The oldest Ethiopian manuscript in North America: Early 14th century Gospel book with canon table and the Fountain of Life, from the Walters Art Gallery (photo Aram Arkun)

Major Ethiopian Exhibit Comes to Massachusetts Including Armenian Artifacts


SALEM, Mass. — Armenians feel close to Ethiopia and Ethiopians due to centuries of relations as well as the fact that Ethiopian Christians share the same theology as the Armenian Church. Some wonder about superficial similarities between the Ethiopic and Armenian alphabets. Yet most Armenians do not know much about Ethiopian culture or history. There is a wonderful exhibit which can help remedy this. “Ethiopia at the Crossroads,” which premiered at the Walters Art Gallery in Baltimore last December (see Nora Hamerman’s “Armenian and Ethiopian Art Share Spotlight in Baltimore Exhibit” in the Mirror-Spectator this January), is now at the Peabody Essex Museum (PEM) in Salem, Massachusetts till July (and then will move to the Toledo Art Museum in Ohio from August to November).

. Late 14th century Ethiopian folding parchment icon depicting prophets, apostles and saints in the shape of a fan, from the Walters Art Gallery (photo Aram Arkun)

This exhibition places almost two millennia of Ethiopian art in a global context and even includes a number of Armenian illuminated manuscripts and artifacts among the approximately 200 icons, manuscripts, coins, crosses, metal works, carvings, textiles, contemporary artworks and videos on display.


At the opening of the exhibit for museum members on Friday, April 12, Petra Slinkard, Director of Curatorial Affairs and the Nancy B. Putnam Curator of Fashion and Textiles, noted that PEM co-organized this traveling exhibit together with the Walters and the Toledo Art Museum. She pointed out that an estimated 12,000 Ethiopians live in the greater Boston area, making it an important diasporan center, though the Washington D.C. and Baltimore area holds the largest concentration of Ethiopians in the US.

Petra Slinkard (photo Aram Arkun)

PEM exhibit co-curator Karen Kramer (also Stuart W. and Elizabeth F. Pratt Curator of Native American and Oceanic Art and Culture) spoke of the long rich Ethiopian heritage. Ethiopia was the only African nation to resist colonization and maintain its independence (along with Liberia). While global influences are visible, a distinct aesthetic emerged that belongs to Ethiopia alone, Kramer said. The African art collection of the Peabody Essex Museum was one of the first of its kind to be founded in the US, and includes rare and important Ethiopian icons, processional crosses, baskets and textiles. Many of these items, along with artworks from the two other co-organizing museums as well as loans from various American, European and Ethiopian lenders form the current exhibition.

Peabody Essex co-curators Karen Kramer, at left, and Lydia Peabody (photo Aram Arkun)

Lydia Peabody, co-curator of the exhibit and curator-at-large at PEM, spoke about the contemporary works in the collection by artists from Ethiopia, including a photograph from Aïda Muluneh, the first Black woman to co-curate the Nobel Peace Prize exhibition in 2019, and the next year to be commissioned for the Nobel Peace Prize exhibition herself. Kramer and Peabody acquired six of Muluneh’s photographs simultaneous with the preparation of the exhibition.

Aïda Muluneh, “The Certainty of the Uncertainty,” from the Mirror of the Soul series, 2019, inkjet print, from the Peabody Essex Museum (courtesy of the artist, © Aïda Muluneh)

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Walters Art Gallery Curator of European Art 300-1400 CE Christine Sciacca was the originator of the idea of the exhibition and its organizing curator. She had come for the opening and called the exhibition her second baby, born in-between her two actual children. As Kramer previously noted, she realized this project over a period of seven years while raising children and enduring the Covid pandemic.

Exhibit curator Christine Sciacca (photo Aram Arkun)

Sciacca said that Ethiopia, home to over 80 ethnicities and an early home for the three Abrahamic faiths, Judaism, Christianity and Islam, was an important cultural site. The exhibition traces the creation and movement of art objects, styles and materials into and out of Ethiopia, reaching much of Africa, the Middle East, India and even Europe. Furthermore, it encompasses Ethiopian diasporan artists who in the 21st century now create works in the US and Europe.

Exhibit curator Christine Sciacca in front of a 14th century Armenian Gospel leaf from Vaspurakan, loaned from a private collection (photo Aram Arkun)

She later told the Mirror-Spectator that one of the big connections of Ethiopia was with Armenia, which she hoped was demonstrated through the exhibition.

Armenian Connections on Display

Indeed it was, as Armenia has an entire section in the “Encounters” part of the exhibit with a number of Armenian works placed in comparative context. A large placard states that Armenia was the first Christian nation and Ethiopia the second. The clerics of the two countries maintained close contact in places like Jerusalem for centuries. Their Gospel books share decorative patterns and animal forms, and the cross plays a central role in both artistic cultures. The placard also briefly observes that Armenian traders included Ethiopia as part of their trade routes, and even today an Armenian quarter exists in central Addis Ababa, the Ethiopian capital.

Part of the Armenian section of Ethiopia at the Crossroads, including a late 16th century Ethiopian three-panel icon bearing possible Armenian influence, from the Institute of Ethiopian Studies of Addis Ababa University (photo Aram Arkun)

A 14th century leaf from an Armenian Gospel book from Vaspurakan and another 14th century illumination from the artist Petros is displayed in this section along with a late 16th century Ethiopian three panel icon in order to show possible stylistic influences. A 14th century Ethiopian depiction of Christ’s entry into Jerusalem is juxtaposed with a 15th century Armenian composition with a similar sensibility. A 13th century Armenian Gospel book with an image of the evangelist Matthew produced in Cilicia contains a Greek inscription and shows Byzantine influence.

Gospel book with the Ascension, illuminated by the Armenian artist Petros in 1386 in the Lake Van region, from the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles (photo Aram Arkun)

The same curatorial approach is taken with other cultures interacting with Ethiopians. For example, there are comparisons of Italian and Ethiopian artists dealing with the theme of Madonna and child. What is unusual perhaps for a major exhibition is to see Armenian art included as a significant influence.

Three Ethiopian scrolls with an Armenian scroll of 1710 from the Melikian Collection at far right (photo Aram Arkun)

There are Armenian materials in other sections of the exhibit as well. In one area, three Ethiopian 19th or 20th century scrolls devoted to healing and divine protection are placed next to an Armenian 18th century prayer scroll or hmayil. An Armenian Gospel book from about 1675-1725, loaned from New York’s Morgan Library and Museum, has a leather binding with its front adorned with a headpiece ornament and various amulets.

As an aside, it should be noted that although the historical information and descriptions of the Armenian items displayed are all accurate, the geographical designations used might be a bit confusing to a casual viewer. For example, the title of the 13th century Gospel book (mentioned above) states “Artist in Armenia,” though the description that follows says “An Armenian manuscript produced in Cilicia, Türkiye (Turkey)…”, while right next to it is the 14th century Gospel book captioned “Petros, Active in Türkiye (Turkey).” The text of the latter description then states that Petros worked near Lake Van in present-day eastern Turkey. Of course a careful reader will understand that it is the modern state of Turkey which controls these territories now, but that they used to be Armenian populated and until the latter part of the14th century in Cilicia’s case, Armenian controlled.

In the part of the exhibition dealing with modern works, there is one oil painting on canvas by Alexander “Skunder” Boghossian, born in Addis Ababa of an Armenian father and Ethiopian mother. Called “The End of the Beginning,” it was painted in 1972-73 after he emigrated to Washington, D. C., where at Howard University he taught Black artists from 1972 to 2001. The painting, loaned by the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of African Art, is said to represent the political struggles of the 1970s in Ethiopia that led to the creation of the modern Ethiopian diaspora.

Alexander “Skunder” Boghossian’s “The End of the Beginning,” oil on canvas, from the Smithsonian Institution, National Museum of African Art (photo Aram Arkun)

It should be mentioned that there are slight differences both in the layout and the works shown in the three different sites of the exhibition, with the PEM version including more contemporary artwork. According to Lydia Peabody, there are 34 PEM items exhibited in Salem out of 214 in all. Unfortunately, the famous Toros Roslin illuminated Gospel of 1262 held by the Walters could not travel to PEM or Toledo.

Two of the Armenian artifacts at the PEM (the hmayil mentioned above along with a leaf from a 14th-15th century Gospel book) are loans from the Melikian Collection, belonging to James and Ana Melikian. They were present during the opening together with their daughter and kindly provided additional information about their items to the Mirror-Spectator.

From left, James, Isabella and Ana Melikian, and Christine Sciacca (photo Aram Arkun)

The Melikians, prolific collectors, also loaned the exhibition an Ethiopian iron hand cross dating from about 1450, an 18th century Coptic Arabic book of prayer, two Qurans, a book of eulogies and prayers to the Prophet Muhammad and an 18th century manuscript of homilies.

Ethiopia at the Crossroads presents much for Armenians in particular to ponder. Ethiopia like Armenia has been at a crossroads of civilizations and has both benefited and suffered from its geography and interactions with others. Religion and modern nationalism have been both boon and bane. Ethiopia is in turmoil today. There is an Ethiopian diaspora which attempts to make sense of its heritage as well as the new environments in which its members must live.

According to Lydia Peabody, the Walters exhibition had 19,208 visitors over a 12 week period, and was its most attended exhibition since the Covid period. PEM expects to see tens of thousands visit, she said, while the Toledo museum probably will have the largest audience. It is a much larger institution with higher visitation.

This extensive exhibition warrants more than one visit, but if that is not possible, one can read the accompanying eponymous exhibition catalogue edited by Christine Sciacca and published by Yale University Press, which contains hundreds of illustrations and detailed essays, including one on Ethiopian-Armenian relations.

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