Cultures & Traditions

Ethiopian Processional Crosses

Processional crosses play a fundamental role in Ethiopian Orthodox worship services. During the liturgy, deacons use processional crosses, mounted on poles, to bless the congregation, baptismal water, sacraments, and the four corners of the earth. As they are often cast in bronze or silver, the processional crosses reflect light, drawing further attention to their elaborate geometric designs.

During open air services and processions that take place on holidays, processional crosses contribute to the colorful pageantry of the religious celebrations. The clergy wear green, orange, and crimson embroidered vestments, and carry red and gold fringed umbrellas. Although the mass takes place secretly in a tent, priests perform the preparatory prayer and casting of incense, accompanied by vocal and instrumental music, in front of the processional cross in the open. Because the crosses symbolically represent the crucified body of Christ, the processional crosses are adorned, or 'dressed,' with rich fabrics. These fabrics and ribbons conspicuously emphasize the heraldic qualities of the cross, looping through the lower arms present on many Ethiopian processional crosses.

Such religious processions may also include a liturgical dance. Debteras (itinerant laypeople trained in religious rites) dance in slow steps, carrying hand crosses, chanting and stepping in place with lower arms swinging, and rocking their torsos forward and back to create a rhythmic waving motion. The crosses, music, and liturgical dance all support the invocation of blessings upon the people, the land, and the waters, as well as prayers for fertility, abundance, prosperity, and peace.

Drawn from

  • Csilla Fabo Perczel, "Art and Liturgy: Abyssinian Processional Crosses," Northeast African Studies 5.1 (1983): 19-28.

  • Csilla Fabo Perczel, "Ethiopian crosses: Christianized symbols of a pagan cosmology," in Ethiopian Studies: Proceedings of the sixth international conference, Tel-Aviv, 14-17 April 1980, ed. Gideon Goldenberg (Tel-Aviv: Tel-Aviv University, 1980), 427-446.

  • Csilla Fabo Perczel, "Ethiopian Crosses at the Portland Art Museum," African Arts 14.3 (May 1981): 52-55.

  • Getatchew Haile, "Daily Life and Religious Practices in Ethiopia," in Ethiopian Art: the Walters Art Museum, ed. Deborah E. Horowitz (Surrey: Third Millennium Publishing, 2001), 19-43.

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

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