Spreading the Word

Ethiopic Gospelbook

Ethiopic Gospelbook
Ethiopic Gospelbook (Zir Ganela Gospels)
New York, Morgan Library and Museum, MS. M.828
Ink and pigments on parchment; ff. 207; 362 x 251mm
Gospels; Ethiopic (Ge’ez)
Ethiopia, 1400&3150;1401 (with eleventh-century canon tables)

This impressive gospelbook was written and illuminated in Ethiopia between August 29, 1400 and August 28, 1401, according to the colophon on f. 205v, which also states that it was made for Princess Zir G-anela, granddaughter of King ‘Amda Seyon.

The decoration comprises twenty-six full-page miniatures, eight decorated canon tables, and four illuminated incipit pages. Ewa Balicka-Witakowska (1997, p. 130) mentions the observation by J. Pirenne (1982) that the canon table pages are earlier than the manuscript, and can be dated to the tenth/eleventh century. They may have been preserved because of their association with a valued earlier manuscript and included within the princess’s new commission to emphasize the legitimacy of the rule of the dynasty from which she sprang by stressing links with the past. There are many splendid Ethiopic books dating from this time onwards, but survivals from earlier periods are extremely rare.

This opening colorfully depicts the Crucifixion. The angels and the sun and moon watch on, the two thieves hang on their adjacent crosses, and the spear- and sponge-bearers (Stephaton and Longinus, according to apocryphal legend, here both shown holding spears) reach up to the body of Christ—which is absent, the empty cross serving to demonstrate his victory over death in the Resurrection.

The text is written in Ethiopic script in Ge’ez, the literary language of Ethiopia, in two columns of between twenty-five and twenty-nine lines. A note in Italian on f. 91 in purple ink, the same ink used for the earlier foliation, reads Manca qualchecosa fra le due pagine (something is missing between the two pages). The book was previously bound in wooden panels (a colophon on f. 207 indicates the manuscript had been rebound in the seventeenth century). It was rebound for the Pierpont Morgan Library in brick-red, native-dyed goatskin, tooled with a design of a cross standing upon a mound representing Golgotha, site of the Crucifixion.

The manuscript was owned by Léon Gruel of Paris in 1928 and then by Gregor Ahron; it was purchased by the Pierpont Morgan Library in December 1948 from Aron and Artim Hazarian through the Lewis Cass Ledyard fund.
MPB (author bios)

Skehan, 1954; Marilyn Eiseman Heldman, “Miniatures of the Gospels of Zir Ganela, an Ethiopian Manuscript dated A.D. 1400/01” (Ph.D. thesis, Washington University, St. Louis, 1972); Heldman, [1975], p. 52, figs. 4, 5; J. Pirenne, “Paleographic clues for classification of Ge’ez writings from the 6th to 16th century,” 1982, unpublished typescript, available at the Morgan Library and Museum, New York; Fitzgerald, 1992, p. 125a; Urbaniack-Walczak, 1992, pp. 143, 145; Wilson, fig. 56; Heldman, 1994, pp. 85, 101, 192, fig. 46; Balicka-Witakowska, 1997, pp. 5-7, 15, 16, 19, 21-25, 27-29, 31-33, 67, 69, 70, 72, 74-78, 80, 81, 87-90, 115, 130, 131, 185, pl. IX; Chojnacki, 2000.

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