This stunning illustration comes from a manuscript on display at the British Museum. It was "commissioned in the last years of the 17th century
by Emperor Iyasu I Yohannes of Ethiopia for use in his royal city
of Gondar." Note the symbols of the apostles surrounding the enthroned Christ: Matthew the Man, John the Eagle, Luke the Ox, and Mark the Lion. I find it interesting how the compressed bodies, large-eyed faces, and stylized positioning reflect the Coptic (Egyptian) style, but do it in such a distinctive manner.
Here's another Ethiopian illustration, this one found in an early twentieth-century psalter, which highlights the compressed figures, the enormous eyes, and the stylized positioning.
Here is a Coptic painting for comparison:
This comes from an article by Jimmy Dunn, reprinted in Tour Egypt. Dunn's exposition of Coptic symbolism (iconization) could easily be extended to the Ethiopian examples as well:
The Characteristics of Coptic iconization follow certain symbolism that carries a meaningful message, though many of these attributes may be found in icons outside of the Coptic Church. Some of these characteristics are:
- Large and wide eyes symbolize the spiritual eye that look beyond the material world. The Bible says "the light of the body is the eye: if therefore thine eye be simple, thy whole body shall be full of light" [Matthew 6:22].
- Large ears listen to the word of God. The Bible says "if any man have ears to hear, let them hear" [Mark 4:23].
- Gentle lips to glorify and praise the Lord, for the Bible says "My mouth shall praise thee with joyful lips" [Psalm 63:5].
- Small mouths, so that they cannot be the source of empty or harmful words.
- Small noses, because the nose is sometimes seen as sensual.
- Large heads, which imply that the figure is devoted to contemplation and prayer.