Icons of Shared Faith


Hand cross (mäsqäl), 17th-18th centuries

Hand cross (mäsqäl), 19th century
Silver-plated metal

Since Ethiopia’s adoption of Christianity in about 330 AD, its artists have demonstrated endless creativity in making crosses. The Ethiopian Orthodox Church links the cross both to the crucifixion of Jesus and to the Tree of Life mentioned in the Book of Genesis. This interpretation is reflected in the foliate and natural forms present in these Ethiopian hand crosses, held by priests as a sign of identity and a tool of blessing. Small birds alight on the upper edges of the silver cross, and bud-like crosses emerge from both examples. Other elements draw from medieval precedents. The six-pointed stars on the example on the right refer to the Kəbrä Nägäśt, a fourteenth-century Ethiopian text that recounts the union of King Solomon of Israel and the Queen of Sheba, which resulted in the foundation of Ethiopia’s longest-ruling dynasty. Its elaborate interlace motifs reflect designs first used during the medieval era.

Italian, 12th century
Processional cross, ca. 1100-50
Gilt copper

Processional cross, 13th century
Copper and wood

Across the globe, the shared symbol of the cross unites diverse communities of Christians. Ethiopian Christians living in early modern Italy, including the dozens living and worshipping at Santo Stefano degli Abissini behind St. Peter’s in the Vatican, would have recognized Italian processional crosses such as these, which evoked those used in their own churches. While the Italian artists who made these crosses depicted the four winged creatures seen in Ezekiel’s vision—symbols of the Evangelists—as different animals, their Ethiopian counterparts working centuries later did so more abstractly, as small birds, seen on the Ethiopian hand cross to the left. Ethiopian crosses, in turn, intrigued Italian viewers. A 1404 Italian account describes an Ethiopian iron hand cross whose slender shape may have been like that of the smaller hand cross on the far left.