Ethiopian processional cross
Materials: Silver alloy
Dimensions: 21 centimeters high
Place acquired: Ethiopian handicraft shop, Finsbury Park, London
Original sale/use: probably as above
Place of manufacture: Ethiopia
To help understand this object and its significance, let me try to explain a rather baffling dispute within Christian theology. Most Christian denominations, including the Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox and traditional Protestant churches, are dyophysite. This means that they regard Jesus Christ as having had two natures within one body, a divine one and a human one. There is an earlier strand of thought however that rejects this. Monophysites believe that Christ had just one single nature where the divine and the human both coexisted. Two characteristics, but within a single, predominantly divine nature.
A subtle point you may think, but on such strange ideas the fate of nations have turned, and this dispute has certainly affected the course of Ethiopian history right up to today, because the Ethiopian Orthodox church is of the minority, monophysite persuasion. Ethiopia was an early adopter of Christianity, it became the state religion in the early 4th century AD, but the spread of Islam through the middle east and north Africa effectively cut off the Ethiopian church from the more mainstream Christian traditions. An attempt in the 15th century by Portuguese Jesuits to bring Ethiopia into the Roman Church almost succeeded, but finally founded over the very ‘heresy’ outlined above. So Ethiopia continued on its independent Christian path. The country also managed to avoid the grasp of European colonialism for most of the 19th and 20th centuries, a more or less unique achievement for an African country.
So Ethiopia has an ancient black-African Christian tradition, as well as an anti-colonial pedigree, and this has given the country a significant status particularly within the black African diaspora. Jamaican Rastafarianism, for instance, grew out of a deep reverence for Ethiopian religious and political history.
This metal-worked cross illustrates all of this in two ways. Firstly it is quite unlike other Christian crosses, infact it is only in the subtlest of ways that it resembles a cross atall. The main design feature is a series of concentric circles, beautifully worked into a radial filigree design. This is a very African element, linking right back to the Ankh symbol of ancient Egypt, and it highlights the separateness of this Christian culture. And secondly, the fact that it was available for sale in a shop in north London speaks of the popular political and cultural symbolism of the Ethiopian cross. It was made in Ethiopia, but probably not for use in a church procession. Rather for export to a thriving collector and ‘Pride in Africa’ market around the world.