Scene of the meeting of Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, surrounded by their respective attendants by Qes Adamu Tesfaw

Qes Adamu Tesfaw

Scene of the meeting of Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, surrounded by their respective attendants, c.2003, Oil on canvas, 156 x 298 cm, The British Museum, London, 2012,2023.1, © Qes Adamu Tesfaw; Photo: © The Trustees of the British Museum / Art Resource, NY

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A Royal Handshake

Commentary by

The sound of music fills the air. Trumpets and drums thunder. The krar (Ethiopian lyre), and the washint (flute) pick out a melody. Swords rattle in their hilts, horses neigh, and courtiers talk excitedly as two great monarchs approach each other, extending their hands in greeting and friendship.

The setting is King Solomon’s throne room in Jerusalem. The Queen of Sheba, known as Makeda in the Ethiopian tradition, is magnificent with her domed crown, blue cloak, and a sash in the green, yellow, and red of the modern Ethiopian flag. The fourteenth-century chronicle of the Kebra Nagast or ‘Glory of Kings’, which forms a repository of Ethiopian national and religious history, traces the descent of all Ethiopian kings from this historic meeting of Queen Makeda of Saba (i.e. Sheba) and King Solomon of Israel. The artist, a former qes or priest of the Ethiopian Church, draws on the traditional iconographic elements of the Gondarine style of Ethiopian religious painting that developed from the seventeenth century, with its flat, relief-like composition, and rich red, blue, and yellow colour palette.

At first, the account of the meeting in the Kebra Nagast is very similar to that in the Old Testament: Makeda journeys to Jerusalem in order to witness the wisdom and magnificence of King Solomon. In a composition that could equally reflect the biblical text and the fourteenth-century chronicle, the monarchs stand facing each other, looking confidently into each other’s eyes. There is no hint of restraint or coyness in the Queen’s demeanour. She brings with her a similar number of attendants as those surrounding Solomon. There is an atmosphere of triumph and celebration here, but also of power made manifest: the swordsmen and spear-carriers on the Queen’s side are poised for action, and in the crowd below, drumsticks mingle with daggers.

But as the drama of the Kebra Nagast unfolds, there is a departure from the biblical text. Queen Makeda converts to Judaism and conceives a son by Solomon. Their son, King Menelik, ‘the Great King’, was the ancestor of all Amharic kings, and according to the Kebra Nagast, his transferral of the Ark of the Covenant from Jerusalem to Aksum brought the very abode of God to a new resting-place, in Ethiopia.

 

References

Budge, E. A. Wallis (trans.). 2004. The Kebra Nagast (Cosmio Classics: New York)

Chojnacki, Stanislaw. 1964. ‘A Short Introduction to Ethiopian Traditional Painting’, Journal of Ethiopian Studies, 2.2: 1–11