Sokendai Review of Cultural and Social Studies


The Mural Paintings of
the Mariam Korkor Monastery Church,
Rock-hewn Church in Tigray,
Northern Ethiopia


(Collaborative Researcher of the National Ethnological Museum)

Over the past years, I have devoted myself to the study of the rock-hewn churches in Tigray, on which little study has been done in Japan. In this paper, I focused on the mural paintings of the Mariam Korkor monastery church, one of the rock-hewn churches in Tigray, to solve the iconographic programme of the church. After the detailed description of the mural decoration, the iconographic cycle will be discussed by clarifying the correlation between the images scattered in the churches and interpreting the theological meanings to it.

The monastery church was founded in the second half of the 13th century at top of the rock mountain. It is a rectangular church with slight distortions making the north wall slightly east. The north wall is divided in five bays and when we enter the church from the west facade, we see the scenes of the Fall in the Garden of Eden on the first bay of the north wall. Next to it, there is the huge image of archangel Raphael. The third section of north wall is divided in two, the upper shows Maiestas Domini and the lower shows Christ’s entry into Jerusalem. Exactly opposite to this wall, on the south wall, Madonna and Jesus incarnate are depicted on the upper register and beneath it, there is an image of the Three Hebrews in the Furnace.

The iconographic programme of the mural decoration can be explained as the following; (1) The entrance of the church is the boundary between the “real world” where descendants of Adam and Eve propagated after the Fall, and (2) the space within the church is a tunnel to the divine sphere, (2) the way to the divine world is not easily obtained for there stands the archangel Raphael, “the angel, one of the seven, who stand before the Lord”, guards the invasion of the Evil, implying a better world behind him, in other words, the Maiestas Domini represented on the next section must be the better divine world, (4) “Christ’s entry into Jerusalem” scene alludes the Passion. On the opposite wall, the image of enthroned Madonna and Jesus in the Imago Clipeata is very unique, emphasizing the nature of Jesus as the sacrifice. Clearly, it implies not only the Incarnation but also the Passion, and echoes with the passion scene of the opposite north wall. In the life of Jesus, the Passion is followed by the Ascention, which is also a kind of pre-view of the Second Coming in the future. In this context, the Maiestas Domini could be interpreted as the Ascension as well as the Second Coming. In the stillness, both upward and downward movements can be suggested. Moreover, the Maiestas Domini is the image of theophany, which depicts the eternal presence of God, namely the presence in the abstract dimension where transcends the concrete time and space. This image of Maiestas Domini is the climax of Christological history continued from the Fall.

There is one thing unsolved. The climax of the cycle and the topographical hierarchy of the architectural composition do not integrate. While the climax of the architectural composition is located at the back of the secret sanctuary, the Maiestas Domini is not. In the case of Mariam Korkor monastery church, the first priority may have been set to show the entire programme to everyone, not divided by the sanctuary, ie., the disintegration of the mural decoration programme and the architectural topography may have been the planned one.