Ethiopia, Lasta region, Tigrinya peoples
H. 10 1/2 in. (26.7 cm), W. 5 in. (12.7 cm)
Purchase, Elaine Rosenberg Gift and funds from various donors, 1998 (1998.37)
Ethiopian crosses are unique among Christian art for their variety of form. The cross became the object of intense devotion soon after the conversion of the Aksumite empire to Christianity around 330 A.D. Despite the antiquity of Ethiopian Christian art, processional crosses antedating the seventeenth century are rare due to sixteenth-century Islamic incursions that devastated the region. A metal socket surrounded by two loops was used to affix this processional cross to a wooden staff, permitting it to be carried and held aloft during liturgical services and processions. The loops held colorful cloths symbolizing the veil of Mary.
Emanating from a central square inscribed with a pattée cross, two short side arms and two longer vertical arms with rectangular openings terminate in stepped forms. Three of these terminal points are punctuated by cruciform openings, and support additional pattée crosses at their summits. Shallow lines engraved during the casting process enliven the broad planes while accenting the angular forms of the cross. The stepped cross is a motif that may date to the Aksumite empire (ca. 2nd–10th century), when stepped capitals and podia were common architectural features. The motif may reference the cross as the Tree of Life or the divine aureole of Christ borne on the wings of the Four Beasts. Similar stepped-cross motifs are found in the rock-hewn churches of Lalibela, indicating at least some transferal of cross design within the region.