Ethiopia is unique in the world for the incomparable prominence of the cross in the life of its Orthodox Christian people and for the inexhaustible variety of cross shapes produced within a millennial tradition. Crosses of unparalleled intricacy and sophistication are extensively used in religious and magic rituals, as well as in the daily social interactions and personal experiences of people in diverse contexts. Through a close contextual analysis of select visual material, this book proposes that the formal elements of Ethiopian crosses can be read as visual discourse on a broad range of ideas: from religious beliefs about protection and salvation to interrelated socio-political values regarding order and power, and from individual and collective notions of identity to cultural notions of local and universal history. Thus, the cross emerges as the sacred matrix that encompasses the life of the world in both its microcosmic and macrocosmic dimensions; and as the social and cultural nexus through which and with which people interact in order to shape and express personal and communal identities and hopes.
Although this book focuses on contemporary Ethiopian crosses, the material is contextualized within the centuries-old history and cultural production of Ethiopian Orthodox Christianity, considering elements of both continuity and change within this long trajectory. Textual and visual evidence from the past informs the understanding of crosses produced in the present. Special attention is given to religious rituals in which crosses guide the participants to internalize, through sensorial experiences and interactions, ideas central to their culture. A main objective of this exploration is to contribute to an understanding of visual creations as interactive depositories and therefore also generators of ideas, with an influential role in identity formation, socio-cultural interactions and the construction of power relations. This kaleidoscopic potential of visual creations to mean and do different things for different people can be closely explored and appreciated through the case study of the uniquely versatile Ethiopian crosses.