Hymn to the Trinity

Hymn to the Trinity – Orbis Mediaevalis – Vitr/26/3 – Biblioteca Nacional de España (Madrid, Spain)

Gondar region (Ethiopia) — 15th century

Impressive liturgical hymns in a fascinatingly illuminated leporello: a unique testimony to the artistic traditions of ancient Ethiopian Christianity

  1. Ethiopia has one of the oldest Christian churches in the world with its own unique traditions

  2. This is a sänsul, an illustrated folded book populated by human figures with large almond eyes

  3. It is written in Ge’ez, a classical Ethiopian language still used for liturgical purposes today

Hymn to the Trinity

Facsimile Copy Available!
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  1. Description
  2. Detail Picture
  3. Single Page
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Hymn to the Trinity

In the tradition of Ethiopian book art, a sänsul is a folded book with colorful illustrations characterized by figures with large, almond-shaped eyes appearing throughout the manuscript. Included among them is a beautifully dressed noblewoman appearing at the beginning who probably commissioned the work. This sänsul is a rare and precious example of 15th century Ethiopian “Naif” illumination containing hymns and poems of praise dedicated various aspects of the Christian faith including the Annunciation, Holy Trinity, the Elders of the Apocalypse, and Saint Gabra Manfas Qeddus, an Egyptian monk who supposedly lived for centuries before coming to Ethiopia to preach the Good News. The familiar winged Evangelist Symbols (man, lion, ox, eagle) are used to decorate the image of the Holy Trinity and the text is written in Ge’ez, a classical Ethiopian language still used for liturgical purposes today. This impressive example of Ethiopian art provides a fascinating insight into medieval Christianity outside Europe.

Hymn to the Trinity

Ethiopia is one of the oldest countries in the world and was the second to adopt Christianity and as such as a unique and fascinating tradition of religious art. The small yet richly illuminated manuscript at hand is a so-called sansül, an accordion book carried by members of the Ethiopian elite in the same manner that European nobles carried books of hours. It belongs to the Melke’ genre of the Ge’ez language, which praises the Holy Trinity, Virgin Mary, archangels, and the most venerated saints of Ethiopian Christianity.

Poems of Praise

Originating from the hand of a monk in the Gondar region, the text is written in black and red ink and appears to be a copy of a poem from the 11th century Oxyrhynchus Papyri. Arranged in stanzas of 4-6 verses, the poem equates every part of the body with passages from the Bible and graces attributed to the Trinity. Special attention in the manuscript is also paid to Saint Gabra Manfas Qeddus (also spelled Gebre Menfes Kidus), to whom the fifth day of every month in the Ethiopian calendar is dedicated. Written on both sides of the folded parchment, the text is written in 16-line columns – 51 on the recto side and 40 on the verso, which introduces the miniatures. The first depicts the Annunciation and shows the Virgin Mary sewing and reading a book when the Angel Gabriel appears above her in a ring of clouds as the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove flies toward her.

A Unique Artistic Tradition

Although many Ethiopian arts and crafts such as textiles and jewelry are fairly similar to those of their neighbors, the religious art of Christian Ethiopia is distinctive and unique among its Muslim neighbors. Nonetheless, there is some evidence of Byzantine influences in the work, such as the static, typified presentation of faces and with large eyes and expressive, exaggerated hand gestures. However, Ethiopian artists had their own innovative variations on typical devices in Christian art, such as the mandorla – an almond shaped framed in which Christ in Majesty is typically presented. This manuscript’s representation of the Holy Trinity uses a hexagonal mandorla inside of a square, creating spaces in the corners for the Four Evangelist symbols and they are in turn flanked in the margins by the Twenty-Four Elders from the Book of Revelation. Similar to a European book of hours, a richly dressed female figure appears in the margins between the scenes, most likely the patron of the work.

The Ancient Roots of Ethiopian Christianity

Around the year 316, a young Christian missionary named Frumentius and his brother Edesius were enslaved when their ship came into a port on the Red Sea and given to the king of the Ethiopians in Aksum. From their servitude they rose to positions of trust at the royal court, whose members they began to convert to Christianity. An Ethiopian coin dated 324 already shows indications that the conversion of the entire country was underway. The majority of the country was converted in the course of the 330’s and Christianity was declared the state religion ca. 340. Closely related to the Coptic Christianity of Egypt, the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church has been the predominant religion in Ethiopia for over 1,500 years.

Ethiopia and Europe

After its neighbors were converted to Islam in the course of the 7th century, Ethiopia became isolated from other Christian nations. During the course of the Middle Ages and especially after the beginning of the Crusades, Europeans made continuous attempts to make contact with Ethiopia as a Christian ally in the region and vice versa. Ethiopian monks also travelled to the West, participating in the 1441 Council of Florence, for example. Portugal became the first European country to establish continuous relations with Ethiopia, which began in 1508, but the country remained relatively isolated and fiercely independent. Ethiopia was one of only two African nations to avoid colonization in the 19th century and the Ethiopian identity continues to be defined by Christianity and a spirit of independence.


Alternative Titles
Himno a la Trinidad
Hymne an die Dreifaltigkeit
Size / Format
52 pages / 9.5 × 4.0 cm
15th century
Poem of praise to the Holy Trinity as well as prayers and a praise to the popular saint Gebre Menfes Kidus

Available facsimile editions:
Hymn to the Trinity – Orbis Mediaevalis – Vitr/26/3 – Biblioteca Nacional de España (Madrid, Spain)
Orbis Mediaevalis – Madrid, 2020
Limited Edition: 200 copies
Detail Picture

Hymn to the Trinity

The Annunciation

The Virgin Mary is sewing and sitting in front of a book resting in a folding lectern called a rehal, which comes from the Arabic word for “camel saddle” and was adopted by Ethiopian Christians who were surrounded by Muslim neighbors. Mary is adorned by a colorful halo and her hair is completely covered by her blue cloak as the archangel Gabriel, accompanied by a white dove representing the Holy Spirit, appears in a ring of clouds with white hair and the two look directly at each other.

Hymn to the Trinity – Orbis Mediaevalis – Vitr/26/3 – Biblioteca Nacional de España (Madrid, Spain)
Single Page

Hymn to the Trinity

The Holy Trinity

Flanked by the Twenty-Four Elders from the Book of Revelation, twelve of whom are shown here, the Holy Trinity is represented by three virtually identical male figures making the benediction gesture. They are presented in a unique hexagonal mandorla inside of a square, which creates spaces in the corners for the symbols representing the Four Evangelists.

The female figure who appears in the margin of this and other miniatures dressed in white wearing a feathered black cap with a cross is probably the patron of the manuscript. Like a European book of hours, this manuscript was simultaneously an expression of piety, wealth, and sophistication that was created for the devotional use of a layperson who had themselves inserted into the artwork.

Hymn to the Trinity – Orbis Mediaevalis – Vitr/26/3 – Biblioteca Nacional de España (Madrid, Spain)
Facsimile Editions

#1 Himno a la Trinidad

Orbis Mediaevalis – Madrid, 2020

Publisher: Orbis Mediaevalis – Madrid, 2020
Limited Edition: 200 copies
Commentary: 1 volume by Josefina Planas Badenas and José Luis Brandés Urdàniz
Language: Spanish
1 volume: Exact reproduction of the original document (extent, color and size) Reproduction of the entire original document as detailed as possible (scope, format, colors). The binding may not correspond to the original or current document binding.
Facsimile Copy Available!
Price Category: €€
(1,000€ - 3,000€)
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