Triptych Icon with Central Image of the Virgin and Child, Late 17th century, reign of Iyyasu I (1682–1706), Ethiopia
Tempera on linen, mounted on wood and bound with cord
Art Institute Chicago notes:
In the highlands of Ethiopia, Orthodox Christianity stretches in an unbroken line of practice from the fourth century to the present day. Although painted icons are known from the late fourteenth century, demand for such objects increased greatly in the mid-fifteenth century, when the worship of Mary was formalized in the Ethiopian Orthodox liturgy. Considered sacred, icons were venerated in weekly services and on special feast days.
The central image of this large, finely rendered triptych presents Mary with the young Jesus on her lap. She grasps a handkerchief in her left hand, while her son blesses her with his right hand and holds a book in his left. This depiction derives from a painting of the Virgin long held in the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore, Rome. Reproduced in portable paintings, the image was disseminated throughout Christendom by missionaries beginning in the early seventeenth century. Upon its arrival in Ethiopia by the mid-seventeenth century, it revolutionized the representation of the Virgin and Child.
Here Christ is delicately portrayed wearing a checkered robe and a beautifully detailed cowrie-shell necklace. He and Mary sit enthroned on an Ethiopian-style bed, flanked by the archangels Gabriel and Michael. The image is surrounded by secondary themes, including the Crucifixion at top right, the Ascension at top left, and Saint George slaying the dragon at center left.