Travelling through Ethiopia in October this year brought me into contact with beautiful scenery, amazing people and contemplating a rich and wondrous cultural history.
It is the land of AL129-1 commonly referred to as ‘Lucy’ aged 3.2 million years, vital statistics female, 1.1meter and an upright standing hominid.
It is also the land of rock hewn Monasteries in the northern Tigre region and wattle and daub churches on the islands and highlands surrounding Lake Tana, source of the Blue Nile.
Conservation efforts are apparently underway but in a land and continent usually only in the news for its wars, famines and the cult of Ras Tafari later Emperor Haile Selassie, cultural artefacts are not even second place in the pecking order for resources. Often objects are actively removed for purposes of profit, control and undermining a nations cultural wealth and history (see Art Newspaper, Oct 2013 ‘Restitution begins at home’ – no.9)
I did glean a little information into how things were made from the paintings attached to the walls of the churches and monasteries visited in the region of Lake Tana and the glorious rock hewn monasteries of Lalibela close to the border with Eritrea.
Churches and monasteries have both wall paintings and quite a lot of paintings on canvas stuck to the walls directly.
The inner walls of the circular mud built churches around Lake Tana were lined with linen canvas, which had been painted with what looks to be casein-based paint. There is plenty of evidence of painting and repainting images as a process of renewal and pride rather than for restoration purposes.
Bible scenes and stories are illustrated in a traditional frieze format.
The paint layer is directly and evenly applied, it is opaque and fairly thick suggesting casein based Tuschlein technique – distemper.
The materials would be locally available, affordable, quick and easy to make (water based) and to use in quantity. Equally they would be quick drying with the added bonus of being relatively safe to use.
The frieze like nature of the paintings, which fit curving walls sometimes 20 feet high and openings for windows and doors, suggests the paintings would be carried out in situ once the mud walls had been lined with canvas fabric. (It would otherwise be complicated measuring and pattern cutting to paint the canvases then apply them to the walls, let alone damaging to brittle paint layers).
The design quality of the images suggests they are standard images copied from pattern books rather than local interpretations of stories. It made me wonder if there are itinerant artisans making these works? The standard of interpretation is fairly consistent and quality relatively high which would mean either local communities have more than their fair share of competent artists or more likely the Church calls in a team to decorate it. It would be interesting to find out.
The linen canvas is probably attached using animal or vegetable glue that adheres well to mud and daub. The canvasses are evenly and well-attached indicating skill and craftsmanship at work, again an itinerant work force. Linen had also been attached to wooden steps, which too had been painted. Passing traffic and damages at hand height level has sometimes frayed the edges of the linen.
Pigments were bright and usually appeared freshly painted with modern synthetic versions of ultramarine and vermilion along with yellow ochre’s, earth colours, a bright and heavy white (lead?), mixtures of green and an opaque blue-black, probably lamp black, for outlines.
Many Churches had religious canvas paintings propped against the walls; most were modern sometimes gaudily painted probably using the equivalent of household paint – glossy, bright, cheap and plentiful.
The remains of wall paintings at the Church of Bet Maryam in Lalibela are said to be 6th century. They are faded with many losses but remarkable in having survived and not having been repainted. Although damaged the ghostly images of the Three Kings are clearly visible. The pigments are earths with a lamp black and a white, the opacity and brightness of which suggests a lead based pigment.
Other paintings in scrolls, parchment books and wooden diptychs were brought out to view. Some were patently old such as the parchment manuscripts bound between wooden covers in the Ashetan Maryam Monastery high on the ridge above Lalibela at around 3,500 meters.
Some, such as the large format texts held in the modern 1960’s Church of St Mary of Zion in Lalibela, are recent acquisitions as are the paintings on canvas there – in sorry condition but purposefully well used and adored.