Art: Battle of Adwa

Battle of Adwa, on 2 March 1896: British Museum.

This picture was drawn by an unknown artist and is exhibited in room 66 in the Ethiopia and Egypt section of the museum.

This painting, as most nationalistic painting, emphasises the values and heroism of the the painter’s own tradition.

On the right, you see the Italians, the colonial invaders and on the left, the Ethiopians led by Emperor Menelik II.

The Italian army is organised in three rows. While the two rows on the right can be recognised as composed of Italians, the first row, those in the heat of the action, seem to be non-Italian, a foreign legion, maybe Arabs, who are given the task of doing the dirty and dangerous work.

In the centre, the Ethiopians are seen to be valiantly charging against the bullets, underscoring their valour.

Furthermore, on the bottom left, is a peloton of female fighters led by Empress Taytu, probably to suggest that the whole of the Ethiopian population took-up arms against the enemy.

While both army possess rifles, the Italians have far more cannons than do the Ethiopians, again suggesting that the odds were in Italy’s favour.

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In the top corners, are the leaders of each army. On the top left we see Emperor Menelik II while on the top right is an Italian general. Between the two and overseeing the battle, we find Saint George, the patron saint of Ethiopia.

In this case, Saint George’s allegiance is pretty clear, he is charging from left to right and therefore is wholeheartedly in the Ethiopian camp. The halo which carries him and perhaps protects him, echoes the colours of the Ethiopian flag green for the land, yellow for peace and hope and red representing strength *.

Finally an anecdote; from my standpoint, the painter might have misrepresented the Italian flag. While it is true that they are in the right order from left to right (green, white, red) as they appear in the painting, the colour green should start at the mast.

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