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Kwer’ata Re’esu Icon

This painting, showing Jesus Christ looking downward, was taken from Maqdala by Sir Richard Holmes, representative of the British Museum on the expedition. He did not disclose his acquisition during his lifetime. The Kwer’ata Re’esu, purchased in London in 1950, is now the property of a Portuguese collector who wishes to remain anonymous.

The Kwer’ata Re’esu IconThe Quar'ata Re'esu

The Story of an Ethiopian Icon

by Richard Pankhurst

The British expedition of 1867-8 against Emperor Tewodros at Maqdala was accompanied, it will be recalled, by extensive looting of historic Ethiopian artifacts, among them crowns, crosses, royal tents, tabots (or mobile altars), and anuscripts, many of them beautifully illustrated.

One of the most important articles taken from Tewodros's mountain fortress of Maqdala was a remarkable icon, known as the kwer'ata re'esu, or Christ with the Crown of Thorns. his icon had an interesting history. Of uncertain foreign origin, perhaps Flemish, perhaps Portuguese, it became a symbol of Ethiopia's Gondar monarchy, which flourished in the 17th. and 18th. centuries..The chronicle of Emperor Yohannes I (1667-1681) for example relates that when that monarch marched on campaign he was preceded by the Kwer'ata Re'esu, which is there described as a "picture of Our Lord Jesus Christ". A later entry tells of the Emperor preparing another expedition, on which occasion he summoned all his followers, nobles and soldiers, and exhorted them to fight bravely, in the name of the kwer'ata re'esu, which is there described as "the holy picture of the Creator".

The kwer'ata re'esu, according to a subsequent chronicle, continued to play an important role during the reign of Yohannes's son and heir Iyasu I. (1682-1706). Later again, during a rebellion by his son Takla Haymanot, the latter called on the citizens of Gondar, the then capital, to rally to his cause in the name of the icon - and was duly successful.

The painting came to the fore again during the ensuing reign of Emperor Bakaffa (1721-1730). His chronicle reports that, after one of his expeditions, he brought it back to the capital "with great honour", after which it was placed in his apartment.

Later again, early in the reign of Iyasu II (1730-1755 and the regency of his distinguished mother Empress Mentewab, the two rulers were also faced with rebellion. They accordingly summoned the leaders of the church, and had them exhort the nobles, soldiers and citizens, in the name of the icon, never to abandon the throne. The people swore, we are told, that if they failed in their duty "the picture of kwer'ata re'esu should prevent us sharing the benefactions of the queen and king, and should destroy us". Thus fortified, the royalists defeated the rebels.

Several years later, in 1744, Iyasu, who had by then come of age, embarked on a disastrous campaign against the Balaw of Sudan. He marched, as was customary, with the kwer'ata re'esu, but he suffered so great a defeat that his men fled the field of battle, leaving the beloved icon behind them. The humiliated ruler, however, subsequently succeeded in negotiating for its return. Commenting on this achievement the 18th. century Scottish author James Bruce observes:

"The priests made processions from church to church singing halleluyahs and songs of rejoicing... All Gondar was drunk with joy".

The painting, according to Bruce, was later placed for safe-keeping on one of the islands of Lake Tana.


After the rise, in the mid-19th. century, of the modernising Emperor Tewodros, or Theodore II (1855-1868). the kwer'ata re'esu came into his possession. According to a contemporary British account, it was placed over his bed at Maqdala. It remanded there until 13 April 1868 - the day of the arrival of British troops of the Magdala expedition - when it suddenly disappeared.

That was the day of the looting of Maqdala, after which much of the booty was acquired on behalf of the British Museum by its agent Sir Richard Holmes.

Tewodros's successor Emperor Yohannes IV (1871-1889) was deeply grieved by the loss of the kwer'ata re'esu . Scarcely half a year after his coronation he wrote two letters: one to Queen Victoria, and the other to the British Foreign Secretary, Earl Granville. Convinced that the painting "was now in England", as he wrote to the latter, the Emperor appealed for its return, as well as for that of a copy of the Kebra Nagast, or Glory of Kings, also known to have been formerly at Maqdala.

On receipt of these two letters the British Foreign Office approached the British Museum, which was the repository of the greater part of the loot from Maqdala. Its officials made some investigations, found two copies of the Kebra Nagast (and agreed to return the inferior copy), but as for the icon they reported that they were "quite certain" that it was "not in the British Museum".

Queen Victoria accordingly wrote back to Yohannes that "of the picture we can discover no trace whatsoever... and do not think it can have been brought to England". Lord Granville also wrote to the Emperor, in similar terms.

Her Majesty and her Minister, as we now know, were both mistaken.

Emperor Yohannes died in 1889, and in the following year the Dutch Ambassador in London was informed that the icon was in fact in England, as the late Emperor had asserted, and was actually in the personal possession of the former British Museum representative who had accompanied the troops looting Maqdala: Sir Richard Holmes. His possession of the painting was confirmed in 1905 when the Burlington Magazine, of which he was a consultant, published a photograph of the picture, with the tell-tale caption, "Head of Christ formerly in the possession of King Theodore of
Abyssinia, now in the possession of Sir Richard Holmes, K.C.V.O."

Holmes, by then was a royal Librarian at Windsor Castle.

The kwer'ata re'esu, since that time, was twice sold at Christies, the London auction house. In 1950 Miss A. Scott-Eliott, Keeper in the Department of Prints and Drawings at Windsor Castle, tried to redress Sir Richard Holmes's rather shady action by purchasing the icon with a view to returning it to Ethiopia - but she was outbid by a more successful Portuguese purchaser. The Ethiopian Ambassador in London, Ato Abbebe Retta, also attempted to buy the painting for his country, but failed to obtain monetary approval from Addis Ababa in time.

The painting therefore ended up in Portugal.

The icon's repatriation to Ethiopia was subsequently discussed by the Portuguese Government at the time of Emperor Haile Sellassie's visit to Lisbon, and by the British Embassy in Addis Ababa at that of its Centenary Celebrations - but, for one reason or other, neither initiative came to fruition.

An Ethiopian scholar in London, Dr. Haddis Gebre-Meskel, later wrote in the London Daily Telegraph, in 1988, that when he had been in Gondar, three years earlier, "many people" asked him if I had seen the icon. He adds: "When I said I knew only that it was in a private collection, though I knew not where, I was told, 'We will buy it back. Everyone, even shepherd boys, will contribute a penny to its purchase'".

The repatriation of the kwer'ata re'esu thus remains to this day on the agenda.

Bibliographic Note: On the history of the icon see two articles, by Richard Pankhurst in Abba Salama (1979) and African Affairs (1982), and a third by Stanislaw Chojnacki, in the Annali dell'Istituto Universitario Orientale, of Naples (1985).

You can read the original Daily Telegraph article on the discovery in our news section.

An article on the website artcult reads:

Art Newspaper scoop
Stolen after the suicide of Ethiopian Emperor Theodorus II, his people’s sacred icon representing Jesus Christ painted around 1520 by a European artist has been rediscovered in Portugal, according to the Art Newspaper.

Ethiopian Emperors venerated the icon during many centuries and took it in each of their military battles while nobles had to swear allegiance before it. This work, called the Kwer’ata Re’esu was therefore an extraordinary symbol.

After the defeat of the Ethiopians against the British expeditionary corps in 1868 it had been stolen by the representative of the British Museum Sir Richard Holmes who never disclosed his crime during his lifetime.

The Kwer’ata Re’esu, purchased in London in 1950, is now the property of a Portuguese collector who wishes to remain anonymous. The painting, measuring 33 x 25 cm, shows Jesus Christ looking downward, his forefront bleeding from the wounds of his martyr’s crown and his palms raised. He is being represented at the end of his trial before his crucifixion.

This work was believed to have painted either by a Flemish or a Portuguese artist and bore an inscription in ge’ez, the old language of the Ethiopian Church, added during the early 17th Century.

The painting is well preserved despite the fact that it was carried many times on battle fields, that it escaped fire and was stolen by the Sudanese Muslims during the 18th Century.

Sir Richard Holmes stole it after the battle of Magdala on April 13th 1868 in the palace of Theodorus who had just committed suicide after his defeat.

The Kwer’ata Re’esu was a sacred icon for all Ethiopian emperors who took it with them whenever they went to fight a battle. In 1744, after a battle in Sudan, the Muslims seized it and returned it against a ransom. The precious icon was venerated by all Ethiopians and copied extensively throughout the country.
In 1862, Theodorus sought the support of Britain to stave off a Turkish threat but Queen Victoria ignored his appeal.

The emperor retaliated in keeping the British consul and several Europeans as prisoners. After negotiations for their release failed the British sent to Ethiopia an expeditionary corps under Lord Napier which defeated the Ethiopian army.
Sir Richard Holmes, who was in charge of gathering antiquities and manuscripts for the British Museum, found the Kwer’ata Re’esu in the bedroom of the emperor but never reported that he had entered in possession of this treasure.

He took back to London many pieces of antiquities as well as the gold crown and calice of the emperor and entrusted the British Museum with these pieces but kept the Kwer’ata Re’esu for himself.

Yohannes IV, who succeeded Theodorus, wrote to Queen Victoria in 1872 to inform her about the disappearance of the icon but the Foreign Office replied that there was no trace of it in London.

Sir Richard Holmes died in 1911 and the painting surfaced back six years later in a sale at Christie’s. The vendor was Lady Evelyn his widow and the icon was sold for Ł 420 to Martin Reid of Wimbledon, according to the Art Newspaper.
J.W Reid, the heir of the latter, sold the work, described as A man of Sorrows by Adriaen Isenbrandt on February 17th 1950 again at Christie’s but no mention of its historical importance was made then. A curator of the Royal Library however alerted the Ethiopian authorities at the time of the sale but the government of Addis Ababa did not react at once.

The painting was however unsold at Ł131 but was thereafter the object of a private sale for Ł 300 in favour of a Portuguese buyer, art historian Luis Reis Santos who had written an article on the Kwer’ata Re’esu in a 1941 edition of the Burlington magazine. The British then tried in vain to buy the painting back to return it to the Ethiopians while Luis Reis Santos approached the Portuguese government in 1965 offering to sell it so that Lisbon could offer it to Emperor Haile Selassie during a State visit but Portuguese authorities turned his proposal down presumably because the price he was asking was too high.

The rediscovery of the Kwer’ata Re’esu, which has been strongly linked to the history of Ethiopia, might now prompt Ethiopian authorities to claim for its return.

An entry on the British Orthodox Church's website from 1998 reads:

Mystery of Stolen Icon solved

An article in the Daily Telegraph of 27th March, reported that one of the world's greatest 'lost pictures', a sixteenth century painting of our Lord, has been rediscovered, wrapped in a copy of the Evening News from 1950. It is now in a Portuguese bank vault. The Kwer'ata Re'esu (The Striking of the Head) is actually a European painting by an unknown artist on an oak panel measuring 10 x 12 ins.

Probably brought to Ethiopia by Portuguese missionaries, it was soon regarded as a sacred talisman and carried into battle by the Emperors of Gondar. When it was retrieved after having been captured in battle by Sudanese Muslims in 1744 "all Gondar was drunk with joy." During the battle of Magdala in 1868, when a British Expeditionary force overthrew the Emperor Theodoros, the Kwer'ata Re'esu went missing. Martin Bailey, the art historian, who has written a full account in the April edition of The Art Newspaper, documents how it was looted by none other than Sir Richard Holmes, the British Museum's Assistant Keeper of Manuscripts and later to be Librarian to Queen Victoria. From there it passed through several hands and was twice sold by Christies, though under misleading descriptions.

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Private collection, Portugal
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