A Passion for Ethiopian Icons

Recent artist-in-residence Cathy Abbott presents her work and artistic journey to the community on Friday, November 22.

A walk into St. Gertrude’s chapel, through the hall, and down to the refectory will bring a guest into view of several icons. They have been created — or written — by the late Sister Carolyn Miguel, visiting priests, and past participants of Father Damian Higgins’ icon retreat that happens each year. These images come from the Eastern Orthodox tradition and are considered a form of visual prayer.

Cathy Abbott, a Methodist minister from Virginia and November’s artist-in-residence, introduced the community to the Ethiopian icon tradition. Christianity came to Ethiopia in the fourth century and was influenced by the Byzantine tradition.

An icon of Abune Gabre Menfes Kiddish, created from joomchi paper. The Ethiopian saint is similar to St. Francis, known for his connection to nature and compassion for animals.

“I had a call to make icons as a way to connect people to the living God. Ethiopian icons have become my favorites because I love the African influence on the tradition (Jesus has cornrows!) and the vivid primary colors,” explained Cathy. “Also, in Ethiopia, icons are believed to have healing properties, and that speaks to me.”

Cathy experienced Ethiopian icons for the first time at Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, Maryland. She bought a book on the Ethiopian icon tradition and made her first healing icon the next day. At first she used colored markers then soon moved to cut paper, in particular, Korean joomchi paper with long mulberry fibers that allow it to be sculpted into textures.

She has focused on her two favorite Ethiopian saints, Samuel of Waldebba and Abune Gabre Menfes Kiddish. “I reflect on what made them holy and how I can conform my own will to Christ’s,” she said. 

Cathy Abbott in the St. Gertrude’s artists’ studio.

Cathy discovered St. Gertrude’s artist-in-residence program during a renewal leave from her ministry work. As she looked ahead toward retirement, she felt called to a spiritual formation program and also an artist’s residency. She has found both in her recent three weeks at St. Gertrude’s with concentrated studio time and participation in monastic life.

Being in a Catholic setting also allowed her honor and reckon with the legacy of her late sister, who died in her early thirties from cancer. Her sister converted to Catholicism and had a deep commitment to the ministry of the laity. 

“I am remembering my sister among her sisters in faith,” explained Cathy. Even in the memory of a dynamic sibling she has also found the space to step more out of her sister’s shadow and painful absence. 

“I more deeply understand that I’ve never been alone — and God is more than enough.”