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Early Byzantine Miniatures Revealed

Marilyn E. Heldman, University of Missouri, St. Louis, Fellow 2005–2006, Fall

A group of twenty-three full-page miniatures, the subject of my fellowship research, is bound in disarray within two Ethiopic Gospel books, treasured manuscripts at the monastery of Abba Garima in northern Ethiopia. The miniatures—evangelist portraits and two sets of decorated canon table frames—were first published in the 1960s, but were neither properly identified nor correctly dated. Recently published results of radiocarbon tests of the miniatures’ parchment confirm my stylistic analysis and my conclusion that these early Byzantine miniatures are datable to the late sixth century.

These stylistically homogeneous miniatures, produced in a workshop at a major center in the eastern Mediterranean, were brought to Ethiopia, probably before AD 630, as separate quires to be integrated into two Ethiopic manuscripts of the four Gospels. Each set of evangelist portraits came with a set of canon tables, composed of sets of numbers—ten different concordance tables—that indicate parallel passages of the four Gospels. They are typical of luxury editions of the Gospels which were provided with the beautifully embellished architectural frames within which the concordance tables were copied. The architectural frames of the Abba Garima canon tables arrived in Ethiopia devoid of numbers as well as the standard directions concerning the use of the canon tables. The requisite numbers and Ethiopic texts were added to the empty architectural frames by Ethiopian scribes.

Five evangelist portraits, the surviving miniatures from the two sets, represent a significant addition to the presently recognized number of extant late antique evangelist portraits: St. Luke in the late sixth-century Latin Gospels of St. Augustine and the portraits of the four evangelists incorporated into the canon table frames of the Syriac Rabbula Gospels (AD 586). In figure style, the evangelist portraits at the Abba Garima monastery are stylistically closer to late sixth- and seventh-century Byzantine mosaics and murals.

Few decorated canon tables datable to before AD 600 are extant, either as fragmentary or complete sets. Hence the importance of the Abba Garima miniatures with richly illuminated Early Byzantine canon tables, the architectural frames of which, embellished with grasses, fruits, flowers and birds, suggest doorways to the path of salvation. One set of canon tables concludes with full-page miniature of a circular temple whose roof is upheld by four columns, an architectural device symbolizing the unbroken unity or harmony of the Four Gospels, the purpose of the canon tables themselves. The “finispiece” of the second set of canon tables takes the form of a rectangular structure with steep stairway and is unique to our present knowledge of late antique canon table decoration, although architectural motifs play an important role in the iconography of extant floor mosaics of early Byzantine churches in the eastern Mediterranean. I argue that within the context of the Gospel book decoration, this unique composition suggests the symbolic temple of Christ’s body. My fellowship research will result in a publication that establishes the strategic importance of these miniatures for the history of Bible illumination.