The Veneration Of The Virgin Mary In Egypt And Ethiopia Part 4.

But it was not angels and men alone who honoured Mary and worshipped her as the Mother of God, for Christ Himself, when He rose from the dead and appeared to her and the other women at the tomb mounted on the chariot of the Father of the Universe, cried out, saying, " Mari Khar Mariath," that is to say, " Mary, the Mother of the Son of God." Then Mary, who knew the meaning of the words, said, " Hramboune Kathiathari Mioth," whereof the interpretation is, " The Son of the Almighty, and my Son." And He said unto her, " Hail, My Mother ! Hail, My holy Ark ! Hail, thou who art the Sustainer of the life of the whole world ! Hail, My holy Garment, wherein I arrayed Myself ! Hail, My Waterpot, which is full of holy water ! Hail, My Mother, My House, My Place of Abode ! Hail, My Mother, My City, My Place of Refuge ! Hail, thou who hast received into thine own composition the Seven -ӕons ! Hail, thou Table, set in the Paradise of the Seventh Heaven, the name of which is ' Khomthomakh ! ' All Paradise rejoiceth in thee. I say unto thee, O My Mother, He who loveth thee loveth Life. Hail, thou who didst sustain the Life of the Universe in thy womb ! . . . I will give My peace, which I have received from My Holy Father, to My disciples, and to every one who shall believe in My Name and in Mary, My Mother, the Virgin in very truth. My spiritual Womb, My Treasure of Pearl, the Ark of the sons of Adam, who carried the body of the Son of God, and the Blood of Him Who indeed took away the sin of the world."

And round and about Him there were standing hundreds of thousands of Archangels, and hundreds of thousands of the Cherubim, and millions of the Seraphim, and millions of the Powers, and their heads were bowed, and they made answer to the blessing, saying, "Amen, Hallelujah," to that which the Son did speak with His mouth to Mary. Then our Saviour stretched out His right hand, which was full of blessing, and He blessed the womb of Mary, His Mother. And I [Bartholomew] saw the heavens open, and the Seven Firmaments were opened together. I saw a man of light shining brightly, like unto a pearl upon which it was
impossible for any man to look. And [I saw] also a hand of fire which was of the colour of snow, and it rested upon the belly of Mary and [her] breast. Now this hand was the right hand of the Father, and the right hand of the Son, and the right hand of the Holy Ghost. And He blessed . . .(The text is mutilated.) [and said] . . . Thou shalt be called' Pearl of the Father,' and on earth men shall call thee ' Mother of God ' and ' oar Salvation.' The blessing of the Father shall be with thee always. Amen. Hallelujah. The might of the Son shall overshadow thee. Amen. Hallelujah. The joy of the Holy Spirit shall continue to remain with thee at all times. Amen. Hallelujah. And when thou shalt come forth from the body I Myself will come with My Father, and Michael, and all the angels, and thou shalt be with Us in My kingdom. And over thy body I will make the Cherubim, having a sword of fire, to keep watch, and twelve hundred angels also shall watch over it until the day of My appearance and of My [kingdom]."[I quote from the Book of the Resurrection of Christ, by Bartholomew
the Apostle (ed. Budge, Coptic Apocrypha, p. 191).]

It follows of necessity that men and women who attributed such power and glory to Mary would not fail to beseech her to help them in their daily troubles and afflictions, and to be their intercessor with Christ in heaven. That such was the case is proved by the Discourses of many eminent spiritual heads, and from those which have come down to us in Coptic the following passages are quoted :—

Epiphanius, Bishop of Cyprus, says :—" I beseech thee, O Virgin, Mother of God, to help me Epiphanius, thy worthless servant, and to make supplication to Christ on behalf of all the people of my city, nay more, of the whole world, and to be nigh unto me at all times. For unto thee more than to all the saints be-longeth the power to make supplication unto Him, so that He may fill the hungry with bread, and may heal the sick, and may lead those who have gone astray back into His holy fold.''[Budge, Miscellaneous Coptic Texts, p. 714.]

Cyril of Alexandria says :—" O wise Virgin, I beseech thee to bring the favour of God, Who is thy Son, upon us, and may He forgive us our sins, and deliver us from all the crafts of the Adversary the Devil. Take us all to thyself, lest the Devil take delight in us and draw us down into the Gehenna of fire. O Mary, do thou draw nigh unto the King, the Christ, that He may receive thy supplication on our behalf, for He is thy Son and thy Beloved, and thou didst bear Him, and He called thee ' My Mother.' Verily, O Mary the Virgin, thy honour is greater than that of all the other women in the world. He Who breathed breath into every created being called thee ' My Mother ' ! Thou art more exalted than the Cherubim and the Seraphim, thou art more blessed than the Thrones, because the Christ loved thee. He sojourned with thee because thou art Saint Mary, the perpetual Virgin." [Ibid., p. 723.]

When and by what means Egyptian Christianity entered Ethiopia is not known with certainty. Communication by caravans must always have been kept up between Syria and the more north-easterly parts of Ethiopia, or Abyssinia, and it is very probable that some knowledge of Christianity was carried into them before the time of Frumentius by caravans and traders of various nationalities. And individual travellers, like the eunuch whom St. Philip baptized, may well have carried back into Ethiopia the news of the Gospel. The Christians in Egypt were sufficiently numerous at the end of the second century to incur the wrath of the Romans, who started a general persecution of them in the reign of Severus. The persecution of the Christians continued under Decius, Valerian and Diocletian, and large numbers of them fled into Upper Egypt, Nubia and the Northern Sudan. If we may believe Bar-Hebraeus {flist. Dynast., text p. 135) Christianity had penetrated into the Sudan, Nuba and Abyssinia, as well as all Egypt, in the time of Constantine. Before the close of the Vlth century, and during the reign of Silko, the official religion of Nubia was Christian, and the capital of the new Christian kingdom was Old Dongola. In process of time Christianity spread southwards, and during the Middle Ages there were four hundred churches in the kingdom of 'Aiwa, which was probably situated near the modern town of Khartum. Alvarez talked to a certain " John of Syria " who stated that there were still in the country one hundred and fifty churches which contained crucifixes and pictures of the Virgin Mary painted on the walls, and that they all were old.[See Butler's note in Abu Salih (ed. Evetts), p. 264.] These facts justify the assumption that there were many Christians in all parts of Ethiopia at this time ; but the oldest and finest remains of early Christianity in the country were to be found in Aksum and its neighbourhood.

When the worship or cult of the Virgin began in Ethiopia cannot be stated with certainty, but there seems to be no reason for doubting that invocations were made to her as soon as her history was known and accepted by the people. Pictures of the Virgin must have been common in Egypt before the close of the third century, and it is probable that the figures of Isis and Horus suggested the form thev should take. In the fifth century pictures of Mary and the Child became commoner still, and this may have been the result of the overthrow of Nestorius and his heresy at the Council of Ephesus in 431. The Monophysites, or Christians who believed that the divine and human were blended in one incarnate Nature in Christ, were convinced that Mary was the Mother of God, and the original form of the group known as the " Madonna and Child " became once and for all the expression of the Orthodox Faith. Wherever the knowledge of the Monophysite, or Jacobite, or Eutychian Faith penetrated, there went pictures of the Virgin. Saint Augustine (born 354, died 430) did not believe that any of the existing portraits of the Virgin were authentic, but very great veneration was paid to the picture of the Virgin and Child which Eudocia Aelia (born 393, died 450), wife of Theodosius, acquired in the Holy Land and sent to her sister-in-law Pulcheria in Constantinople. It was believed to be very old, and tradition asserted that it was painted from life. Many enthusiasts assumed that St. Luke was the painter. Be this as it may, in the sixth century the churches in Syria and Egypt were full of pictures of Christ and the Virgin, and saints and martyrs. During the second half of the seventh century the Copts held under the Arabs, the new masters of Egypt, many lucrative positions, and they were able to assist materially the offshoot Christian community of Ethiopia. It was probably about this time that many Coptic books, including the great service " Theotokia," whence was derived the Ethiopic Weddase Maryam, or " Book of Praise of Mary," were translated into Arabic and Ethiopic.

Little is known of the Ethiopian Church, but its members suffered much at the hands of the Arabs when they extended their conquests in East Africa in general and in the Eastern Desert and Ethiopia in particular. Both the native pagans and the foreign Arabs attacked the Christians and burnt their churches and books, and during the rule of the eleven Zague (a.d. 914-1268) kings the Christian literature of Ethiopia was almost wiped out. When the rule of the Solomonic line of kings was restored in the second half of the thirteenth century, the monks brought from their hiding-places the few manuscripts that had escaped the fury of the Arabs, and such scribes as were available began to make copies from them. But the old Ethiopic versions of many books had been entirely destroyed, and new translations had to be made from Arabic versions. There seems to have been increased literary activity in Ethiopia during the XlVth century, and believers were greatly stimulated in their faith through the arrival there of a piece of the wood of the Cross on which Christ died ; this was in the reign of Wedem Asgari (a.d. 1380-1409), commonly known as David II. It is doubtful if any of the manuscripts written in the XlVth century have found their way into European Libraries, though some scholars have thought that the Brit. Mus. MS. No. 719 [This MS. contains the History of King Lalibala of Lasta. See Wright, Catalogue, p. 193 (No. CCXCIV).] may have been copied during the closing years of that century. All that is certain about it is that it was written by one 'Abba 'Amha, for the Church of Golgotha, before the reign of Zar'a Ya'kob, or Constantine, i.e. before a.d. 1434, the first regnal year of this king.

Under the patronage of Zar'a Ya'kob (a.d. 1434-1468) many copies of ancient works were made, for the king was religious as well as wise, and the peaceable relations that existed between him and the Khalifah of Egypt gave him time to consider other matters than fighting and war. He endowed an Abyssinian monastery at Jerusalem, and obtained permission from the Pope to establish another in Rome. He also encouraged public or semi-public discussions on religion, and on one occasion 'Abba George succeeded in overcoming in argument the European who was disputing with him. The European was probably Brancaleone, the Venetian painter, of whom more will be said presently. Zar'a Ya'kob was succeeded by his son Ba'eda Maryam (a.d. 1468-1478), who was a prudent and peaceful king, and who introduced into his Government men of honesty and high principle. But his reign was disturbed by religious quarrels among the clergy, for many of his people adopted the heresy of certain teachers who denied that Christ was very man, because His flesh was composed of some substance which was entirely different from that of ordinary men and women. A native Council condemned the heresy, and tortured its adherents, and killed many by starvation in the prisons. A more serious disturbance was caused in religious circles by a certain Niccolo Brancaleone, a Venetian painter, who was commonly called in the country " Macoreo " or " Marcoreos." The exact year of his coming to Ethiopia is unknown, but he lived there for forty years, and knew the language well, and could when necessary live like the natives and eat and drink what they did. Alvarez calls him Nicolas Brancoliam, and says that he " was a very honourable person, and a great gentleman, although a painter . . . they said that he was a friar before he came to this country."[Alvarez, F., Narrative oj the Portuguese Embassy to Abyssinia, translated by Lord Stanley of Alderley. London, 1881, p. 210.] When Alvarez performed the Mass he acted as the fugleman of the priests and canons and told them what was being done in the Mass. This painter had been employed by Zar'a Ya'kob to decorate the churches with pictures of saints and of incidents and events described in the Bible, and he was greatly favoured by Ba'eda Maryam. This king was building, or rather restoring, a church dedicated to Mary the Virgin, and he commissioned Brancaleone to paint an altar piece for it, the subject to be the Virgin and Child. Now in the native pictures of the Virgin and Child the Child was represented as being encircled by His mother's right arm, as we may see from the annexed plate which is reproduced from a fifteenth-century Book of Miracles of the Virgin in Ethiopic in the British Museum. Brancaleone painted a very fine picture, and, according to the Italian fashion and that of the Copts, represented the Child as encircled by His mother's left arm. When the clergy and the monks saw the picture they were fired with rage, partly because the picture was the work of Brancaleone, who had been mixed up with the heresy mentioned above, and partly because they thought that an insult had been offered to our Lord by him in representing the Child as encircled by Mary's left arm. As the Ethiopians used the left hand in washing the body it was regarded by them as " the hand of dishonour," and they saluted with the right hand only, and dipped the right hand only into the dish at meal times. The king admired the picture, and gave his people to understand that their objections were absurd, and when the malcontents saw that their objections were not going to be considered, they ceased to complain and quickly disappeared. The picture was placed in the church of Mary, where it remained until the first half of the XVIIIth century, when it was destroyed, together with the church, by the Gallas.

Many important manuscripts were copied in the XVth century, e.g. the Gadla Hawaryat or " Contendings of the Apostles " (Brit. Mus. MS. Orient. No. 678) ; the book of Homilies of the Jacobite Fathers, recently acquired by the British Museum (Orient. No. 8192); and the Acts of Basilides, which are attributed to Celestinus, Bishop of Rome (Brit. Mus. MS. Orient. No. 706). These Acts were translated from Coptic into Ethiopic A.M. 6889 = A.D. 1397, by 'Ab Sim'on, a monk of the Monastery of St. Anthony (Wright, Catalogue, p. 186). That the worship of Mary was restored completely is proved by the existence of the XVth century copy of the Weddase Maryam in the British Museum (Add. 18994). This book is bound up with the Psalms of David and the Canticles and prayers for the canonical hours, and it is quite clear that it formed a prominent section of the daily service-book. More instructive still is the fine manuscript Oriental No. 650, which contains the Miracles of the Blessed Virgin Mary, fifty-five in number, and a tract on her Festivals. It was written for Zar'a Ya'kob (a.d. 1434-1468) and was given by him to a church of the Virgin Mary. On the upper margins are written deeds of gifts made by various kings down to A.D. 1714, lists of church property, etc. Equally important for the study of the worship of Mary in Ethiopia is Orient. No. 652, which also contains Miracles of the Virgin Mary, 160 in number. These are for the most part translations from the Coptic of miracles that were worked by the Virgin in Greece, Italy, Rum (Byzantium), France, etc., and are evidently derived from works like the Legenda Aurea of Jacobo di Voragine. (Translations of all of them by me will be given in a forthcoming volume.) In the XVth century there came into common use the service-book called 'Arganona Dengel, i.e. the " Virgin's Organ," or the " Virgin's Lyre." It was composed by 'Abba George in the first half of the century, and was quickly adopted as a companion to the Weddase Maryam. It is highly prized for the purity of its language, and for the variety and beauty of its metaphors, and the consummate knowledge of the Scriptures displayed therein. A translation of a few pages of it will be found on pp. 297 of this volume.

The worship of the Virgin increased greatly in the XVIth century, probably as a result of the influence of the Church in Jerusalem and in Alexandria. These cities voiced the great, profound and widespread interest in Mary and her mother Hanna that sprang up in the East as a result of the Crusades, and the eager desire of the nations to know all that history, legend and tradition could tell them about these saints. Caravans left Ethiopia for Egypt and Jerusalem at regular intervals, and the merchants who conducted them brought tidings of the happenings there, and pictures of saints and the Virgin painted from Byzantine originals in Cairo, Jerusalem and Constantinople. Copies of the Apocryphal Gospels and legends of all kinds were multiplied freely, and the imaginations of devout scribes filled the lacunae which accident or wilful mutilation had made in the manuscripts from which they worked. In the XVIIth century the Ethiopians demanded from their teachers always more and more miracles, and, as though the words of the text were not sufficiently vivid or descriptive,they insisted on coloured illustrations being added. Kings and queens commissioned scribes and artists to produce large handsome manuscripts ; as specimens of these we may mention Brit. Mus. MS. Orient. No. 644, which was written for Hamalmala Wark, the mother of King Susenyos (a.d. 1607-1632), and contains 154 miracles, and Brit. Mus. MS. Orient. No. 640, written for King Theophilus (a.d. 17o8-1711),which contains 154 miracles and many pictures. Copies of pictures that illustrated the miracles were frequently painted on large skins and hung on the walls of the churches. As at this time there were hundreds of churches in Ethiopia sacred artists were always busily employed, and probably well remunerated. The festivals of the Virgin Mary were numerous. A general festival was celebrated on the 21st day of each month. Her birth was celebrated on the loth of Mas-karram (Sept. 7) and the ist of Genbot (May 1) ; her entry into the Temple on the 3rd of Takhshash (Nov. 29) ; her conception on the i6th of Takhshash (Dec. 11) ; the dedication of her temple on the 8th of Sene (June 2) ; her death on the 21st of Ter (Jan. 16) ; her ascension on the i6th of Nahasse (Aug. 9) ; the embalmment of her body for burial on the 15th of Nahasse (Aug. 8) ; and there were other festivals held in her honour locally. Some authorities state that thirty-two festivals of the Virgin were celebrated throughout the year. [Ludolf, Historia ӕthiopica, Commentarius, p. 361 (Not. XLV).] On these festivals the History of the Life of Mary was read, and the clergy found it necessary to provide large manuscripts from which the priests might read to their congregations. A complete Lectionary of this kind was in reality a Corpus of all the Mary-Literature, and a very good example of such a work is Erit. Mus. MS. Orient. No. 604.

It is very difficult to state exactly what were the views that the Ethiopians held about the Virgin Mary, but a perusal of the Books of Praise of the Virgin suggests that they were not all authorized by the Church, The " Mother of God " and the " Queen of Heaven " and the " Chieftainess of all the Saints," as she was called by her worshippers, was in reality considered by them to be a goddess, or at all events a being far superior to any woman, both materially and spiritually. In their heart of hearts large numbers of them believed that Mary and Christ were formed of a substance different from that of other men, and this heresy seems never to have been stamped out entirely. The perpetual virginity of Mary was to them a sure proof of her divine origin. They made her to share divinity with Christ, and in some praises of her of an extravagant character she is grouped with the Persons of the Trinity as an equal. In later times even her mother Hanna was regarded as semi-divine. They ascribed to Mary boundless power in heaven and upon earth, and if in furtherance of her benevolent designs she asked her Son for help which was not given, they made her appeal to God Almighty Himself, Who at once granted her petitions. Her influence over the Father and the Son was, in their opinion, so great that they thought and believed she was, to all intents and purposes, the controller of the destiny of human souls in the Day of Judgement. Many of their services consisted of nothing but prayers to God the Father and prayers to the Virgin, and the number of manuscripts of the Weddase Maryam and the Mazmura Dengel (Virgin's Psalter), and the 'Arganona Dengel (Virgin's Lyre) which have come down to us prove the universality and supremeness of her worship in Ethiopia. But the Ethiopians never lost sight of the humanity of Mary in their devotions, and they appealed to her as the great and tender-hearted woman of sorrows and the loving mother, especially in all affairs of daily life. She was to them all-knowing, all-wise and all-understanding, as far as the weaknesses and sins of men and women were concerned, and they went to her shrines in simple faith, told their troubles to the pictures of her, and trusted to her all-embracing sympathy and pity to relieve their troubles and remove their afflictions. In their pictures they represent her as one of themselves, with thick, black, woolly hair, and eyes with jet-black pupils and large whites, and with the large breasts that are the joy of all mothers in Ethiopia and the Sudan. They are never tired of extolling her physical beauty, and some of their addresses to her mere resemble the rhapsodies of a lover than the devout glorifying of the Mother of God.

From - Legends of the Virgin Mary