This cross was made by local craftspeople for a Christian mission church in the Solomon Islands. It represents a fusion of highly distinctive local decorative style and the new Western religious tradition. It comprises reddish-light coloured wood inlaid with shaped pearl shell (reoreo) fragments.
The cross is within an oval frame, all carved from a single piece of wood, which has been mounted on a tiered platform. The cross, frame and platform have been embellished with shaped pearl shell pieces set within carved grooves that have then been filled with tree-based resin. A few shell segments are deficient. Overall, the cross has a fine patina. The platform particularly has rounded contours softened from years of use and handing.
The cross was acquired in the UK and probably has been in the UK since the early twentieth century. Most probably it was brought back to the UK by a missionary in the early part of the twentieth century.
This cross is particularly large and elaborate. The Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery has in its collection a smaller and less elaborate Solomon Islands altar cross that uses similar inlay techniques. A communion cup of pearl shell inlaid coconut shell also is in the Museum’s collection. (See the images below.)
Pearl shell inlay was used on many traditional Solomon Island art forms including canoe prows, ceremonial bowls and dishes, and war clubs.
The Solomon Islands have had a long association with the UK. Britain asserted its interest over the Solomons in 1886 and in 1893, the British Solomon Islands Protectorate was declared. The Solomon Islands were granted independence only in 1978. The Islands’ contact with Europeans saw the islanders convert to Christianity in large numbers. Christian missionaries were very active in the late 19th century and clearly very successful, so that today, 97% of the islanders are Christian.
This altar cross represents a fascinating artefact from the era of European expansionism and cross-cultural interaction.
The final two images show a Solomon Islands altar cross and a communion cup, photographed in the Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery, February 2012. Both are inlaid with pearl shell. The altar cross is attributed to the late 19th/early 20th century. The communion cup is of coconut shell and was collected by a missionary in the Solomon Islands. It is dated by the Museum between 1912 and 1922.
Hurst, N., Power and Prestige: The Arts of Island Melanesia and the Polynesian Outliers, Hurst Gallery, 1996.
Kaeppler, A. L., C. Kaufmann & D. Newton, Oceanic Art, Abrams, 1997.