The squared cross—in which each of the crossbars is of equal length—is among the most common iterations of the form used in Ethiopian Orthodox art. Artist-monks created nearly infinite variations upon the shape, frequently employing multiple cross motifs within a single cross to emphasize its symbolic importance. This example of a wooden hand cross has at least three major crosses: one on the diagonal and two placed on axis, the smallest of which is enclosed within a diamond, and the largest of which is constructed of interlacing loops. The artist has articulated the carving so that the bands of each cross dip below and rise above one another, creating the illusion of a complicated woven design. The thick bands of the diagonal and looped crosses are filled with patterns of nested and single zig-zags, a motif that continues onto the grip and to the square at its base. A second diagonal cross divides the plane of the lower square, which would have remained visible while the cross was being held or presented during a blessing. While the interpretations of this square can vary regionally, it is most commonly interpreted as the tabot, an altar stone that is equivalent to the Ark of the Covenant. A lozenge shape projects from the square and the summit of the cross, creating compositional symmetry along the length of the object. Four smaller lozenges, of which only one remains, extend the form of the diagonal cross through its circular enclosure. The carved motifs are identical on either side of the cross.
The cross was carved from a light, hard wood, likely ebony, acacia, olive, or another indigenous evergreen species. While the upper and lower portions of the cross are darkened, perhaps from exposure to candles or incense used during the liturgy, the grip is smooth and light-colored from constant handling. The cross was repaired locally at some point, indicating the value placed on it. The repair was made by looping a piece of metal through the bottom of the cross, then wrapping it with a piece of woven cloth secured by black resin.
The cross (መስቀል, mäsqäl) is central to devotion and a preeminent cultural icon in the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church. Examples of crosses can be seen in Ethiopian art as early as the fourth century, when Christianity was first adopted. Its association with the hope of resurrection has made it a potent emblem of triumph. In this context, the sanctification of Christ’s cross with his blood further confers upon all crosses the infinite power to heal, bless, and protect. The Gǝ’ez term for "wood," kǝtāp, also means "tree." Through this conflation the cross has been identified with "the Tree of Life in the midst of the Garden" of Genesis. The bud-like lozenges and the leaf-like projections at the juncture between the cross and the grip allude to this distinctive association. Since the fourth century, artists drawn from religious communities have exuberantly interpreted the form of the cross in that image – underscoring its associations with the forces of vitality and creation. The variety of crosses can generally be divided into two categories, the personal and the liturgical. The former includes pectoral pendants worn after baptism as markers of faith, while the latter includes hand crosses carried by individual priests, and processional crosses held aloft during the liturgy or processions. Images of hand crosses in use on coinage indicate that hand crosses have been in use at least since the sixth century.
Hand crosses are made for daily use by priests and monks, as well as for use during the liturgy. They are held in the right hand as a sign of identification, and to perform the duties of one’s religious office, as depicted in the triptych painting of the monk Ewostatewos and his followers. While Euro-American scholars have classified these crosses as priest, blessing, hand, or sanctification crosses, in reference to their owners and use, there are different local designations. In Ethiopia, smaller hand crosses kept primarily for the daily use of a priest are referred to in Amharic as yäʿǝǧǧ mäsqäl (manual cross) or anästäñña mäsqäl (small cross). Larger wooden crosses, such as this example, were used during the holy liturgy, and were given specific names according to their use. These crosses could either be used by officiating priests (mäsqäl qǝddase, liturgy cross), carried during the burning of incense and the blessing of the faithful (yäǝṭan, incense cross), or used during the liturgical dances of unordained clerics. (Chojnacki 2006, 25–29).
Source: Kristen Windmuller-Luna, 2016
Sylvan C. Coleman and Pam Coleman Memorial Fund Fellow in the Department of the Arts of Africa, Oceania, and the America