first color images shed recent gentle on Ethiopia’s most treasured icon and its looting by an agent of the British Museum

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Among the many best Ethiopian cultural losses suffered on the battle of Maqdala in 1868 was a outstanding 500-year-old icon of the struggling Christ. It was looted by a British Museum agent, Richard Holmes, who had been despatched to carry again manuscripts and antiquities from Ethiopia. On his return he failed handy over the masterpiece to the museum, as an alternative secretly protecting the portray, so the museum had no direct involvement in dealing with it. The inheritor of Holmes subsequently bought the image at Christie’s in 1917.

The Artwork Newspaper tracked down the portray, often called the Kwer’ata Re’esu, in 1998, when it was in a Portuguese financial institution vault (at that time we reproduced the image in black and white). This was most likely the one event when the icon has been seen by anybody in dwelling reminiscence exterior the proprietor’s quick circle.

We are able to now lastly identify the proprietor, who personally confirmed me the work: the Coimbra-based Isabel Reis Santos, inheritor of the Portuguese artwork historian Luiz Reis Santos. After I travelled to see the Kwer’ata Re’esu, it was boxed and nonetheless within the picket crate by which it had been shipped from London. Saved in a financial institution vault, the portray was wrapped in a 20 April 1950 copy of the London Night Information. In 1998 The Artwork Newspaper didn’t determine the proprietor, however does so now since she has been named within the official Portuguese authorities gazette.

The Kwer’ata Re’esu has an astonishing cross-cultural story. Painted in Europe in about 1520, both in Iberia or Flanders, it was most likely despatched quickly afterwards to Ethiopia, the place a spiritual inscription was added in Ge’ez, the traditional liturgical language. There it turned the holy icon of successive Ethiopian emperors in what has been a Christian land for the reason that fourth century. Nobles swore allegiance beneath the portray and on a number of events it was carried into battle when Christian forces have been combating Muslims. Though little or no recognized exterior Ethiopia, it’s extremely necessary in each historic and artwork historic phrases.

The portray itself is in good situation given its age and its patchy historical past of storage and motion Picture could also be reproduced, with the credit score: Martin Bailey ({photograph}), The Artwork Newspaper

Contact: [email protected]

Painted on an oak panel (33cm x 25cm), the holy icon has survived in its unique interior body, which is of early Sixteenth-century Flemish type, with a bigger and extra trendy outer body. On turning over the body, I discovered that the reverse was lined with purple silk damask with a stylised pomegranate sample. Final month the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) textile curator Silvija Banić recognized the silk from my {photograph} as Italian, relationship from very roughly 1600 and presumably woven in Florence. How the silk reached Ethiopia stays unknown.

On the silk I discovered an unrecorded inked inscription within the handwriting of Holmes: “R.R. Holmes/ FSA [Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries]/ Magdala/13 April 1868/ taken from the palace of Theodorus.” Dated the day of the battle, this was conclusive proof that the portray had been looted.

The reverse of the Kwer’ata Re’esu is roofed in purple silk damask, which a textile professional has recognized as being Italian, round 1600. It bears Holmes’s writing saying “taken from the palace of Theodorus” Picture could also be reproduced, with the credit score: Martin Bailey ({photograph}), The Artwork Newspaper

Contact: [email protected]

Contemplating its astonishingly chequered historical past, the 500-year-old portray has miraculously survived in good situation.

The thriller artist

The Kwer’ata Re’esu is a illustration of the blessing Christ, with a crown of thorns and with dripping blood. It was painted by a European artist within the Flemish type—or presumably even by a Portuguese painter working in Ethiopia. Primarily based on the poor and solely extant 1905 black-and-white {photograph}, artwork historians have made provisional makes an attempt to attribute it to a named painter.

The Artwork Newspaper hopes that this new color picture will make it attainable for specialists to make a safe attribution. Earlier attributions embody the Flemish artists Quentin Matsys, Adriaen Ysenbrandt, Aelbrecht Bouts and a pupil of Hans Memling; the Portuguese artists Lázaro de Andrade and Jorge Afonso; and the Spanish artist Bartolomé Bermejo.

Thriller surrounds the image’s arrival in Ethiopia. It might have been introduced by Jesuit missionaries or offered to an Ethiopian diplomatic mission visiting Portugal. By the early seventeenth century the inscription (now very light) was added to the highest left of the portray in Ge’ez: “How they struck the pinnacle of Our Lord”. This unique Catholic picture of Christ was worshipped by Orthodox Ethiopians.

The Kwer’ata Re’esu turned more and more revered and by 1700 a particular tent protected it within the emperor’s camp. When a hearth as soon as swept via his camp, it subsided as quickly because it reached the tent, giving the icon a popularity for performing miracles. In 1744 the portray was captured by Sudanese Muslims, however was later returned for a ransom.

James Bruce, a British customer to Ethiopia in 1768-73, recorded that what he termed the “quarat rasou” had been “solely somewhat profaned by the bloody fingers of the Moors” and “all Gondar was drunk with pleasure” on its return. Bruce described the portray as “a relique of nice significance… mentioned to have been painted by St Luke [the patron saint of artists]”.

The Kwer’ata Re’esu’s significance may be gauged by the truth that from the early 1700s it was very extensively copied in Ethiopian manuscripts and non secular work—proper up till at present. In most of the early copies, the picture is surrounded by a purple border, suggesting that it might have already been encased within the Italian silk.

Deathbed drawing

Holmes performed a most unseemly position within the story. After being dispatched by the British Museum as its agent he arrived on 13 April 1868 on the emperor’s bedside at Maqdala simply minutes after Tewodros II (Theodore) had dedicated suicide, capturing himself with a pistol that had been given to him in higher occasions by Queen Victoria. The emperor lay on his deathbed, his physique nonetheless heat.

A deathbed sketch of Tewodros by Holmes inscribed “Theodorus, Emperor of Abyssinia, sketched instantly after the seize of Maqdala, 13 April 1868 by R.R. Holmes F.S.A., Archaeologist connected to the Expedition” The Nationwide Archives

The Kwer’ata Re’esu was apparently hanging simply above the emperor’s mattress. Holmes instantly grabbed it earlier than it may very well be looted by one of many British troops. At this level he should have been mystified as to why what gave the impression to be a Flemish portray had ended up on this distant Ethiopian mountainside location. Having seized the icon, Holmes calmly sketched a deathbed portrait of the emperor.

There may be one other portrait that provides to the story. Frank James, a British soldier and novice artist, made a deathbed watercolour, which features a box-like construction hanging on the wall above the mattress. Its proportions and obvious dimension recommend that it’d nicely have served as a protecting cowl for the dear Kwer’ata Re’esu.

Along with Holmes’s sketch, this watercolour of the emperor by Frank James, a British Military lieutenant, might present the protected icon on the wall behind him, within the upper-right nook of the sketch Nationwide Military Museum

A couple of days later Holmes set off for London together with his booty: dozens of antiquities—and the Kwer’ata Re’esu, which he saved for himself. Two years later he was appointed by Queen Victoria as her royal librarian.

The Kwer’ata Re’esu remained a secret till 1905, when the Could challenge of The Burlington Journal carried a brief nameless article on “A Flemish image from Abyssinia”, most likely written both by Holmes (who was on the journal’s committee) or his nephew Charles John Holmes (its co-editor).

Holmes died in 1911. Six years later the Kwer’ata Re’esu briefly surfaced at Christie’s. It was not recognized as having come from Ethiopia, however as “Bruges College”, and it bought for £420, going to a London purchaser, Martin Reid. In 1950 Reid’s inheritor bought the image, once more at Christie’s, this time as painted by Ysenbrandt.

The best bid was £131, however this was beneath the reserve, and the portray was later bought privately to Luis Reis Santos, a Portuguese artwork historian who had himself printed an article on the Kwer’ata Re’esu within the July 1941 challenge of The Burlington Journal, arguing that it was not Flemish, however as an alternative by a Portuguese painter. The portray later handed to his widow, Isabel.

An export ban

To proceed the story, on 16 February 2002 the Portuguese ministry of tradition printed an order within the Diário da República gazette. This required that the portray shouldn’t be exported with out permission.

The image was then described as “presumably Portuguese-Flemish”, attributed to the Portuguese artists Andrade or Afonso. There was no point out of its Ethiopian origins or its title, the Kwer’ata Re’esu. This meant that it escaped the eye of Ethiopians and people enthusiastic about Ethiopian tradition.

The gazette entry has lastly been noticed by Andrew Heavens, who recorded it in his guide The Prince and the Plunder (Historical past Press, 2023), the place the 1905 black-and-white {photograph} is reproduced. Heavens factors out that the Kwer’ata Re’esu can “now not be moved in another country with out the precise authorisation of the Portuguese Ministry of Tradition”.

Since our 1998 article quite a few makes an attempt have been made to trace down the Kwer’ata Re’esu so as to search its restitution to Ethiopia. In 2000 the British Ambassador in Addis Ababa privately revived the thought of attempting to return the Kwer’ata Re’esu, however this by no means materialised. Though the situation of the Kwer’ata Re’esu is now public data, restitution would require the approval of the Portuguese authorities.

In a separate improvement, the Scheherazade Basis, led by Tahir Shah, has been campaigning for the restitution of Maqdala treasures. On 21 September it organized the return of a sacred pill and a lock of hair from Prince Alemayehu, the son of Tewodros. The 2 objects are from separate non-public collections.

Shah now desires the Kwer’ata Re’esu to be returned to Ethiopia: “Pilfered by British forces at Maqdala, it was acquired by Richard Holmes, the British Museum’s man on the scene. It’s only a matter of time earlier than it arrives again in Ethiopia, with jubilant celebration.”

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