Three years filling a church with Biblical bounty


Blessed Mary in Ethiopian Church by Emebet Alemu, Kilileshwa, June 6, 2022. PHOTO | MARGARETTA WA GACHERU | NMG

Stepping barefoot into the Ethiopian Orthodox Christian Church in Kileleshwa is like wandering into a medieval wonderland filled with brightly-painted icons of Ethiopian saints and prophets as well as Scriptural stories from both the Old and New Testaments.

There are ‘signs and wonders’ everywhere. All painted in dazzling colors, one can see Biblical scenes covering every wall, from the vaulted ceilings to the carpeted tile floors.

BDLife had been forewarned by a friend that the artist responsible for all of these wonderful works was a young Ethiopian woman.  But upon meeting the petite painter, Emebet Alemu, one can hardly believe that this soft-spoken woman is the one who’s created all of the majestic iconography filling this large church hall. But we didn’t have to take her word for it.

“I still have one more row of paintings to put up,” she says, referring to the lower back wall. “I’ll be happy to show you them,” she says as she quickly disappears.

Returning in minutes, she carries a slew of large rolled canvases which she cradles in her arms. Quickly unrolling them, one by one, she reveals more prophets and one magnificent painting of the angel Gabriel, who played such a large role in the New Testament. All are painted in the same unmistakable style as those we see covering the church walls.

“I’m almost done,” says this 36-year-old artist (who could pass for 22) who adds that she has been painting at the church for the past three years.

“I actually live elsewhere but once I started on this project, I found it was much easier to stay here and work throughout,” says Emebet who was given her own space on the church grounds for painting by the church’s pastor Keshi Andimichael Hadera.



Once she’s done, she plans to return to her own studio where she’ll be preparing for her first solo exhibition which she hopes to have at Nairobi National Museum.

“Lydia [Galavu, curator of NNM’s creativity gallery] came here to see my work at the church, and said she’d like me to have an exhibition there,” she adds.

Born and bought up in the Orthodox Ethiopian church in Addis Ababa, Emebet clearly studied her Bible well since the Pastor left her to the broad strokes of her original outline of what she planned to paint in acrylics on canvas to cover his church’s walls.

It is her imaginative interpretation of the life, crucifixion, and ascension of Jesus that one can see cover the long wall that your eyes rest upon as you walk (barefooted) into the church and gaze straight ahead. There one sees panel by panel, the birth of the baby, the baptism of Jesus, with his numerous instances of healing scattered all around the walls.

We also see him on a donkey entering into Jerusalem where he will eventually attend his Last Supper, a dramatic event that covers more than half the back wall in a modified Leonardo style. Jesus’ ascension takes place above that evening meal with him being accompanied by winged angels.

And beneath the disciples and Jesus are a long line of Ethiopian prophets and saints who Emebet cannot enumerate for me, but there are clearly many. What is equally amazing about her paintings is that the subject matter ranges between both the Old and New Testaments.

She features Shadrack, Meshack, and Abednego together with a ‘fourth man’, a larger-than-life ‘ son of God’ who’d been sent to save the three. She doesn’t forget Moses who has a staff in hand that has a snake’s head at the top of the rod.

And she even has a panel devoted to Saint George slaying the dragon, even though George doesn’t actually figure anywhere in the Bible. He’s said to have pre-Christian origins but gained legendary status during the Crusades. Side by side of George, she painted a panel of the angel Michael who did battle against another dragon on the babe’s behalf in the book of Revelation.

And in addition to her painting several images of Mary and the baby Jesus, Emebet has also created one panel devoted solely to Mary where she is surrounded by several angels, suggestive of how pure her soul and spirit had to be in order for her to give birth to the babe understood to be the son of God.

When she’s done, I can’t be sure the church will welcome the publicity Emebet’s artistry deserves. But if, one day the church gains UNESCO status, I won’t be surprised.