History of Art


5. Baharä Maryam



"Knowing that earthly life is transitory, this, the Temple of Peter, has been raised up by Qäwǝsṭos, Guardian of Amba Sänayti, in hope of the mercy of Christ in Heaven. You, Priests and Deacons, do not forget him in your prayers and sacraments. Always remember his name […]"


This exhortation is written in Ge’ez, the liturgical language of the Ethiopian Orthodox church. It is part of a rare dedicatory inscription that accompanies the wall paintings at Baharä Maryam in Tigray. It gives insight into church patronage and its relationship with land ownership, and it indicates that the church was originally dedicated to St Peter, who is designated as “chief of the Apostles” in one of the paintings. Hewn into a sandstone cliff overlooking the Sullo river in the region of Amba Sänayti, about 26 km north of Ḥawzen, the interior has a tripartite plan, with pillars dividing a barrel-vaulted nave from flat-roofed side aisles, and two apsidal chambers at the east end. Its construction and wall paintings can be attributed to the late 14th or early 15th century.

Wall Paintings


The wall paintings originally covered the entire church interior. Today, surviving painting shows standing apostles and evangelists on the pillars, while a bishop and archangels flank the sanctuary. Each figure is identified by attributes and texts, and by subtly differentiated postures, hand gestures and glances, and richly patterned vestments. They functioned both as saintly models and aids to prayer. The paintings are not done directly onto the excavated rock surface but on gypsum plaster applied over this in adjoining patches. The outlines of the figures were sketched in red paint or incised into the plaster. Straight edges and borders were established with ruled or snapped lines, and grids were employed for setting out decorative features such as the knotwork designs that adorn the capitals. Halo outlines were drawn with compasses. Analysis shows that the pigments include charcoal black, red and yellow iron oxide, and green earth, which were applied with an animal glue binding medium. Probably derived from minerals found widely in Ethiopia, these colours constitute the standard palette of other painted churches. At Baharä, however, the technical evidence indicates that they were carefully sourced for their quality and were expertly prepared before use. They were also applied with discriminating skill. For example, pigment volume ratios were varied to achieve contrasting matte and saturated effects in the stripes of some of the garments.


The expensive yellow arsenic sulfide pigment orpiment, prized for its bright colour, was used in abundance for the figures’ halos and on the stripes of their garments. Now mostly faded over time, this brilliant yellow colour is still preserved in some places, giving an impression of how the paintings originally appeared. While often used sparingly for details and highlight in other churches, such as Abunä Abrǝham, at Baharä the pigment is used lavishly. It would have originally conveyed a stunning effect, showing that Qäwǝsṭos’s devotion led him to spare no expense in having his church painted.


As with other Ethiopian churches, Baharä’s paintings have been exposed to deterioration and alteration over time. Additional colours may have originally been present that are now barely recognisable or lost. There is some evidence that an organic red pigment was used at Baharä, adding another level of colour refinement. In manuscript illuminations of the period which closely parallel the wall paintings in their style, blue features prominently as a background colour. The organic colourant, indigo, has been identified in this context. Susceptible to light-induced fading, it is a distinct possibility that the panels behind a number of the standing figures, which now appear colourless, were originally painted with blue indigo.