Divine King or Sacrilegious Upstart? The Portrait of Emperor Yǝkunno Amlak in Gännätä Maryam


Jacopo Gnisci
University College London

In the third quarter of the thirteenth century Yǝkunno Amlak led a rebellion against the Zagwes – a line of Christian rulers who had been in control of most of the Empire of Ethiopia since at least the first half of the twelfth century. He initiated a line that would rule the country until the twentieth century: the Solomonic dynasty. Apart from these general facts, we know relatively little about the life of the first emperor of this dynasty. In this paper I hope to further our understanding of Yǝkunno Amlak’s reign and visual strategies by focusing on his only known contemporary portrait in the church of Gännätä Maryam. By analysing this image in its wider setting, I aim to shed some light on its socio-political background and reflect on the reactions it might have triggered.

Jacopo Gnisci is a Lecturer in the Art and Visual Cultures of the Global South at University College London and a Visiting Scholar in the Department of Africa, Oceania, and the America at the British Museum. He is the co-Principal Investigator of the project Demarginalizing medieval Africa: Images, texts, and identity in early Solomonic Ethiopia (1270-1527) (AHRC Grant Ref. no. AH/V002910/1; DFG Projektnummer 448410109). He sits on the editorial board of several journals for medieval and African studies including Gesta, Aethiopica: International Journal of Ethiopian and Eritrean Studies, and Rassegna di Studi Etiopici.

Dr. Gnisci obtained his PhD from SOAS in 2016. He subsequently worked at the Dallas Museum of Art and University of Texas, Dallas, University of Hamburg, the Vatican Library, and the University of Oxford as Exhibition Assistant and Research Associate for the Monumental Art of the Christian and Early Islamic East ERC project. In 2019, he was the recipient of a Getty/ACLS Fellowship. Prior to his appointment at UCL, he as a Curator for the Endangered Material Knowledge Programme within the Department of Africa, Oceania, and the America at the British Museum. Dr. Gnisci has been carrying out fieldwork in East Africa for over 10 years.

His research focuses on the history of manuscript illustration, on the art and architecture of Ethiopia and Eritrea, and on the marginalization of African art in Western institutions. He has published studies on the interconnections between art and the liturgy, the transmission and reconceptualization of visual culture in medieval manuscripts, the relationship between text and image, and the use, significance, and/or symbolism of icons, metalwork, and ecclesiastical vestments in Ethiopia. His 2020 article “Constructing Kingship in Early Solomonic Ethiopia: The David and Solomon Miniatures in the Juel-Jensen Psalter” is the first article on East Africa to be published in The Art Bulletin.

This lecture will take place live on ZOOM, followed by a question and answer period. Please register to receive the Zoom link.


View of the interior of Gännätä Maryam. Photo: Jacopo Gnisci.
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