Icons from Ethiopia
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Riding a donkey

Virtually all 13th to 17th century Ethiopian compositions of the Flight into Egypt save the Lalibala mural invariably include four persons: namely, the Child, Mary, Joseph and Salome. Mary is shown as walking, similarly to Joseph and Salome and never riding on a donkey. This is a very Ethiopian trait. In Ethiopia, a donkey is used extensively for carrying goods but virtually never for riding. It may happen that the countryside shepherds would ride on donkeys; one or two shepherds on one donkey, from the pasture to their village, but it would be unthinkable for an adult especially of some importance to mount a donkey.56 This made it hard to believe that Ethiopian painters would invent by themselves the picture showing Mary on a donkey. Moreover, the narrative of Theophilus does not mention explicitly this method of locomotion; instead it gives the impression that the Holy Family made its tedious journey on foot. This corresponds also to the Ethiopian habit of walking long distances; in fact, except for a few important personages, everybody travels on foot to the weekly market.

(S.C. Major Th) p 51-52)

 

It seems that Ethiopian painters of the late 17th and the 18th century did not make up their minds whether, as Mary's mount, they should depict a donkey or a mule which Ethiopians consider to be a more dignified animal than a donkey. As a compromise the pictures usually show a hybrid animal having some characteristics of the donkey and some of the mule, but always caparisoned with horse or mule trappings.

(S.C. Major Th) p 75