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New Photos Shed Fresh Light on Ethiopia’s Most Treasured Icon and How it Was Looted

An investigation by The Art Newspaper has revealed new details about the infamous theft in 1868 of a 500-year-old painting of Christ known as the Kwer’ata Re’esu, which is believed to be painted in Iberia or Flanders around 1520.

Among Ethiopia’s greatest cultural losses at the Battle of Maqdala in 1868 was a remarkable 500-year-old icon of the suffering Christ. It was looted by Richard Holmes, a British Museum agent sent to retrieve manuscripts and antiquities from Ethiopia. On his return, he failed to hand over the masterpiece to the museum, instead keeping it in secret so that the museum had no direct involvement in its handling. The painting was sold at Christie’s in 1917 by Holmes’s heir. The Art Newspaper tracked down the Kwer’ata Re’esu to a Portuguese bank vault in 1998. Now, 25 years later, the owner’s name and a color image, plus many fascinating new details, appear in an exclusive article.

Anonymous Iberian or Flemish artist, Kwer’ata Re’esu, ca. 1520
Private collection, Portugal
Photo: Martin Bailey

The Kwer’ata Re’esu has an extraordinary cross-cultural history. Painted in Europe in about 1520, either in Iberia or Flanders, it was probably sent soon afterwards to Ethiopia. There it became the holy icon of successive Ethiopian emperors in what has been a Christian land since the fourth century. Although very little known outside Ethiopia, it is highly important in both historical and art historical terms.

The Art Newspaper hopes that this new color image will make it possible for specialists to make a secure attribution. Previous attributions include the Flemish artists Quenten Massys, Adriaen Ysenbrandt, Albrecht Bouts and a pupil of Hans Memling; the Portuguese artists Lázaro de Andrade and Jorge Afonso; and the Spanish artist Bartolomé Bermejo.

Any thoughts on the attribution of the Kwer’ata Re’esu can be sent to: