It is always an out-of-the-way pleasure to visit the Ethiopians who live on the roof of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. Now another surprise about this ancient civilisation has arrived via Oxford: pictures and analysis of three books of Gospels of astonishing antiquity.
They were preserved in the monastery of Abba Garima at Madara in the north of Ethiopia, in what was once the Aksumite kingdom, which looked north to Egypt. One of the Gospel books (Abba Garima III in the jargon) is the earliest in the world to have portraits of the four evangelists and decorated Canon Tables. It was made as early as 330 AD, according to carbon dating.
In full-page illuminations, on coloured backgrounds, golden-haloed, large-eyed Sts Matthew, Luke and John stand, holding their Gospels in one hand respectfully cloaked in their bright vestments, the other hand held in blessing. St Mark, in a classical cloak and tunic, sits in a chair covered in a leopard-skin pattern (pictured here). His dress, we learn, resembles that worn by Virgil in a third-century mosaic found at Sousse, Tunisia. More familiarly, these are the clothes that Abraham wears in the sixth-century mosaics at San Vitale in Ravenna.
Read it all and don’t miss all the pictures.