Early Christian Africa: Arts of Transformation

, University Teaching Gallery, Harvard Art Museums

Band with human figure in medallion, Egypt, 3rd–6th century. Wool and linen. Harvard Art Museums/Arthur M. Sackler Museum, Gift of Dr. Denman W. Ross, 1924.110.

University Teaching Gallery, Harvard Art Museums

Christianity has important early roots in the Nile Valley and Ethiopia. Related arts often embody core local African values—an aesthetics that privileges moral value and simplicity over opulence, wealth, or power. This is an art of the people: limestone not marble, wool and linen rather than silk, bone instead of ivory, terracotta, wood, and copper in place of gold.

Transformation, a unifying theme in early Christian art, connects with the life of Jesus and the life-changing impact of religious conversion. Grapes become wine for communion and feast days. Flowers become perfumes for long-distance trade, personal use, and religious sanctification. Birds, with their lyrical songs and an ability to transcend space, call to mind angels and the Holy Spirit. Lamps offer light in darkened church interiors but also suggest the transformation-rich life story of Christ. In these arts, iconography such as the pharaonic lotus and the Greco-Roman acanthus leaf symbolize, respectively, rebirth and longevity, while the columns of early temples evoke the support, solidarity, and strength provided by religion.

The world’s earliest and most complete illustrated Christian book was written sometime between about 330 and 650 CE by an Ethiopian healer. Later Ethiopian scrolls often served a healing function. A small sixth-century book written in Egypt’s leading Coptic dialect, Sahidic, features “oracles” (prophecy). Several Egyptian folio sheets from the 13th through the 17th century include later notes in Arabic, reflecting a religious transformation underway. An image-rich Ethiopian book from the 16th to the 17th century discusses the festival of St. Michael, recalling this saint’s transformation and his role as human-celestial interceptor: a healer and miracle worker who both comforted martyrs and replenished empty stores of flour, fish, and wine. These manuscripts, like the diverse figural arts, also address the transformational nature of African religious practice; they take up themes of healing, festivals, prayer, learning, and pilgrimage, as in a pilgrim’s flask depicting the third- to fourth-century Egyptian miracle-working saint, Menas.

This installation’s related course is taught by Suzanne Preston Blier, Allen Whitehill Clowes Chair of Fine Arts and of African and African American Studies, Harvard University.

The University Teaching Gallery serves faculty and students affiliated with Harvard’s Department of History of Art and Architecture. Semester-long installations are mounted here in conjunction with undergraduate and graduate courses, supporting instruction in the critical analysis of art and making unique selections from the museums’ collections available to all visitors.

This installation is made possible in part by funding from the Gurel Student Exhibition Fund and the José Soriano Fund.