Hand-held Cross

probably 17th–18th century
Wood, carved
Overall: 9 7/8 x 2 7/8 in. (25.08 x 7.3 cm.)
Arts of Africa
Not On View
Dallas Museum of Art, gift of Dr. Hebe Redden and Dr. Kenneth Redden
Image courtesy Dallas Museum of Art

General Description

Hand-held crosses have been in use in Ethiopia for centuries, and are an integral part of the practice of Ethiopian Christianity. The crosses are made of cast metal or hand-carved wood and most often consist of a cross of equal-length arms, a short handle, and a square base. Some scholars have suggested the square base represents the tabot, the consecrated slab identified with the Ark of the Covenant, and the tablets of law it contained. Hand-held crosses belong to individual priests, who use them to perform benedictions, in which the crosses avert evil and invoke divine blessings. These blessings occur not only within the context of worship, but also in priests' day-to-day interactions with lay people.

This wooden hand-held cross is among the oldest in the collection. The horizontal arms of this pattée cross—a cross of equal-length arms—were originally decorated with trefoil finials, though these were probably never as pronounced as the one that appears on the upper arm. Much of the carved decoration has disappeared, but a Greek cross with a crux decussata (a cross in the form of an X) in each of its angles is still visible on the square base. Wooden crosses in this form are known to use from as early as the 15th century, but the type of carving on the DMA cross suggests that it belongs to the 17th or 18th century.

Drawn from

  • Jacopo Gnisci, "Crosses from Ethiopia at the Dallas Museum of Art: An Overview," African Arts 51, no. 4_ _(Winter 2018): 48–55.

  • Roslyn A. Walker, The Arts of Africa at the Dallas Museum of Art (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2009), 264-266

  • C. Griffith Mann, "The Role of the Cross in Ethiopian Culture," in Ethiopian Art: the Walters Art Museum, ed. Deborah E. Horowitz (Surrey, UK: Third Millennium Publishing, 2001), 75.

  • Csilla Fabo Perczel, DMA Unpublished material, 1992.

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