Brass (cast); H. 10 1/2 in. (26.7 cm)
Purchase, Elaine Rosenberg Gift and funds from various donors, 1998 (1998.37)
The history of Christianity in Ethiopia is longstanding, dating back to the fourth century A.D. At that time, King Ezana, ruler of Aksum, made it the court religion. In spite of the antiquity of Ethiopian Christian art, however, processional crosses antedating the seventeenth century are rare due to sixteenth-century Islamic incursions that devastated the region.
Crosses such as this were commonly given to important monasteries by Ethiopian monarchs; in return, the clergy would remember the donors in prayers. Like many early Ethiopian crosses, this one was cast in brass using the lost-wax method. Since lost-wax objects must be made individually and are necessarily unique, this casting technique may have encouraged the experimentation that has yielded a spectacular diversity of Ethiopian metal crosses.
This processional cross has short side arms and longer vertical arms, features it shares with related Coptic and Byzantine traditions. Later crosses would equalize the length of the arms and fill in the gaps between them, almost dissolving the cross form into a diamond shape that was punctuated with interlacing patterns. The beginnings of the latter tendency can be seen here, particularly in the negative spaces that replicate the cross form at its three terminal points and the rectangular openings within its arms. Openings like these were both practical and aesthetic; they allowed crosses to be made larger without added weight, and when used in processions made impressive silhouettes against the open sky. At the base of the metal cross, just above its point of attachment to a long staff (no longer extant), are a pair of loops that served an additional purpose. These would have provided a place to affix the colored cloths that trailed from processional crosses while they were in use. A subtle counterpoint to these open spaces, shallow engraved lines thinly trace the stepped shape of the cross and enliven its broad planes with geometric patterns.
Until more recent times, Ethiopian processional crosses favored abstract openwork patterns and images of the Virgin and Child above the depiction of the Crucifixion scene. In part this reflects the view of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, which does not see the cross solely in terms of Christ's Passion but also as the "Tree of Life in the midst of the Garden" (Genesis 2:9) and a vehicle of God's blessing to man.
Processional crosses play an active role in Christian religious life in Ethiopia, where churches commonly have one or more. They are prominently featured during services and processions that honor holy days such as the Epiphany or the feast of the Finding of the True Cross. Held aloft by clergy wearing ceremonial attire and accompanied by colorful umbrellas, these crosses imbue sacred occasions with reverential majesty.