Out of Africa: The Importation of Ethiopian Saints into the Early Modern Mediterranean

Saturday, January 8, 2011: 9:00 AM
Berkeley Room (Marriott Boston Copley Place)
Erin Kathleen Rowe , University of Virginia, Charlottesville, VA
This paper will address the introduction of African saints into Catholic Mediterranean countries in the early modern period.  Ethiopia represented an oddity to early modern Europeans, because it alone of sub-Saharan African nations boasted an ancient Christianity.  The saints “discovered” by Jesuit and Dominican missionaries traveling to East Africa were largely ancient saints purportedly converted by the apostle Matthew; the earliest converts to Christianity composed a special category of saints generally imbued with particular holiness by the Latin Church.  Ethiopian saints such as Iphigenia and Elisban were reintroduced into European devotions as a result of the European “discovery” of sub-Saharan Africa, in large part thanks to Jesuit and Dominican missionaries, who produced histories of Ethiopia in the late sixteenth and beginning of the seventeenth centuries, which included discussions of Ethiopia’s ancient conversion and early saints.   Their cults spread rapidly to the colonial Latin America in devotions aimed particularly at African slaves.  In this paper, I argue that the presence of ancient African saints necessitated that the European Church recognize the existence of an ancient African Christianity.  Such a recognition created ambivalences in early modern Europe, as the presence of black saints had the potential to subvert European arguments of African inferiority and just enslavement.  I will explore early modern ideas about racial difference, how the Church viewed racial inequality in light of the Christian promise of spiritual equality, and how preachers and artists represented black saints.
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