In Memoriam: Marilyn Eiseman Heldman (1935-2019)

The loss of Marilyn Eiseman Heldman (June 12, 1935 – July 15, 2019) marks the passing of a brilliant scholar and generous colleague who pioneered the study of Ethiopian art. Her work on the illustrated manuscripts and devotional icons of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church examined issues of patronage, spirituality and inspiration.

Her 1972 PhD thesis on the Miniatures of the Gospels of Princess Zir Gānēlā, an Ethiopic Manuscript Dated A.D. 1400/01, is, to this day, the only work which provides an overview of all the illustrated features of medieval Ethiopic Gospel books. Covering a wide range of visual evidence, the study traces the pictorial sources and religious practices which shaped the work of Ethiopian illuminators active towards the turn of the fifteenth century.  She was among the first art historians to study historical devotional Ethiopian artworks with this kind of depth.

In her book, The Marian Icons of the Painter Frē Ṣeyon: A Study in Fifteenth-century Ethiopian Art, Patronage, and Spirituality, Heldman begins with a single work of art as a window into the religious paintings traditions of the mid 1400’s. Frē Ṣeyon, a monk from the monastery of Dabra Gwegweben, signed only one painting, but by comparing stylistic and iconographical characteristics to other mural and panel paintings, Heldman was able to assign an entire oeuvre of painting to this monk and to identify the Byzantine and Italian prototypes. 

Heldman was also much involved in the organization and catalogue of the exhibition African Zion: The Sacred Art of Ethiopia (1993). This landmark exhibition, which brought Ethiopian art to the attention of the American public, remains unsurpassed. The art historical essays in the catalogue, written by Heldman, combine clarity with academic rigour. It is also worth remembering that Heldman, in the second of her five essays in this volume, was the first scholar to suggest, on stylistic grounds, that the Garima Gospels were produced during late antiquity, a hypothesis that would be later confirmed by C-14 dating.

-Jacopo Gnisci and Peri Klemm