The Reversal Gaze - The Hypnotic Mystery Behind Traditional Ethiopian Art!

The “reversal gaze”, the epitome of traditional Ethiopian art - is depicted by the wide, almond shaped eyes of ancient Ethiopian iconography - and connotes a fascinating and almost eerie (at least for some) concept that it is not only the viewers who observe the paintings, but the paintings also observe the viewers, taking in the world outside - (making me wonder of what the characters must think of us - but that’s entirely another subject). 

The 4th century ushered Christianity into Ethiopia and marked the beginning of a tradition of religious paintings. Housed mostly in churches, paintings depicting characters and stories from the Bible, icons, crosses and illustrated manuscripts signified the onset of Christian art in Ethiopia.

The iconographic forms and principles of presentation in traditional Ethiopian church art were kept and passed from generation to generation. Painters knew how to draw in a flat style - not deceptive neither illusive, direct, objective and without a background and using only black, white, and the colors yellow, green, red and blue. At the height of its stylistic perfection, Ethiopian art renounced the illusion of volume, depth and perspective. The paintings were “conceptual” and composed of a series of image-signs according to spiritual considerations. These image-signs, arranged on a flat surface, are meant to give the impression of an idea or a narration. Human figures, the apotheosis of Ethiopian art, are characterized by non-realistic head and body proportions and usually static poses. (Stanisław Chojnacki, University of Sudbury, Ontario)

Within these paintings a human face had three forms; two-thirds, frontal and profile, and each format symbolized different concepts and personality. The saints were painted in reversal gaze so as to hypnotize the onlooker, which also used what is known as the frontal technique. To avoid the reversal gaze and to depict sinful and devilish people, the painters used the profile technique by drawing only one eye.


Change and evolution was apparent when in the 16th and 17th centuries the Jesuits brought with them depictions of the Virgin Mary, and was further emphasized in the 1890’s with the arrival of printed images from Egypt, Jerusalem, Greece and France. By the 20th Century, Ethiopian artists began to deal with other topics and themes. However, even today, many Ethiopian artists choose to revisit the many elements of their artistic roots - reviving the “iconic eyes” to depict spiritual connection and meditation in their contemporary works. The “reversal gaze”, especially for those art viewers who are familiar with its meaning, is a very powerful artistic element that elevates Ethiopian paintings to a unique platform, embracing the remarkable history and  heritage of the country and its people.

Modern Interpretations of The Reversal Gaze in Contemporary Ethiopian Art