Throughout Ethiopia’s history, crosses have played a major role in the ancient legacy of Christianity. No other symbol is as ever present as the cross in Ethiopian culture and no other country in the world has created such a vast quantity of cross designs as Ethiopia.
The simple original intersection of two arms has developed into an infinite number of variations, inspired by the local culture, as well as by Byzantine and European motifs. The design and decoration of Ethiopian crosses have a spiritual meaning closely related to the deeply felt themes in the local Church, such as the Holy Trinity, the four Evangelists, the twelve Apostles.
The majority of crosses are made of metal, but wood is also frequently used for their production. Crosses made from leather or stone are rare. Metallic crosses are, most of the times, made of iron. But bronze and silver are used as well, while golden crosses are more infrequent.
In the nineteenth century, the Maria Theresa silver thaler coin became the national Ethiopian currency. Thalers were often melted into silver sheets from which crosses were cut. The Ethiopian crosses can be divided into three types. The ‘processional’ crosses are mounted on a long staff and carried by priests during religious ceremonies. Because crosses represent the Triumph of the Cross, processional crosses are ‘dressed’ with rich, colorful fabrics when in use. As a result, the crosses incorporate openings designed for securing these cloths while the crosses are carried along their processional routes during festivals. This kind of cross is the largest and most elaborate in design. The relief carved cross in a column of the monolithic church of Beta Maryam, in the city of Lalibala, is an example of a processional cross. Many ancient processional crosses are made of copper and bronze and have round or square shapes with a small cross in the centre. In the fifteenth century a new type of cross was produced. They were made of silver or brass, with shorter arms and representations on both sides, recto and verso, featuring devotional subjects not directly related to the Passion of Christ, such as the Virgin and Child, Michael and Gabriel, Archangels, St. George slaying the dragon, and others. In the 17th century, when Gondar was Ethiopia’s capital, crosses were characterized by the horizontal arms stretching upwards, sometimes folding up to form a circle. Hereafter, crosses kept to the Gondar style without any relevant variant.
Hand & Neck crosses
‘Hand’ crosses are smaller than the processional ones, and have, instead of a shaft, a narrow solid handle ending in a base plate or cube. Most of them are very simple and they often incorporate a circle characterized by a variety of designs. Ethiopian hand crosses are carried by priests at the head of processions or used for blessing. A priest meeting a member of his congregation holds out the cross for him or her to kiss.
The hand cross is also the distinctive symbol of office for clergy and is worn by priests as a pendant. The most ancient crosses, which generally date back to the fifteenth century, are usually made of metal, including copper and bronze. In the seventeenth century brass was the most popular metal used for making crosses, while from the 19th century on, the majority of crosses have been made from silver.
‘Hand’ crosses are decorated with incisions like the ‘processional’ crosses, though to a lesser extent due to the smaller size of the cross.
‘Neck’ crosses are by far the most numerous class of crosses in Ethiopia. They are usually small and as the name implies, they are worn suspended round the neck. For this purpose they have a small ring attached to the top, through which a cord can pass. From the time when Christianity first came to Ethiopia, the sign of Christian faith was the cord (matab), made up of three strands which are woven together. The cord is tied round the neck of a person when he/she is baptised.
The three strands, which are in three different colours, white, red and black, symbolize the Trinity. The term ‘matab’ derives from the verb ‘mataba’, which means ‘to make the sign of the cross’. The sign of the cross is made by joining two fingers together, the index over the middle finger as to make a cross.
‘Neck’ crosses were the most popular, since the first millennium of Christianity, throughout the Roman and Byzantine world and their use was likely introduced in Ethiopia too, though we do not have many examples that can be dated. Emperor Zara Yaqob (1434-1468) ordered all Christians to wear a cross. The Portuguese priest Francisco Alvares, who lived in the country from 1520 to 1526, in his valuable ‘History of Ethiopia’, wrote that he had seen laymen wearing small black neck crosses made of wood. Wood was the most used material for crosses in the ancient times; this would explain how these type of crosses were unlikely to survive the test of time.
Over time, neck crosses were made with more refined techniques and metals. Filigree is the most suitable technique for refined finishings and an elaborate variety of effects. Wooden crosses are mainly linked to popular art. Professional carpenters, specialists in wood engraving, produce the most elaborate wooden crosses.
They are experts in wood construction for churches: doors, walls or the ‘tabot’, the consecrated wooden altar slab made of wood or stone where the Eucharist is celebrated. While hand and neck crosses are obtained from one single piece of wood, the processional ones can be made up of two or three pieces, which are individually worked and then assembled. Wooden crosses generally resemble those made of metal in design, shape and decorations. (O.R.)