Date: ca. 1500
Geography: Ethiopia, Highlands region, Tigray
Culture: Tigrinya peoples
Medium: Wood, tin
Dimensions: H. 18 x W. 17 in. (45.7 x 43.2cm)
Credit Line: Rogers Fund, 1999
Accession Number: 1999.103
This cross was created in the province of Tigray, near the Red Sea, the birthplace of Ethiopia's earliest kingdom and of Christianity in Africa. Works in wood are especially rare within the relatively small corpus of Ethiopian Christian art predating the seventeenth century. The majority of earlier Ethiopian processional crosses that have survived are cast in bronze or silver.
Underlying this exceptional object's aesthetic is a technically accomplished fusion of wood sculpture and metalwork inspired by Byzantine and Islamic design. The highly unusual interplay of materials affords rich tonal contrasts and skillfully integrates the solidity of the carved wooden structure with the finely inscribed inlays. The linear accent of the metallic threads at once lightens the density of the wooden structure and highlights the intricacy of the work's design elements.
In the Ethiopian church, the wooden cross is perceived as having been sanctified by Christ's blood, which conferred upon it infinite power to heal and to bless. Foliate and organic interlace designs, branching from the foot of the cross, are interpreted as symbolizing the Tree of Paradise, and thus a vibrant life-giving force. Commissioned by Ethiopian royalty, such works were presented to important monasteries to be carried in liturgical processions.