The Ethiopian Cross

Added over 4 years ago

 By Linda Heaphy 2013


Ethiopian Cross

An Ethipoian Cross of the simplest sort. High silver content. Crosses like these were usually created by the lost wax method. Late 19th century. Similar to a piece in the collection of the Walters Art Museum, Baltimore.

The Ethiopian Orthodox church is one of the oldest in Christendom. It is believed by Ethiopians to date to at least the 1st century, within memory of the living Christ, when Philip the Evangelist, one of seven Deacons of the new Christian Church, preached to and converted an Ethiopian official in the court of Queen Candace (New Testament Acts 8:26-38[4]). In 328 AD Saint Frumentius was officially made first Bishop of Aksum, who in turn baptized King Ezana, and so the Ethiopian state church was officially born.

The Ethiopian church flourished with little outside contact until the early fifteen century. There then occurred two centuries of European contact, bringing with it inevitable conflict, followed by another two centuries of isolation. For the larger part of its 1600-year-old history, the Ethiopian Orthodox church has proceeded on its own way, without significant influence from the outside world.

It is because of this isolation that Ethiopian Christianity has retained much of its early symbolism and the raw simplicity of the very earliest Christian peoples.  One of the oldest symbols adopted by the Church, the cross, retains its purest form in Ethiopia, where it can be found in three principal forms: the processional cross, hand cross and the pendant cross. 

Ethiopian processional crosses are huge and elaborate pieces of cast “whitemetal” strap and latticework, attached to the tops of staffs on feast days and carried at the heads of parades through towns and villages, then back to the churches that usually house them. Likewise, priests carry hand crosses during many religious ceremonies. They usually include the latticework form as well as a square at the base, traditionally believed to represent the Ark of the Covenant. Pendant crosses are the commonest form found in Ethiopia, since they are received at baptism and worn around the neck as their owner’s most prized possession, talisman and symbol of faith combined.

Elaborate, stylised design characterises most hand and processional crosses today.  But when it comes to personal adornment, some cross pendants are breathtakingly simple, particularly those made prior to the 20th century. This is partially because they were made in small village communities and reflected the skills of local metalsmiths.  But it is also because the crosses were often created from metals that were readily available.  In the past a favoured material was the Maria Theresa Thaler. With a regulated silver content of .833, a conveniently round shape and standard thickness, jewellers did not have to work hard to form a cross shape, and indeed the most sought after Ethiopian crosses today still bear the imprint of the original coins.

Ethiopian Cross

Ethiopian wheel cross, a design used since the Neolithic period. High grade silver, Ethiopia, eary 20th century.


Some personal crosses are much more elaborate, however, and show the inventiveness of Ethiopian metalworkers in embellishing the simple cross form with a rich variety of design. The wheel cross, a symbol that can be traced back to Neolithic communities, is popular, as is the Maltese cross with its flared points. Regarding the woven pointed cross design common in the larger hand and processional crosses, richly repeated geometric patterns are common in Ethiopian art, with order and meaning to be found in the intertwined lattice style. Overall, the lattice represents everlasting life, while variations in the basic design became characteristic of different Ethiopian regions and local symbolism.

Today, the Ethiopian cross is considered to be one of the most beautiful and evocative symbols of the ancient world.

Ethiopian Cross

Cast via the lost wax method then inscribed, the pointed cross is also a very popular design. High grade silver, mid 20th century, Ethiopia.


References and Further Reading

Tags: Africa, African Handicrafts, Ethiopia, Ethiopian Cross, North Africa


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