Gary Vikan, director of the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, was giving a lecture at the opening of "Ethiopian Art from the Walters Art Museum" at the Museum of Biblical Art on 61st and Broadway last Thursday. He showed a photograph of himself as a Cub Scout in Minnesota 50 years ago standing before a picture of Jesus, who accidentally seems to look over his shoulder.
But this was no accident, Vikan pointed out, for the image of Jesus was marked by two contrapuntal discontinuities in Western Art: stasis and rapid change. Jesus, imaged as the Lamb of God and the Suffering Servant, covered with sores, outside the gates of Rome, for the first six centuries of the Common Era, was suddenly transformed into a sexy, if removed, man.
The Ethiopian images from the Walters on view at MoBIA offer a Bob Marley-type alternative. The evocative wood panels, dating from the 17th and 18th century, show a wide-eyed Christ, whose ribs have been flayed on the cross. As an infant or on the tomb, Christ is engulfed in swaddling clothes, covering a mystery and a mystery religion. For the Ethiopian dispensation in Christianity is a singular one. Ethiopians converted early to Christianity, in the third century with Constantine.
None of the 1,200 years of Ethiopian Christological imagery, with the exception of a few elegantly minimalistic processional crosses, survives the Islamic invasion and destruction of Christian relics from 1510 to 1516. What inspired the primitivistic triptychs lent by the Walters for the MoBIA show was the specific visit of Roman missionaries from the Santa Maria Maggiore basilica in Rome in the 17th century, coterminous, for example, with the spread of prints from the Netherlands and northern Germany throughout Europe.
Two centuries of Ethiopian Christian art devolved from this single source, Vikan observed during his lecture, much as static Orthodox icons devolved from the Shroud of Turin in the 11th century. But almost immediately Ethiopian Christianity treated Romanism with a twist. The panels at MoBIA depict animistic, almost voodoo carnal images of elite patrons in the corners of paintings that distinctively chronicle Christ drawing Adam and Eve from sin, being born, instructing his apostles and dying on the cross as if in drugged-out bliss.
The unusual explication of these not-so-familiar stories will draw you in, on close inspection. As MoBIA's director of development Clay Dean mentioned at the opening, "This is not traditional, marketable tribal African art, Charlie. It is a distinct, little-known tradition." The exhibition also encompasses a number of animistic objects, such as prayer scrolls with New Testament texts conforming to the exact height of their patron, for actual physical communion with the Deity.
This tightly curated MoBIA vision is a chance to revel in what's hidden at the Walters.
"Angels of Light: Ethiopian Art from the Walters Art Museum," Mar. 23- May 20, 2007, at the Museum of Biblical Art, 1865 Broadway at 61st Street, New York, N.Y. 10023
CHARLIE FINCH is co-author of Most Art Sucks: Five Years of Coagula (Smart Art Press).