Ethiopian Pocket Icon




I bought this icon several years ago. It’s modern, dating to 1959, but in the traditional Ethiopian style. These kinds of pocket icons are very common among the Ethiopian Orthodox. The Ethiopian style of icon painting, much like the Coptic, is boorishly ridiculed as “cartoonish” by some, but it is an authentic, consistent, and true tradition, truly a native expression of piety. There is a down-to-earth grace and beauty in the simplicity of this style with its ubiquitous warm colors, and skilled composition. The side panels in this particular icon are particularly striking.

This is an icon of the Descent of Christ from the Cross, of course. That’s Nicodemus (the younger, black-bearded man) and Joseph of Arimathea (the older man) holding the shroud in the middle panel. In the two side panels are the five women present at the Crucifixion, covering their faces with their robes in grief, so that only the bridges of their noses are showing. It is one of the most effective, human, portrayals of grief that I have ever seen in an icon, something that we see in our own funerals as the face buried in the sleeve. We are shown a moment in which the two men glance at one another, just prior to covering the body.

I treasure this icon.


  1. I bought a similar icon (mine’s a diptych) by the same artist back around 1997 & will E-mail photos to you this weekend. One side has Jesus being helped by Simon, & the Crucifixion with the same 2 mourners as yours (“Mary & John” in Ge’ez); the other side has St. George killing a dinosaur & Mary holding the baby Jesus with 2 onlooking angels.

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