History of Art


3. Yǝmrǝḥannä Krǝstos


Concealed deep within a cave about 12 km northeast of Lalibäla in the Lasta district are two of Ethiopia’s most important post-Aksumite buildings: the church of Yǝmrǝḥannä Krǝstos and a nearby ‘palace’ (Fig. 3.1). The cave is located on a lower slope of Mount Abunä Yosef within a forest of junipers, olives, and cedars. Its wide, low entrance opens under an escarpment of grey basalt over which a waterfall periodically cascades.

Fig. 3.1. The exterior of the church (© Ethiopian Heritage Fund).

A later foundation legend holds that the 12th-century priest-king, Yǝmrǝḥannä Krǝstos, was directed by the Archangel Gabriel to build a church on top of the cave’s subterranean lake. The king is reputed to have retired to the sacred site. Although scholars disagree on its exact construction date, the church is certainly early and of royal foundation. The building period of the palace is also uncertain: while architectural evidence indicates a different construction phase than that of the church, it appears closely related to it in both style and date. 

The church, one of the marvels of Ethiopian architecture, employs alternating bands of recessed timber beams and projecting plastered stonework – a technique that recalls late antique Aksumite precedents. The interior has a basilica plan comprising a nave and two aisles, three bays in length, divided by arcades of round arches carried on massive free-standing stone piers with wooden bracket capitals. Above the central section of the nave is a fenestrated clerestory that supports a magnificent saddle-back timber roof. At the east end, a central sanctuary with a cupola opens onto the nave and is flanked by two closed rooms, known as pastophoria. These were originally used for Eucharistic preparations and for housing sacred objects.

Wall Paintings

The interior is richly decorated with carvings and paintings. The spandrels between the nave arcades are lined with thick wooden boards, intricately carved with geometric patterns, painted in combinations of blue, green, orange, red and white. Within the saddle-back roof, intersecting purlins and rafters create flat square panels, which are similarly carved and painted, as are the blind windows at clerestory level (Fig. 3.2). Expensive pigments were used with striking extravagance. Scientific examination and analysis have identified the colours as vermilion, red lead, green earth, orpiment, and ultramarine. It is noteworthy that ultramarine, the rarest and most expensive blue pigment, was chosen for decorating extensive parts of the church. Adding to a lavishness that testifies to unstinting royal patronage, the exterior was also richly painted, including with ultramarine blue. Although the traces of paint are mostly lost, and the decoration of the interior is difficult to discern beneath centuries of grime, the original intent must have been to turn the church into a place of exceptional religious veneration through means of dazzling opulence.

Fig. 3.2. Ceiling and arcade patterns from the interior of the church (© Ethiopian Heritage Fund)

No less remarkable are the figurative wall paintings that occupy a small part of the interior at the east end of the north aisle. Their style and quality demonstrate close connections with Coptic art from Egypt. Carefully selected episodes from Christ’s life, death, and resurrection emphasise his dual sacrificial and triumphant role. The Arrival of the Holy Family in Egypt on the north wall prefigures Christ’s Entry into Jerusalem on the east wall (Fig. 3.3), with both scenes depicted as triumphal processions. The Baptism of Christ is paired with Christ Washing the Feet of the Disciples in acts of ceremonial cleansing at the beginning and end of Christ’s ministry. The iconography of the wall paintings and their placement in front of one of the pastophoria imbues them with liturgical significance.

Technological findings show that the paintings were a later addition to the architecture. A separate layer of plaster was applied over the recessed wooden beams in the walls to provide a level base for the painting. The palette differs in key respects from that of the decoration of the church: ultramarine is absent and instead the organic colourant, indigo was used.

Fig. 3.3. Detail of the Entry into Jerusalem (© Ethiopian Heritage Fund)