Miracles of Mary [Ethiopian illuminated religious manuscript]


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(ILLUMINATED MANUSCRIPT). Ta'amra Maryam [The Miracles of Mary]. Ethiopia (Gondarine region), circa 1700. Thick folio (12-1/2 by 14-1/2 inches), contemporary blind-tooled morocco over wooden boards rebacked; 194 vellum leaves. Housed in custom clamshell box.

Beautiful and complete late 16th- or early 17th-century Ethiopian illuminated manuscript in Ge'ez on vellum of the Ta’amra Maryam (the Miracles of Mary), boasting three glorious full-page miniatures (depicting St. George, the Madonna and Christ Child, and the Holy Trinity), handsomely bound with contemporary blind-decorated morocco over wooden boards.

The legendary tales that make up the Miracles of Mary flourished in medieval Europe. During the Crusades, the compilation of stories made its way to the Near East. In Ethiopia, translated from Arabic into Ge'ez as the Ta'amra Maryam, it absorbed local settings and history and quickly established itself as one of the Ethiopian Coptic Church's most important and popular devotional and liturgical texts. The mid-15th century Ethiopian emperor Zär'a Ya'eqob used Marian devotion to unite his subjects—he established over 30 feast days in her honor, for example—and likely encouraged the spread of the Ta'amera Maryam as "part of a plan to combat paganism and the teaching of heretics such as the Stephanites, a group who refused to honor the Virgin" (Joachim Persoon). Traditionally recounting anywhere from 30 to 300 miracles, a uniform version of 33 stories, together with Marian prayers and hymns, achieved canonical status by the mid-17th century, roughly contemporary with the production of this beautiful illuminated manuscript (which may date from as early as the late 16th century). The three bright and beautiful full-page miniatures in this manuscript reflect Western influence, but also exhibit the black lines and autumnal palette of colors associated with devotional art from Ethiopia's northwestern Gondarine region. The recto of leaf 2 presents Saint George—a patron saint of Ethiopia and popular subject of its religious art—riding a white horse and slaying the dragon with his cruciform lance to save a princess, while a group of soldiers (the foremost of whom wears a leopard skin) looks on. The verso of leaf 2 bears the image of the enthroned Madonna holding the Christ Child, attended by two angels; the Child holds a book in his left hand (perhaps the Old Testament he fulfills; perhaps the Gospel he brings) while pointing with three fingers of his right hand (to symbolize the Trinity) toward a burst of light, the Holy Spirit. A small piece of marginal ribbon marker remains attached to the upper corner of this leaf (and others throughout the volume), and the recto of the following leaf is spotted with candle wax, suggesting the Madonna and Child image was used as in worship as an icon. The image of the Trinity is on the verso of leaf 5: God the Father as a bearded and haloed man holding a small seed (perhaps alluding to "Abraham's seed" in Galatians 3.16) in his left hand, raising three fingers of his right hand in Trinitarian blessing. The symbols of the Four Evangelists—counter-clockwise from the top left corner: Matthew (winged man), Mark (lion), Luke (ox) and John (eagle)—surround the picture, which is covered (as presumably the other two were as well) with a brown gauze cloth, now stained and frayed, with a tiny hole. Richly decorated fabrics clothe all the figures in these miniatures. The text in this manuscript is written in three columns of 34 lines each. Leaves 3-5 contain the Prologue to the Miracles of Mary (the Mäs'hafä Ser'at). Text in Ge'ez, written in red and black. The name Diyosqiros appears at points in the manuscript, although the names of Gäbra Sellase and his wife Rahel have been inserted over it. From leaf 164 on, the name Wälda Libanos appears in some texts of blessing. Variations in the manuscript hand suggest the end of the manuscript was possibly written by another, contemporary scribe. Stab holes and guide lines visible. Old inkstamp to first leaf. Accompanied by a catalogue from a university exhibition in 2005-06 in which this manuscript was included and featured on the cover.

Expected light soiling to vellum leaves. Rectangular portion (4 by 7 inches) of last leaf, a blank, excised. Occasional small holes, sometimes affecting letters; marginal holes occasionally repaired. Modest age-wear to rear board. An impressive and beautiful example of the Ethiopian illuminated manuscript tradition, with three vivid miniatures illustrating an important devotional text.

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