Visiting "Ethiopia at the Crossroads"

Written by
Jessica Savage
Feb. 6, 2024

The Department of Art & Archaeology recently organized a trip to see Ethiopia at the Crossroads at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore with generous support from Princeton’s Program in Medieval Studies. The trip, which departed Green Hall early on Friday morning, February 2, was attended by Princeton staff, faculty, and students. Fueled by a cornucopia of travel snacks brought along for the journey, the group initially had about one and a half hours to explore the Walters before meeting up again for lunch.

After we dispersed from the museum entrance, I couldn’t help but glimpse at the first-floor galleries holding the Ethiopia at the Crossroads exhibition to see what was in store, knowing that a more in-depth experience awaited in the afternoon. Then, as any “Indexer” of medieval art would, I headed straight for the Third Floor Medieval Art galleries to visit with more familiar “friends” at the Walters, such as the garnet and gemstone pair of Visigothic eagle fibulae and a small cache of Gothic ivory mirror backs filled with courtly imagery.

a veiled woman holding a male child surrounded by busts of angels

A panel of the Virgin and Child between Archangels Michael and Gabriel by Fré Seyon (Ethiopian, active late 15c.) is compared to a visually similar icon painting made by the workshop of Bartolomeo Vivarini (Italian, active 1432–1499), including a group of related Ethiopian panel paintings depicting saints, angels, and the Virgin and Christ Child (above, Institute of Ethiopian Studies at Addis Ababa University, “St. Mary Mother of the Beloved Son”; and Baltimore, Walters Art Museum, 37.1218) (Photo/Jessica Savage)

It was interesting to walk around these galleries, exploring the arc of medieval art history organized into its canon groups, and see that a few Ethiopian works of art remained on display here. One work of art, a triptych of the Virgin Mary and Christ Child, flanked by saints, apostles, and Passion scenes, was made in Ethiopia during the late Solomonic period or in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries (Baltimore, Walters Art Museum, 36.7).

The triptych’s image of the Virgin, described by the museum as a woman with “large, watchful eyes,” meets viewers with a powerful gaze and presence. The characteristic wide-open eyes of figures in Ethiopian iconography left a lasting impression on me as I wandered this space. Their liveliness seemed to suggest a knowingness about this historic moment at the Walters, the first major art exhibition in America focused on the artistic traditions of Ethiopia.

A woman with short reddish-brown hair displays an open guidebook of coins to a group of museum visitors in a gallery space.

Curator Christine Sciacca demonstrates the illustrated guides strategically placed around the museum gallery for extra learning and interaction (Photo/Jessica Savage)

Christine Sciacca, Walters Art Museum Curator of European Art, 300–1400 CE, met the Princeton group at 1:30 pm to dive deeper into the exhibition. We heard about the planning stages for Ethiopia at the Crossroads, which was seven years in the making, including the museum’s process for loans to the exhibition– 40% of the objects come from the Walters’ collection, and the rest traveled from American, European, and Ethiopian institutions and private collections.

When Sciacca was asked by Assistant Professor of Art History at Rice University, Denva Gallant, what her favorite work in the exhibition was, she responded “the fan” (Baltimore, Walters Art Museum, 36.9). It is easy to see why this object was the curator’s favorite object in the exhibition, and it quickly became my highlight as well. The colorful processional icon, formed into a fan by gathering both ends, is positioned in a case near the entrance, outspread in a cascade of accordion folds. The fan, made of ink, thread, and paint on parchment, bears images of facing pairs of prophets, saints, and angels dressed primarily in red, yellow, blue, and green robes. Examining the fan further, I noticed some Geʽez inscriptions in the blank margins above the figures, raising questions for me about the identification of some figures and the persistent mystery of others, and I pondered the reproducibility of iconography over these uniform parchment strips.

Throughout the exhibition, I reflected on the idea of transmission in medieval and early modern Ethiopia– which was fluid, fertile, and rich in exchange– at a “crossroads” of trade and travel with neighboring cultures. The exhibition was arranged to draw you into some of these major intersecting locations in a brilliantly balanced selection of over two hundred devotional and daily objects, including from Ethiopian, Coptic, and Armenian cultures, which represent visual traditions in the three Abrahamic faiths.

The exhibition Ethiopia at the Crossroads brings together these objects across continents and oceans to tell a story that is expertly researched, multi-dimensional, and ever-evolving with recent and ongoing conservation efforts at the Walters. Despite the objects being displayed behind protective glass, I often reflected on the tactility and material richness of the objects. One could almost feel the handheld prayer books bound in well-worn thongs of leather and rubbed wooden boards or to sense the glossiness of egg tempera paint layers on thick frames of chipped paint and wood. I reflected on how these objects tell us about a human experience through beautifully produced, spiritually significant objects that have been touched, passed, presented, as well as kissed (Baltimore, Walters Art Museum, 61.342) by people for hundreds of years.

A woman with short brown hair raises a small card to her nose in a museum gallery with metalwork objects on display nearby.

Zi (Zoe) Wang, visiting researcher in the A&A Department and a PhD Candidate at the Central Academy of Fine Arts, smells a scratch-and-sniff card for Frankincense near the censers in the “Ethiopia at the Crossroads” exhibition (Photo/Jessica Savage)

My penchant for tactility throughout the Ethiopia at the Crossroads exhibition was gratified by the clever inclusion of scratch-and-sniff cards, including fragrances for Frankincense, Manuscripts, and Berber, placed on gallery walls to create an immersive experience for visitors. The Walters took every opportunity to install learning guides and materials so there could be an immediate handling of information about the scripts, languages, and subjects encountered in the exhibition.

Ethiopia at the Crossroads was well-attended that Friday and Sciacca’s presentation for our group drew people from the public to linger around us, generating a serendipitous connection to the larger Baltimore community. As much as we were visitors to the Walters, marveling at precious objects made in parchment, marble, stone, metal, wood, and textile, we were also part of a contemporary circuit of people who appreciate these works of art and could even place ourselves squarely in them.

In the final gallery of Ethiopia at the Crossroads is the multimedia and video installation “Brave New World II” by the Ethiopian artist Theo Eshetu (b. 1958), which appeared at first to be a framed painting.

Bust and face of a bearded man and woman partly visible in numerous reflections within a multimedia art installation

Fatih Han and Jessica Savage interact with Theo Eshetu’s multimedia and video installation “Brave New World II” 1999 (2006 edition) (Photo/Fatih Han)

Playing with the idea of dimension, Eshetu invites interaction from viewers, pulling them beyond the frame and inside a mirror box installed in the museum’s wall. Here, you can see your face reflected within a kaleidoscope of moving images of pop culture, important monuments, and scenes of Orthodox religious celebration. In Eshetu’s work, the viewer has gone beyond the boundaries of the museum space, now with seemingly infinite surfaces to gaze at, including at their own visage– brave new world indeed!

Asking Charlie Barber, one of the organizing professors of the trip, about the impetus to take this important trip, he said, “For those of us looking to expand the geographies of Medieval Art, we have been fortunate to have been able to visit two really impressive exhibitions, one at the Metropolitan Museum in New York and the other at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore. Africa & Byzantium allowed us to consider the long history of the Christian communities along the Nile, while Ethiopia at the Crossroads offered a more focused study of Ethiopian art in the long Middle Ages. Both exhibitions made powerful cases for the richness of the nuanced reception and use of art from elsewhere by producers working from within strong local traditions of art making.”

Ethiopia at the Crossroads is on view at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore until March 3, 2024. The museum’s renowned online resources include a browse page for Ethiopian art. As well, the database of the Index of Medieval Art contains almost 200 records for the Style/Culture category “Ethiopian” and may be a helpful resource for your exploration.

Finally, a reminder to mark your calendars: Christine Sciacca will visit Princeton on Wednesday, February 21, to give a lecture about this exhibition sponsored by the Program in Medieval Studies. Our thanks are due to Professors Charlie Barber and Beatrice Kitzinger, the A&A Department, especially Mo Chen and Jonathan Finnerty, and the Program in Medieval Studies for organizing and supporting a successful trip and continuing to bring these enriching experiences to the Princeton University community!

A group of people pose in front of a large yellow background decorated with four figures and wall text Ethiopia at the Crossroads.

The Princeton group of travelers to see the Ethiopia at the Crossroads exhibition at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore (Photo courtesy of Mo Chen)