The Crucifixion of Jesus Christ and the life of Bishop Selama
The Crucifixion of Jesus Christ and the life of Bishop Selama, painting by an unknown artist
Height: 230 cm
Width: 180 cm
Donated by James Theodore Bent
Around AD 1855
From Tigray, Ethiopia
Ethiopia has a very long and rich tradition of painting. As early as AD 620 two wives of The Prophet Mohammed described the beauty of the murals of St Mary Zion Church at Aksum. Most painters were priests and monks who learnt the art of painting under the guidance of an experienced church artist. Their work was commissioned by wealthy Ethiopians and illustrated and explained stories from the Bible and of the lives of saints. Church art was intended to be both informative and to inspire devotion.
This painting was made for the church of the Saviour of the World at Adwa in northern Ethiopia. As with most Ethiopian church paintings we do not know the name of the artist.
The main purpose of this painting was to inspire devotion through the depiction of Christ's crucifixion. It shows several episodes from the crucifixion story as if taking place at the same time. Christ’s followers are shown at the foot of the cross with tears running down their faces. The Virgin Mary is supported by St John the Evangelist, and Mary Magdalene embraces Christ’s feet.
Near the base of the cross is the skull of Adam – according to the Bible, the first man on earth. The crucifixion took place at Golgotha, the exact place where Adam was believed to be buried. Christ’s blood pours into the skull, indicating that the blood of Christ will bring salvation to everyone.
Around the edge of the painting there are 11 smaller scenes which celebrate the life of Bishop Selama, Head of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church from 1841 to 1867. The painting also depicts the coronation of Emperor Tewodros II in 1855. Dejazmatch Wube and Biru Goshu, key political figures in the mid nineteenth-century Ethiopian politics of church and state are also shown.
Church paintings at this time were an important means of communication and observers would have been able to identify the recent events shown.
The painting was donated to the British Museum by the archaeologist James Theodore Bent in 1893 and is part of a comprehensive collection of Ethiopian material he put together while travelling in Ethiopia.
British Museum conservators have recently relined the painting and mounted it on a flat board. This helps preserve it, while a full analysis of the painting carried out by Museum scientists has allowed a greater understanding of the construction of the painting.