The transition from the Zagwe (or Lasta) dynasty to the Solomonic in the Lalibela region seems to have triggered a significant artistic flowering, with cycles of wall paintings associated with the new ruler being placed in particular churches around the town. In contrast, the Zagwe kings are generally remembered more for their architectural skills.
The wall paintings associated with King Yǝkunno Amlak are very distinct in style from the paintings found in churches associated with Zagwe power. The paintings found at the Zagwe site of Yǝmrǝḥannä Krǝstos, for instance, closely resemble 13th century wall paintings in Coptic Egyptian monasteries. In contrast, the Amhara paintings, although clearly inspired by Arabic Christian imagery of the same period, appear mainly to have been produced by local hands, raising questions about the local conditions of reception and reinterpretation of this imported imagery. They also often include elements from the local environment, particularly animals (see the section on zooarchaeology). One of the aims of the project is to reassess all these paintings in terms of form and iconography, the pigments and mediums used, and the possible dates when they were produced.
At the same time, the new rulers encouraged the systematic translation of Arabic Christian texts into Gǝ‘ǝz and the production of a large body of literature, which notably included the Lives and Chronicles of their Zagwe predecessors. Däbrä Ḥayq Ǝsṭifanos, a monastery traditionally associated with Yǝkunno Amlak, may have had a significant influence in this new emphasis on painting and writing.
The physical juxtaposition of Christian wall paintings and apparently pre-Christian hunting and herding scenes on the walls of Wašša Mika’el cave church is remarkable and is being assessed in light of the increasing acceptance and adoption of Christianity across the region in medieval times, as attested by royal chronicles.
Similarly, possible links between the architectures apparently associated with the two rival dynasties, the cave culture found especially in the Wašša Mika’el area and the legacy of the Aksumite built environment are also being explored.