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Saint George, Patron Saint of Ethiopia

We're sure that many of you are familiar with the story of Saint George. As the Patron Saint of England, his legend is one well known across the country.

Even if you aren't familiar with George himself you'll have seen the cross of Saint George everywhere - from flags on government buildings to football strips.

Saint George isn't just the Patron Saint of England though. George's patronage extends to amongst others, Aragon and Catalonia, Georgia (unsurprisingly), Moldova, Palestine, and Ethiopia. In our collections from Ethiopia in particular, Saint George features prominently. So just why has the East African nation taken the Saint to their hearts?

Ethiopia, along with its neighbour Eritrea, is something of an exception in the Horn of Africa, in that it is a nation in which the majority of the population practices Christianity. Christianity in Ethiopia takes the form of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church which traces its roots all the way back to the Apostles. Made the official church of the Kingdom of Axum in the 4th century AD, making it one of the earliest nations to adopt Christianity, it has remained the dominant religion in Ethiopia ever since. In fact, the Kings of Ethiopia claimed descent from the biblical figures of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba.  

  • Saint George 001, Depictions of Saint George slaying dragons and beasts from horseback are common throughout Christianity, the decision to depict the saint with a darker skin tone, however, is not.
    Depictions of Saint George slaying dragons and beasts from horseback are common throughout Christianity, the decision to depict the saint with a darker skin tone, however, is not.

It is unclear quite how the story of Saint George first came to Ethiopia. Saint George is an important figure in the Middle East particularly in Palestine and Lebanon - it is said he was born in either the Levant or Cappadocia - and may have been introduced to Ethiopia by contact with other Oriental Orthodox churches such as the Coptic Church of Egypt. 

  • 465px-Bete_Giyorgis_03, The Biete Giyorgis is dedicated to Saint George and is considered the greatest example of the rock-hewn churches at Lalibela.
    The Biete Giyorgis is dedicated to Saint George and is considered the greatest example of the rock-hewn churches at Lalibela.

One thing that's very clear though is how important George is in the East African state. In the town of Lalibela, an important pilgrimage site for Ethiopian Christians, eleven churches were hewn from rock between the 7th century AD and the 13th century AD. This monumental task means that the churches are found in subterranean trenches with the earth around them excavated to create the form of magnificent church structures. The best preserved and best-executed church in Lalibela is the Biete Giyorgis, the Church of Saint George. Allegedly, this church was sculpted under the orders of Gebre Mesqel Lalibela - after whom the town is named - in the 13th century AD after Saint George visited him in a vision instructing him to do so. 

Addis Ababa's cathedral is dedicated to Saint George, as is the city's leading football team. There's even a beer named after Saint George.

Saint George is a popular figure in Ethiopian iconography often appearing on horseback driving his lance or spear into the dragon he so famously slew. Just as George's role as a warrior saint made him a popular figure amongst knights and crusaders of Europe, his association with war and battle is prominent when examining our collection of depictions of George in Ethiopian art. The two paintings featured below depict Saint George at the heart of one of Ethiopia's most important historical moments, the Battle of Adwa.

  • Battle of Adwa 01, Depictions of the Battle of Adwa are in ample supply thanks to the significance of the battle in Ethiopian history. In this painting, Saint George provides Ethiopian forces with divine inspiration from the heavens.
    Depictions of the Battle of Adwa are in ample supply thanks to the significance of the battle in Ethiopian history. In this painting, Saint George provides Ethiopian forces with divine inspiration from the heavens.

At the end of the 19th century, Africa had been carved up by the European powers at the Berlin Conference of 1884-85. All of Africa was claimed by European empires with the exception of two states, the Republic of Liberia and the Ethiopian Empire. Despite this, in 1895, the Kingdom of Italy invaded Ethiopia to further its colonial ambitions in the Horn of Africa. Despite initial Italian success, Ethiopian forces would rout their opponents at the Battle of Adwa in 1896, ending their imperial ambitions in Ethiopia. According to the historian Raymond Jones, Adwa stands out as one of the significant events of the 19th century as "In an age of relentless European expansion, Ethiopia alone had successfully defended its independence."

  • Battle of Adwa 02, As above, this painting of the Battle of Adwa portrays Saint George, Emperor Menelik II, and Empress Taytu, leading Ethiopian troops into battle.
    As above, this painting of the Battle of Adwa portrays Saint George, Emperor Menelik II, and Empress Taytu, leading Ethiopian troops into battle.

In both paintings, we see the amassed forces of Ethiopia and Italy facing off against each other across a battlefield. The Ethiopian forces are also led by the same three figures in both paintings - Emperor Menelik II, Emperess Taytu, and Saint George. Saint George soars above both scenes surrounded by a halo of red, green, and gold, the colours of the Ethiopian flag, granting divine inspiration to the forces of Ethiopia. In one case he even hurls his spears into the massed ranks of the Italian army. 

The Battle of Adwa is commemorated to this day in Ethiopia as a national holiday, with public celebrations held in towns and cities across Ethiopia every year. Each year they celebrate the leadership of Menelik II, Tatyu, and of course Saint George.

About the Art: Zsuzsanna Pataki

The Friends’ Art Exhibition is held every year in our Conservatory and showcases paintings, prints, textile art and sculptures from South London’s artist community. 

The exhibition is a platform for new and established local artists and all proceeds contribute to Horniman Museum and Gardens projects.

This year, we are talking to some of the artists involved in the exhibition to find out more about their work. Here, we speak Zsuzsanna Pataki, a cityscape artist.

  • Zsuzsanna Pataki artwork, Zsuzsanna Pataki
    , Zsuzsanna Pataki

What is the story behind your artwork?

I seek to present the history of a city, the space as it is being developed and reused over time.

I love history and the beauty of society.

  • Zsuzsanna Pataki artwork, Zsuzsanna Pataki
    , Zsuzsanna Pataki

What inspires you in day-to-day life?

If I can make someone smile, it makes my day. I want to lift up your spirits with my colours. Put you in a good mood, bring back your memories of when you travelled to the city I painted.

Why do you think it is important to support local artists?

It’s a busy marketplace online and off with lots of run-of-a-mill reproductions at retail giants, so selling art is not an easy walk. There is more to art than just a price tag. It helps us put food on the table, but it helps the local community find its voice, its tone, its colour. It connects people. It cheers them up or calms them down, comforts or brings an element of wonder.

Visual artists are the equivalent of beautiful music to your ears. You can live without it, but how much better to pick the style you like and enjoy!

  • Zsuzsanna Pataki artwork, Zsuzsanna Pataki
    , Zsuzsanna Pataki

About the Art: Peter Forder

The Friends’ Art Exhibition is held in our Conservatory and showcases paintings, prints, textile art and sculptures from South London’s artist community. 

The exhibition is a platform for new and established local artists, with all proceeds contribute to Horniman Museum and Gardens projects.

This year, we are talking to some of the artists involved in the exhibition to find out more about their work. Here, we speak to Peter Forder about his work in oil on canvas.

What is the story behind your artwork?

Bitterns: I was very excited to see bitterns at Minsmere in Suffolk. They are big birds (there is a stuffed one in the Horniman) and look rather odd, like primeval killing machines; they seem slow and heavy in flight. I’ve tried to suggest these things in the picture.

  • Peter Forder artwork, Peter Forder
    , Peter Forder

The fox and the moon: I wanted this to be quite an elemental picture: a wild animal out hunting, alone with the moon up in Space. I also like the way a gibbous moon seems to hang in the sky like an egg.

  • Peter Forder artwork, Peter Forder
    , Peter Forder

Allotment in June: I hope this picture, done at Grove Park, suggests the heavy lushness of a June afternoon on an allotment. Some people say not to use black in painting, but I use it like anything.

  • Peter Forder artwork, Peter Forder
    , Peter Forder

Spring flowers with quinces: I am inspired by the flower pieces of British painter Sir Cedric Morris (1889-1981), and I think this picture has something of a period feel. It contains tulips, narcissi, bluebells, cornflowers and woad.

  • Peter Forder artwork, Peter Forder
    , Peter Forder

Tulips with quinces and broccoli: I like the rich colours of tulips and the crazy shapes of the parrot ones. I grow them on the allotment - an easy early crop.

  • Peter Forder artwork, Peter Forder
    , Peter Forder

What inspires you in day-to-day life?

Gardens and allotments, wildlife and nature, paintings and ceramics.

Why do you think it is important to support local artists?

Arts are about people expressing themselves and hopefully touching a chord with others. This doesn’t have to be done in a grand gallery (though I like grand galleries too!).

I would like to see more people have original works of art on their walls - with the textures and brush strokes made by the artist - rather than mass reproductions. So they need to be able to see local work, and afford to buy it.

Finally, like most people, I live in the suburbs, and I suppose my pictures concern suburban things, which I think are neglected in favour of the urban, the rural and the maritime. So let’s fly the flag for art in the suburbs!

Can you name five women artists?

Ask someone to name five artists and responses will likely include names such as Warhol, Picasso, van Gogh, Monet, da Vinci – all male artists.

So, for Women’s History Month this March, we wanted to take part in a social media challenge put forward by the National Museum of Women in the Arts addressing the gender imbalance in how art is presented – can you name five women artists?

We wanted to share with our followers some of the fantastic objects we have in our collection made by female artists and makers.

Apolonia Nowak

These beautiful papercuts were specially made for the Horniman in 2008 as part of an exhibition we ran on the art of Polish papercuts. They are of the 'Gwiazda' type from the Kurpie region of Poland. Gwiazda means ‘star’ in Polish and these types of papercuts are made from a single sheet of coloured paper, typically featuring geometric designs.

The circular blue papercut has an asymmetrical picture of Mary and the baby Jesus in the centre, and geometrical design around them. The circular black papercut has an asymmetrical picture of a dancing couple from the Kurpie region in the centre, with a geometrical design around them.

Read more about Polish papercutting.

  • Can you name five women artists?, Papercut artworks by Apolonia Nowak
    Papercut artworks by Apolonia Nowak

Lynette Nampijimpa Granites Nelson

Lynette is a Warlpiri Indigenous Australian artist from Yuendumu, a town in the Northern Territory of Australia. Warlpiri country is east of the border between Western Australia and the Northern Territory in the Tanami Desert.

The painting below is titled 'Ngapa Jukurrpa' or 'Water Dreaming'. It is painted in white, red, ochre-yellow and black dot method typical of the Western Desert artists.

The concept of 'Dreaming' is among the most important in Indigenous Australian culture, and combines in one term (that cannot be easily translated into English) knowledge about the timeless prehistoric period of creation, the actions of supernatural beings and ancestors in the world, and the geographical features of the artist's homeland. A dreaming is part history, part theology, part literature and part geography lesson. Here is represented water falling and flowing across the land near Mount Theo.

Several other Warlpiri painters have painted their own interpretations of the 'Water Dreaming', but the works of Lynette Granites Nampijimpa are widely regarded as among the finest of all Indigenous Australian paintings from the later 20th century.

Read more about Water Dreaming.

  • Can you name five women artists?, 'Ngapa Jukurrpa' or 'Water Dreaming' by Lynette Nampijimpa Granites Nelson
    'Ngapa Jukurrpa' or 'Water Dreaming' by Lynette Nampijimpa Granites Nelson

Toula Sykopetritis

These wonderful carnival dance costumes were made by Toula Sykopetritis and worn by her granddaughter, Maria Pieri, in the Limassol carnival in Cyprus.

One represents a bunch of bananas and was made for the 1989 carnival. It includes a pill box-shaped hat with a banana attached. The other costume was made for the 1991 carnival and is shaped like a bunch of pink radishes. There are padded radish shapes in pink fabric stitched to the surface of the body area, with some pieces of green fabric attached to represent foliage.

  • Can you name five women artists?, Dance costumes for Limassol Carnival by Toula Sykopetritis
    Dance costumes for Limassol Carnival by Toula Sykopetritis

Buffy Cordero-Suina

Storytellers are important traditional roles in many Native American societies. This figure, from the Cochiti Pueblo in New Mexico, is a depiction of a Cochiti elder, mouth agape as the story unfolds, with children seated on his legs.

The first Cochiti potter to create a story-teller was Helen Codero, who was at the forefront of the Cochiti artistic revival in the mid-twentieth century. She felt that pottery vessels were not expressive enough of the Cochiti way of life and so began to make figurines of her grandfather and the stories he told, depicting the way in which the oral histories of the Cochiti people bind generations together.

This piece, produced in the early 1990s, was made by her granddaughter Buffy Cordero-Suina, a noted potter who produced many story-tellers.

Following her grandmother's death in 1994, she stopped producing pottery altogether.

  • Can you name five women artists?, Ceramic Storyteller by Buffy Cordero-Suina
    Ceramic Storyteller by Buffy Cordero-Suina

Olive Blackham

This wooden string puppet is painted white with a papier mache headdress highlighted with gold pigment. The puppet wears a costume suggesting a Chinese or Japanese robe embroidered with two cranes, butterflies and flowers. Various strings attach it to a wooden suspension bar.

It was made by Olive Blackham (1899 – 2002) who has been described as a pioneer and a visionary, who elevated puppetry to a high art form. She lived near Birmingham where she set up her own full-time professional Puppet Theatre - The Roel Puppet Theatre – which was very successful.

Read more about Olive Blackham and her Puppet Theatres.

  • Can you name five women artists?, Wooden string puppet by Olive Blackham
    Wooden string puppet by Olive Blackham

Join us throughout the month to share stories of women artists using the hashtag #5WomenArtists on FacebookTwitter, and Instagram.

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