Waugh and the Black Madonna

The website of Campion Hall, Oxford has posted an article by art historian Jane Stevenson about an Ethiopian icon of the Madonna hanging in its collections. She also explains the difference between Ethiopian Christian depictions of the subject and those in the Eastern and Western (Greco-Roman) traditions. The icon at Campion Hall was a gift of Evelyn Waugh, as she also explains:

Evelyn Waugh first visited Addis Ababa to report Emperor Haile Selassie’s coronation in 1930. Five years later, he returned to the country when he was appointed the Daily Mail’s Addis Ababa correspondent in 1935 to cover the Italo-Ethiopian war of 1935-6, a conflict which attracted worldwide attention since many feared that it would be the  prelude to another world war. […] It was during this conflict that he sent the image back to Fr. D’Arcy at Campion Hall, which was then still at Middleton Hall in St Giles’.[…] It is unsurprising, given [Waugh’s friendship with Fr D’Arcy], that Waugh should have thought to pick up a piece of Ethiopian Christian art as a gift to Campion Hall while he was stuck in Addis Ababa with nothing to do.

It seems most probable, given its excellent condition, that the image dates from the first half of the twentieth century, though if so, it seems a little archaic; from the mid-eighteenth century onwards, Ethiopian religious painters typically began to model faces and limbs with shading to create an illusion of volume, which is completely absent in this image, though on the other hand, the large eyes suggest a relatively late date. The ground of the image is probably vellum, and the medium powdered natural pigments bound with animal-skin glue, which creates a tough yet flexible surface. Traditional painters used indigo for blue, and a mixture of indigo and orpiment for the green which is a striking feature of this image. Red was made from cinnabar, yellow from orpiment, and while browns were either earth colours, or a mixture of cinnabar, gypsum and charcoal.

The article includes a photo image of the icon donated by Waugh as well as another Ethiopian icon of the Holy Trinity from an earlier period in the Campion Hall collection, along with comparable icons of the same subjects from other collections. Stevenson is the author of several books on art history, most recently Baroque Between the Wars. See previous post.

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