Radiocarbon testing has revealed that a pair of illustrated gospels kept in a remote monastery in Ethiopia may have been made as early as the 4th century and are perhaps the oldest surviving illustrated Christian works in existence. The Garima Gospels were first reported on in the 1950s, but it has only been within the last couple of years that scholars have been able to examine the work and help conserve it.
In 2006 the British-based Ethiopian Heritage Fund began a project to examine the Garima Gospels, which have been kept at the Monastery of Abba Garima in northern Ethiopia for hundreds of years. Scholars were allowed to take two parchment fragments from the manuscripts, and testing at Oxford University revealed that they date back to somewhere between 330 and 650 AD. It had previously been believed that the texts were no older than the twelfth century. According to legend, the manuscripts were brought to Ethiopia from Constantinople by Abba Garima in the year 494.
Jacques Mercier, a French specialist in Ethiopian art, believes that the manuscripts may have been created around 600. Both of them contain several pages of vivid illustrations typical of early Byzantine style, which include a depiction of the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem, a portrait of Saint Luke, and images of over twenty different birds.
Michelle Brown, a former British Library curator, tells the Art Newspaper that, “the Garima Gospels case vital light upon early Christian illuminated manuscript production and upon the role of sub-Saharan Africa…It is the sort of model the inspired such vibrant later Ethiopic art and is an important witness to the way in which the churches of the Christian Orient both absorbed the courtly Christian culture of Constantinople and developed their own voices and styles.”
The texts also received some conservation work, which was done in the monastery, as the texts were not allowed to leave its premises. Blair Priday of the Ethiopian Heritage Fund explained to the Daily Mail, “all the work on the texts was done in situ and everything is reversible, so if in future they can be taken away for further conservation we won’t have hindered that. The pages had been crudely stitched together in a restoration in the 1960s and some of the pages wouldn’t even turn. And they were falling to pieces. The Garima Gospels have been kept high and dry which has helped preserve them all these years and they are kept in the dark so the colours look fresh.”
The Ethiopian Heritage Fund was established in 2005 to undertake conservation of manuscripts and paintings in churches. They have worked on other medieval treasures, including two 15th century paintings of St. Mary. Priday added: ‘Ethiopia has been overlooked as a source of these fantastic things. Many of these old Christian relics can only be reached by hiking and climbing to remote monasteries as roads are limited in these mountainous regions.”