The Judgement of Solomon by unknown Ethiopian artist

Unknown Ethiopian artist

The Judgement of Solomon, Late 19th century, Mural, Church of Dabra Marqos, Goggam, Ethiopia, Photo © Michael Gervers, 2008

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An Ethiopian Perspective

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Ethiopia’s fourteenth-century national epic, the Kebra Nagast (‘The Glory of the Kings’) which expands and enhances the biblical story of Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, detailing how their son Menelik I became the first king of Ethiopia, is a key text in the Ethiopian Church. Not surprising, then, that, through the centuries, episodes from Solomon’s life have become an important and regular feature in the Church’s rich iconography.

The Church of Dabra Marqos, Goggam, has two large murals depicting first, Solomon’s sacrifice and dream at Gibeon (1 Kings 3:4–15), and second, the test of his wisdom (vv.16–28), which we see here. The composition is structured according to three groupings. In the centre, a young Solomon, sceptre in hand, sits on his throne, the approach to which is guarded by lions that defend the king (after 1 Kings 10:19). To the left, alarmed bystanders crowd together, making their own assessment of what they see. But it is the scene on the right that attracts the attention of everyone—the bystanders, Solomon, and even the lions. There, the larger-than-life child is about to be cut in two by the king’s servant with the approval of the false mother while the true mother pleads with the king.

This arrangement of figures offers quite a distinctive approach when compared with Western iconography. First, given the size of the child, it is clear that the servant cannot carry out his task—it can only be accomplished if the false mother helps hold the child for him, something her hand gestures seem to suggest she is prepared to do. The true mother is the only person who faces away from the child, perhaps suggesting her selflessness and altruism as she offers to part with her son to save his life. Most noteworthy of all, is the compassion of the youthful king as he bends forward with arms outstretched.

Even though the subject of the mural is perfectly recognizable to a biblically-literate viewer, the accompanying inscriptions in Amharic describe the story and, in particular, cite the dialogue of the two women almost verbatim. The artist is unknown but the context suggests that this work was intended to encourage the church’s congregation, here depicted as bystanders, to reflect on the wisdom of a king who, many centuries before, had been appropriated with much love and affection into Ethiopian culture and tradition.

 

References

Witakowski, Witold and Ewa Balicka-Witakowska. 2013. ‘Solomon in Ethiopian Tradition’, in The Figure of Solomon in Jewish, Christian and Islamic Tradition: King, Sage, and Architect, ed. by J. Verheyden (Leiden: Brill), pp. 219–40


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