned of King Solomon’s fabled knowledge and traveled to Jerusalem to see him. 

· While in Israel, she bore a son, Menelik, by King Solomon. As a young adult, Menelik returned to Jerusalem to meet his father. 

 · Upon coming home, Menelik founded Ethiopia’s Solomonic dynasty (through which descent was traced until Emperor Emperor Haile Selassie’s abdication in 1974) and is credited with bringing the Ark of the Covenant to Ethiopia.

Selections from the Heroes Playlist




George Frederic Handel – “Arrival of the Queen of Sheba” (From Solomon Act III: No. 42)
Composed by George Frederic Handel. London, 1749.
Baroque sinfonia

Battle of Adwa Collage (Top 1970 - Bottom 1968) by Solomon Belachew and Bottom - Unidentified artistSmithsonian National Museum of African Art

Resolute

Dateline: March 1, 1896. An African army wins its most resounding and lasting victory against colonialism.

Battle of Adwa (1970) by Solomon BelachewSmithsonian National Museum of African Art

Battle of Adwa

Solomon Belachew
1919–2002, b. Gojjam area, Amhara Region, Ethiopia
Worked in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia
1970
Oil on canvas
Gift of Miriam and Michael Dow, 2003-19-1

Battle of Adwa Painting (1968) by Unidentified artistSmithsonian National Museum of African Art

Battle of Adwa

Unidentified artist
Ethiopia
1968
Oil on canvas
Gift of Joseph and Patricia Brumit, 2004-7-60

Battle of Adwa Collage (Top 1970 - Bottom 1968) by Solomon Belachew and Bottom - Unidentified artistSmithsonian National Museum of African Art

As morning rose to noon that day, Ethiopian forces under Emperor Menelik II defeated an invading Italian army at the Battle of Adwa. In so doing, they prevented the imposition of colonial rule. Adwa became a ringing symbol of resistance to colonial oppression across Africa and its diaspora.

Solomon Belachew—an artist renowned for depicting religious scenes—captured the ferocity of battle in his painting through the use of opposing diagonal lines, suggesting action between the two opposing sides...

...and decapitated Italian soldiers.

Consistent with artistic conventions governing Ethiopian religious painting, the unidentified artist of the second version of the scene depicts the righteous Ethiopians as full-faced figures...

...while the forces of evil (the Italians, in this case) are shown largely in profile. 

Because the Battle of Adwa fell on March 1, St. George’s Day, the popular saint is depicted astride a horse and ready for battle as he descends from the sky. 

Paintings of the Battle of Adwa remain popular diplomatic gifts that the Ethiopian government has presented to visiting dignitaries and foreign diplomats stationed in the country. The message seems clear: “we remain unbowed.”

Menelik, the Lion of Judah (2019) by Lisa VannSmithsonian National Museum of African Art

Menelik II

Emiye Menelik [“my mother, Menelik”] led Ethiopia into the 20th century.
 
1844–1913, b. Angolalla, Ethiopia
Reigned 1889–1913 over Ethiopian Empire from Addis Ababa

Emperor Menelik II (2019) by Augustus (Gus) Casely-Hayford and Michael BriggsSmithsonian National Museum of African Art

Menelik, the Lion of Judah (1896) by Alfred IlgSmithsonian National Museum of African Art

Ethiopia has need of no one, she stretches her hand unto God.
—Emperor Menelik II, renouncing Italy’s claims to Ethiopia, 1893

· Crowned ruler of the constituent kingdom of Shewa, Menelik claimed descent from the union of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. Outmaneuvering rivals, he received the imperial crown on Nov. 3, 1889. 


· Menelik decisively rejected an Italian attempt to establish a protectorate over Ethiopia in 1893 and repelled Italy’s military invasion at Adwa in 1896.

· Menelik expanded and consolidated the borders of the Ethiopian state, suppressed the slave trade, established new ministries, built a new imperial capital—Addis Ababa—and introduced a series of new technologies, including the railway, electricity, telephones, automobiles, and indoor plumbing.

Selections from the Heroes Playlist




Sydney Salmon – “Never Been Colonized”
Lyrics by Sydney Salmon
Ethiopia Nevah Colonize. Orthodox Muzik, 2011.
Ethiopian reggae

Credits: Story

Curated by Kevin D. Dumouchelle
National Museum of African Art
Smithsonian Institution

Story Design by Marc Bretzfelder
Office of the Chief Information Officer
Smithsonian Institution

Photo of Story of the Queen of Sheba by Brad Simpson, National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution


Photos of Diptych and Battle of Adwa by Franko L. Khoury, National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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