Monday, April 23, 2007

Beta Maryam

(March 18, 2007: Lalibela, Ethiopia.)

Beta Maryam, the Church of Mary

Opposite the west entrance to Medhane Alem, a tunnel cut into the rock wall leads into a large court containing three churches. Beta Maryam stands in the middle, Beta Masqal to the north and Beta Danagel to the south.


The various windows on the east facade, the cut-out designs, feature different crosses as well as different religious symbols.



Isn't she pretty?

In the courtyard, to the east, by the tunnel-entrance from the court of Medhane Alem, there is this baptistry. It has wide external stairs and two small interior staircases. Dedicated to the Mother Mary, this very deep pool is said to have miraculous properties. It is visited on certain special days by infertile women, the reeds are pushed aside and the women step down to immerse themselves in the water.

Beta Maryam is unique in that it has three exterior porches. They are closed at the sides except at the top where there are open arches. The front is open and has a central column with corbels. There is another column in the middle of the porch. Each porch leads to an entrance to Beta Maryam into the west half of the church, from the north, south and west sides.
Facing west here, we are looking at a passage way with a double entrance across from the west entrance of Beta Maryam. The two openings above are to an area known as the tribune or 'royal box' of Lalibela. It affords views of the western facade of Beta Maryam and the courtyard on this side, and out the other side, views of Lalibela village.


In contrast to the grand simplicity of Medhane Alem, Beta Maryam is highly decorated inside and out. The ceiling and upper walls are covered with frescoes, the columns and arches carved. Above, a carved bas-relief, above the western porch, of St. George fighting the dragon.



Worshipers outside the south entrance to Beta Masqal, some leaning on prayer sticks.


Note here the priest showing us another one of the treasured crosses. The style is very different from the Lalibela-style cross shown us in Medhane Alem (see previous post). Behind the priest is an example of the many holy paintings to be found in the churches, some brought out for display only on special occasions. I like this one for the stylized eyes typical of many sacred paintings in Ethiopia. Note the "afro" hair on some of the characters. (More on the sacred art later.)

Beta Maryam has three aisles, the centre aisle, or nave, much higher than the outer two. At the east end of the centre nave, in front of the Holy of Holies, there is a very tall column that rises right to the centre of the transverse arch. It is always kept veiled. The legend is that the Holy King Lalibela had a vision in which Christ himself leaned against this pillar. Now, it is said, "the past and future of the world" are inscribed upon it. It is called the Pillar of Light because once it was unveiled and a miraculous light flooded the area.

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