Processional Cross

Ethiopia, Gondar. Late 18th century
Museum Purchase

Christianity came to Ethiopia in 325 AD making it Africa’s longest Christian tradition. Crosses are carried in processions during annual festivals and church services as symbols of triumph, as instruments of protection, and as objects of devotion. This particular type of cross, cut from flat sheets of metal welded and riveted to a shaft and decorated with incised images, first appeared during the Gondarian period established by emperor Fasilädäs (reigned 1632-67).

Individuals commission crosses and donate them to the church. The donor of this cross is depicted lying prostrate beneath the crucifixion. An inscription, written in Ge‘ez (Ethiopian liturgical language), identifies him by name and reads: “How Arkä Mär‘awi made supplication.”

The imagery incised on both sides of the cross serves protective and devotional functions. One example is the Kwer’atä Reesu, seen in the image on the left hand side. It is an icon that depicts Christ wearing the crown of thorns and performing a gesture of acceptance. This icon represented Ethiopian emperors from the 17th century onwards. It was housed in the imperial palace at Gondar and was carried into battle for protection. To the right of the Kwer’atä Reesu is a symbol of triumph, the Anastasis, where a resurrected Christ blesses Adam and Eve as they emerge from limbo. The principle image on the reverse side of the cross is Our Lady Mary with her Beloved Son in a pose based on a painted icon in the Church of Santa Maria Maggiore, Rome.

Reproductions of this icon entered Ethiopia around 1570 in the form of prints circulated by Jesuit missionaries. The image underwent various transformations in the Ethiopian context, such as the addition of winged seraphims flanking mother and child.

The protective image of Saint George killing the dragon to save a maiden appears below and to the left of the Madonna and child. On the right-hand side is another devotional image -- the Holy Trinity set within a frame featuring the four evangelists. A saint and angel appear on the transverse arms of the cross. These arms are designed to support fabric dressings required for all processional crosses.