TECHNICAL STUDY OF ETHIOPIAN ICONS, NATIONAL MUSEUM OF AFRICAN ART, SMITHSONIAN INSTITUTION
Erica E. James
Ethiopian icons have a history that dates back to the 15th century, when the techniques of their construction were introduced by European craftsmen who migrated to Ethiopia (Chojnacki 1973). 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. The above technical study characterizes and/or identifies the materials used to construct the icons in the National Museum of African Art's permanent collection. Initial examination utilizing ultraviolet light, infrared imaging, and x-ray radiography techniques revealed that the icons were unvarnished, that no underdrawings were disparate from the final composition, and that the icons contained relatively dense red pigments. Pigment analysis followed, utilizing both polarized light microscopy and various instrumental techniques including scanning electron microscopy with energy dispersive spectroscopy capabilities, x-ray fluorescence, Fourier transform infrared spectroscopy, and x-ray diffraction. These techniques identified cinnabar, orpiment, indigo, smalt, Prussian blue, terre verte, gypsum, charcoal black, and earth brown in the paint layer. In addition, gypsum was identified as the main component in the ground layer, and the binding medium in the pigment and ground was characterized as proteinaceous. In conclusion, the research and technical data presented here are one of the first attempts to characterize the techniques and materials of Ethiopian icons.
The author would like to thank the Kress Foundation for support of this project. A special thanks to Janet Douglas, conservation scientist, and LaHoma Lee, conservation intern, at the Conservation Laboratory, Freer Gallery of Art/Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, as well as, at the Smithsonian Center for Materials Research and Education, Roland Cunningham, senior painting conservator, Walter Hopwood, analytical chemist, and Camie Thompson, analytical chemist, for analytical assistance with the project. Finally, the author would like to thank Stephen Mellor, chief conservator at the National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution, for his continued support of this project from its inception in June 1998 through its completion in August 2001.