I had seen images of Ethiopian carving before my trip there and was looking forward to finding where they came from. It is in the city of Axum, where the fabled Ark of the Covenent is said to be kept, that I encountered a slew of steatite icons and sculptures of which the picture above is an example. It is an image of st-George killing the dragon done is a very typical Ethiopian style. The faces are round and without expression, the eyes are wide-open and very hieratic. In general there is a high level of abstraction and almost a naive sense about the image. We can see St-George killing the dragon, surrounded by soldiers. The young lady he is saving appears climbing a tree just above the horse’s head. At the top are two cherubs. The steatite they carve is of the dark greenish kind, it looks like the type used by Eskimos in their animal carvings. It appears gray and white because they do not polish their carvings with oil or wax. The result is rougher than the polished Byzantine steatite, but it also carries its own charm. Despite the Chalcedonian schism, I still find some comfort in knowing that I am not the only Orthodox artist still carving steatite!
I also acquired a very beautiful wooden blessing cross covered in geometric chip-carving. It is quite stunning and detailed, carved on both sides with little doors under which icons are found.
My time in Axum was amazing. I had the chance to meet the old guardian of the Ark. As we exchanged briefly through a translator, he asked if there was something he could do for me. Realizing I had with me a small icon I had carved, I asked him if he would bless it . Upon seeing the icon, he reacted with something like “oh, it is modern”. Considering how hieratic Ethiopian art is, I can understand his reaction, though it will probably be the one time in my life someone will call my work “modern”. The blessing, which I did not understand the words to, included a bit of spitting on my carving…
Doors open on one side. At the top is the crucifixion and the resurection. At the bottom is St-George and the Nativity of Christ.
Top door on one side of the blessing cross portraying the crucifixion and the resurrection.