Sunday, April 26, 2015

Acts 8.26-40: The Eunuch's Legacy

The Ethiopians appear in both Hebrew and Christian scriptures. In Christian scripture, Ethiopia only appears once, in the Acts reading for Easter 5B (Acts 8:26-40). In this reading, a court official from Ethiopia is met on the road by the disciple Philip. The two read scripture together, and the official is baptized. With this encounter, Christianity is introduced to, if not the entire country of Ethiopia, at least to one Ethiopian. It is from this meeting that the tradition of Christianity in Ethiopia flows.
(Left) Processional cross (Gondar). Late 18th century. Brass. Michael C. Carlos Museum, Emory University, Atlanta, GA. (Right) Processional Cross. 15th century. Walters Art Gallery, Baltimore, MD.
One of the most striking class of art objects of Ethiopian Christianity are the processional crosses, crafted so that the metal cross can be put on a pole or shaft and carried through the streets of a town or even just around the place of worship. Sometimes made of white metal but also found in brass and bronze, the processional crosses were often decorated with swaths of fabric, slipped through the metal rings found on both sides of the metal housing for the wooden shaft. As the cross is carried through the streets (or sanctuary), the fabric - perhaps an echo of Mary's veil - flutters in the breeze, bringing additional life and movement to the cross. The design of the shaft also means that the cross can stand on its own, without a pole.

The crosses have a variety of designs and shapes, some related to the geographical origins of the cross. In general, the Lalibela crosses are oval, the Gondar crosses are circular, and the Axum (sometimes Aksum) most similar to the shape of a cross. The cross designs began developing as early as the 12th century, though very early crosses are expectedly rare.
(Left) Processional Cross (Axum). 14th or 15th century. Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art, Cornell University, Ithaca, NY. (Right) Processional Cross (Lalibela). Believed to be 12th century. Bet Medhane Alem, Lalibela, Ethiopia.
The bronze crosses have been made using the lost wax method. In that process, a wax cross is created and then encased in clay, which is baked. In the baking, the clay hardens, creating a mold of the wax original, but the wax itself melts and runs. Molten metal is poured into the cooled clay mold. After the metal is cooled, the clay mold is broken, making every cross a unique object - as both the wax original and the clay mold are destroyed in the process.

Scripture places Ethiopia's historical Christian roots firmly in the apostolic age, giving the people of Ethiopia a Christian tradition that is millennia old. By the fourth century, Ethiopia is officially Christian. From that time, Ethiopian Christians have used many forms of the cross - Greek cross, Latin cross, cross pattee - but they have made them their own, and in doing so have created a distinct witness to the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.

This week's Art&Faith Matters post on Facebook gives you the link to these Christian churches in Ethiopia. Definitely unlike anything you have seen elsewhere. Click on the link.

For thoughts on John 15.1-8, click here.

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