The J. Paul Getty Museum has added a rare Ethiopian Gospel book to its collection of illuminated manuscripts. Created around 1504-05 with five full-page paintings and many ornamental touches, it is one of the few such volumes to have survived wars and a Muslim purge of early Christian imagery in Ethiopia.
Purchased at an undisclosed price from a private collection in France, the new acquisition will go on view Aug. 12 in “Faces of Power and Piety,” an exhibition of portraiture in illuminated manuscripts at the Getty Center.
“This is a wonderful addition to the collection, visually and culturally,” said Thomas Kren, the Getty’s curator of manuscripts. “It’s a great and beautiful object. And it belongs to the classic tradition of Gospel books, one of the greatest vehicles for Christian art. Within that context, it’s a completely distinctive variation.”
The book -- which measures 13 5/8 by 10 1/4 inches -- contains full-page illuminations of the Virgin and Child and evangelists Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. The portraits are painted in a bold style that Kren described as “almost modern.” Ethiopian illuminators favored blocks of vivid color and strong patterns, including zigzag motifs on textiles and clothing. In the Getty’s example, architectural borders enhance an eight-page concordance, or index, of Gospel stories; abstract designs frame other sections.
The area now known as Ethiopia had become a great power by the 3rd century. Christianity was introduced there in the 4th century, and a distinctive visual arts style emerged in the 6th century. But Ethiopian-illuminated manuscripts are few and far between outside their native land. The Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, which claims the largest collection of Ethiopian art outside Ethiopia, has eight.
At the Getty, the recently acquired Gospel book has joined a single Ethiopian leaf from the 14th century, depicting St. John.
“In theory,” Kren said, “our collection is European, but we have a range of Gospel books. To have an Ethiopian example adds a whole dimension to this form of medieval Christian art.”