Old Masters

JULY 2012

Lalibela: Wonder of Ethiopia: The Monolithic Churches and their Treasures

344 pages, hardback, 300 x 240 mm, 290 colour illustrations
PRICE: £40.00
ISBN: 978 1 907372 19 3


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Jacques Mercier and Claude Lepage

The Unesco World Heritage site of Lalibela in Ethiopia is one of the most extraordinary places in the world. It contains eleven churches, all of them hewn from the native rock in imitation of buildings. However, Lalibela and the Ethiopian kingdom remained unknown in the West until the account of the first Portugese embassy to Ethiopia was published in the 16th century.

The site has traditionally been dated to the 12th or 13th century, with the legend attributing its founding to King Lalibala, ruler of a newly united kingdom a number of centuries after the fall of the sacred capital Aksum, which had converted to Christianity in the 4th century. More recently, dates as early at the 7th century or as late as the 15th century have also been proposed by academics. However, nothing of its accepted or assumed history can be regarded as certain.

In order to arrive at some certitude, the authors of this book dissected and thoroughly analyzed the architectural evidence, extending their study to the decorations, mural paintings and sculptures, church furnishings, manuscripts and crosses associated with the site. This was a daunting task, requiring a knowledge of Ethiopian culture and its languages as well as that of the surrounding cultures that the authors are rare in possessing.The reader's understanding progresses through a multiplication of the themes and perspectives, making this book a fascinating detective story!

After this gradual revelation of fact-finding, the churches are dated and attributed to a single founder, whose politico-religious project is identified. The original functions of the various monolithic buildings – churches and palaces – are sketched with verisimilitude; a mystical programme rooted in the most sacred components of the churches is highlighted and explained. Lalibela thus appears well integrated into the environment and local and international history, while retaining its originality. The designers of the site and their theological advisors, while addressing issues debated in Byzantium, gave them visual expressions unique in the Christian world. These are unveiled and explained in this book for the first time.

Both Jacques Mercier and Claude Lepage are distinguished scholars of Ethiopia. Claude Lepage is Emeritus Professor, Chair of Byzantine Art, at the École Practique des Hautes-Etudes, Paris, co-author with Jacques Mercier of Art éthiopien: Les églises historiques du Tigray. Jacques Mercier is honorary Researcher at the Centre national de la recherche scientifique, Paris, and author of Vierges d'Éthiopie. Portraits de Marie dans la peinture éthiopienne and L'Arche éthiopienne. Art chrétien d'Éthiopie. In 2009 he edited Ethiopian Church – Treasures and Faith for the Ethiopian Othordox Twahido Church.

"This truly breathtaking book is the first to focus on this extraordinary site in all its many dimensions – historical and cultural, archaelogical, architectural, art historical and documentary. It is complimented by some astounding and evocative photographs." Church Building and Heritage, September – October 2012

"... Mercier's and Lepage's Lalibela remains a book wholly worthy of its subject." The Spectator, 22 September 2012 

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