TECHNICAL STUDY OF ETHIOPIAN ICONS, NATIONAL MUSEUM OF AFRICAN ART, SMITHSONIAN INSTITUTION
Erica E. James
The rich cultural heritage of Ethiopia has been dominated by Christianity, as reflected in Ethiopian icons. The imagery they depict follows traditional Christian themes, and the Virgin Mary is the most popular story and image (Chojnacki 1973). The Virgin Mary is the primary subject in all six of the Ethiopian icons at the National Museum of African Art (NMAfA), Smithsonian Institution (fig. 1).
During the 15th century, Ethiopian icons were single panels, diptychs, or triptychs. In the 16th century new construction techniques were introduced by craftsmen who migrated to Ethiopia. These techniques typically involve the use of a wooden secondary support, sometimes a cloth primary support, a ground layer, paint layers, and sometimes a varnish. During this era, at least three European painters are recorded as living in Ethiopia: the Italians Gregorio Bicini and Nicola Brancalion, and the Portuguese Lazaro de Andrade. Their life dates are unknown.
The 17th and 18th centuries in Ethiopian painting are described as the Gondarene era. Gondar was the capital of Ethiopia, established on the northern shores of Lake Tana. Here a cultural center gave rise to a style fusing Western models with Ethiopian iconographic ideals. The first Gondarene period occurred from 1632 to 1682; the second Gondarene period occurred from 1682 to 1755. Table 1 lists the Ethiopian icons in the NMAfA collection, including three attributed to the first Gondarene period and two to the second. One icon is not presently attributed to a particular time period.
The research and technical data presented here are one of the first attempts to characterize and/or identify the techniques and materials of Ethiopian icons. The first steps in the technical study included examination utilizing ultraviolet light, infrared imaging, and x-ray radiography techniques. Pigment analysis followed, utilizing both polarized light microscopy (PLM) and various instrumental techniques, including scanning electron microscopy with energy dispersive spectroscopy capabilities (SEM-EDS), x-ray fluorescence (XRF), Fourier transform infrared (FTIR) spectroscopy, and x-ray diffraction (XRD).