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Centre for the Study of Manuscript Cultures (CSMC)

07/2016 manuscript  of the month

The Portrait of a Queen:

A story about a manuscript and its commissione

In the first decade of the 19th century, which was a period of extreme decentralisation in Ethiopia, Queen Manan of Gondar commissioned a manuscript with hagiographic texts about Saint King Lālibalā containing a unique iconographic cycle. This manuscript was produced for a newly constructed church dedicated to this saint king in her capital. But why was Queen Manan, who lived 600 years later than him, so eager to promote his cult in a new place?

Fig. 1: The leather binding of the manuscript.
> Enlarge

The manuscript in question is an Ethiopian parchment codex 33.5 cm in height and 27.5 cm in width. The binding is still the Ethiopian original: the codex is bound on two wooden boards covered with finely tooled stamped leather and lined with flowered cloth. The book is still intact and shows hardly any traces of use. The text has been written in two columns in a careful, clear hand, the main body inscribed in carbon-black ink and red ink being used to lay out initial pages, punctuation and names. The text was composed in Ge’ez, an ancient Ethiopian language, and transmitted in its typical Ge’ez script. It contains a hagiographic text about an Ethiopian king and is known as the Gadla Lālibalā (‘Life of Lālibalā’). The text results from the merging of several independent texts which were eventually transmitted as a single work. This merged redaction was already attested in the 15th century.

Composed sometime before the 15th century, this work is considered the principal source of information on the life and deeds of King Lālibalā, who belonged to the Zagwe dynasty, which ruled Ethiopia in the 12th and 13th century. The Zagwe kings have sometimes been dubbed usurpers, but the Ethiopian Orthodox Church venerates them as saints. Moreover, Saint King Lālibalā is credited with the construction of eleven renowned rock-hewn churches in the town of Lālibalā, which was named after him. The church complex was interpreted as an ‘Ethiopian Jerusalem’ and became the main place of pilgrimage in Ethiopia.

Fig. 2: An illustration of Saint Lālibalā
building a church. > Enlarge

To date, the Life of Lālibalā is known from 35 books. The manuscript in question is unique, however: it is the only illustrated copy of this text. It contains eight miniatures, each of them filling a whole page and, as was common in the 19th century, either bearing a title in Ge’ez or in Amharic. The scribe and the painter must have thought very carefully about the project because the passages selected for painting narrate a specific story about Saint King Lālibalā. As we can see in the captions, most of the illustrations depict significant symbolic episodes of Lālibalā’s life until he became king. One of the miniatures depicts King Lālibalā building a church (fig. 2). All the miniatures originally belonged to one and the same codex, so it is likely that a scribe and a painter worked on the manuscript together and almost simultaneously. Most of the miniatures reflect occurrences in Lālibalā’s life that are mentioned in the text.

In addition to this, two miniatures included in the iconographic cycle narrate a story that is not actually told in the manuscript, describing events that are connected to the creation of the manuscript itself and its intended role.

In Ethiopia, commissioning a manuscript was and still is considered a pious deed; the baptismal name of the donor gets included in the prayers of supplication and is commemorated as long as the manuscript is in use. This particular manuscript was commissioned by Queen Manan in the 1840s, and her baptismal name, Walatta Iyasus, is mentioned in all the supplications in the manuscript. Moreover, in the miniature with the caption ‘How [the] Patriarch washed his feet’ (fig. 3), the queen is mentioned in a second subtitle and portrayed as the prone donor in the lower part of the picture. This image of her is the only one that has survived to this day. Although Manan was ‘only’ the wife of King Yohannes III of Ethiopia, she and her relatives were, in fact, the figures who really had power, not the king.

Fig. 3: Probably the only surviving
portrait of Queen Manan, the
commissioner of the manuscript.
> Enlarge

As a supplication in the manuscript mentions, Manan also commissioned the construction of a church dedicated to Saint Lālibalā. One miniature with the caption ‘Church of Lālibalā’ (fig. 4) depicts a church which could be identified as the church of Saint Lālibalā of Gondar. If we assume that the supplication refers to the area of Gondar, then this is the only written evidence and image of a church of the saint king which was built in the city of Gondar sometime in the first few decades of the 19th century.

The question is, why did Queen Manan decide to produce such a unique and precious manuscript? Why was she so eager to promote the cult of Saint King Lālibalā in a new place by building a church in his honour? One answer might be that Queen Manan wanted to boost the importance of her city, Gondar. The town of Lālibalā was the main religious centre of Ethiopia. In order to strengthen the position of her own city, Queen Manan wanted to transfer the religious significance of the city of Lālibalā to Gondar and promote it to become the new religious hub of the empire. In pursuing her aim, Queen Manan built a church for Saint Lālibalā in Gondar. In the Ethiopian Church, if a shrine is dedicated to a certain saint, it is obligatory to read stories of his life and miracles on his commemoration day. Hence, to accomplish her project, Manan had to obtain a copy of the Life of Lālibalā for the newly built church. In order to create a privileged place in Gondar and make it competitive with the city of Lālibalā, which had been constructed by the Saint King himself and was a place where he was highly venerated, Manan needed to commission something extraordinary: an illustrated manuscript. As a result, the first and only illustrated manuscript of the Life of Lālibalā was produced.

Fig. 4: The church of Gondar, dedicated to
Saint Lālibalā. > Enlarge

Admittedly, it is not the first manuscript of this text to have been commissioned by the royals, but it is the only known manuscript in which the commissioner is actually portrayed. By supporting King Lālibalā’s cult and being depicted in this unique manuscript, Queen Manan might have wanted to strengthen her own power and legitimacy.

If these were indeed Manan’s intentions, history did not grant her enough time. Another ambitious person got involved: future King Tewodros II (1855–1868). As a result, Queen Manan died in prison, and the church of Lālibalā was destroyed and deserted. As for the manuscript, it was carefully stored away in its new residence by King Tewodros II, who kept it as a valuable trophy. The manuscript was never used as a model for another copy, and the exclusive iconographic cycle was not copied or reproduced either. When the British Army defeated King Tewodros II in 1867–68, the queen’s manuscript was seized as booty and eventually sold to the British Museum by auction.


BERRY, LaVerle (2005): Gondär. In Siegbert Uhlig (ed.), Encyclopaedia Aethiopica, II: D–Ha, 838–843. Wiesbaden.

CRUMMEY, Donald (2007): Mänän Libän Amäde. In Siegbert Uhlig (ed.), Encyclopaedia Aethiopica, III: He–N, 721a–722b. Wiesbaden.

CRUMMEY, Donald / Nosnitsin, Denis / Sokolinskaia, Evgenia (2010): Tewodros II. In Siegbert Uhlig in cooperation with Alessandro Bausi (eds.), Encyclopaedia Aethiopica, IV: O–X, 930a–936a. Wiesbaden.

DEGE, Sophia (2014): Zämänä mäsafǝnt. In Alessandro Bausi in cooperation with Siegbert Uhlig (eds.), Encyclopaedia Aethiopica, V: Y–Z, Supplementa, Addenda et Corrigenda, Maps, Index, 122b–129a. Wiesbaden.

PERRUCHON, Jules (1892): Vie de Lālibalā, roi d’Éthiopie (Publications de l’École des Lettres d’Algers, Bulletin de Correspondance Africaine). Paris.

WRIGHT, William (1877): Catalogue of the Ethiopic Manuscripts in the British Museum acquired since the year 1847. London.

London, British Library
Signature: Or. 718
Provenance: Gondar, Ethiopia, 1840s
Material: parchment, 138 folios; original binding and wooden covers wrapped in leather
Size: 33.5 x 27.5 cm
Contents: The Life of Lālibalā

Text by Nafisa Valieva
© for all pictures: The British Library
Reference note:
Nafisa Valieva, “The Portrait of a Queen”
In: Wiebke Beyer (Ed.): Manuscript of the Month 2016.07, SFB 950: Hamburg,