From the 4th up to the 20th century, Ethiopian art can broadly be classified into two categories. The first category consists of paintings, crosses, icons, illuminated manuscripts or other metalwork that is inspired from the unique tradition of Christian art while the second category of Ethiopian art is much closer to those of others in the similar region which includes popular arts & crafts like textiles, basketry, jewelry etc. The history of Ethiopian art can be traced back to almost three thousand years to the kingdom of D’mt. The Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church in union with the Coptic Christianity has been the dominant religion in the country for over 1500 years and it is the Coptic art that has been the formative influence on Ethiopian church art.
Prehistoric rock art much like that of the other African sites that survives in multiple locations. Before the arrival of Christianity, stone stelae with simple relief carvings were used to mark the graves and for many other such purposes in a number of regions, most prominently the site of Tiya. The Iron Age culture had strong influences from the northern Kingdom of Kush and the Arabian settlers. They tended to establish cities with simple stone temples, the ruined temple of Yeha is a prominent example here.
With the emergence of the prominent and powerful Kingdom of Aksum that ruled Ethiopia till the 10th century Christianity emerged as the major religion from the 4th century onwards. Apart from some buildings and big pre-Christian stelae, not much of Ethiopian Christian art from the Axumite Age appears to have survived. The earliest of the works that have survived however show a lucid link with the earlier Coptic Arts. In the 16th century, due to invasion by Muslim neighbors, there was massive destruction churches and related objects. When art was revived here in Ethiopia after this, there was a clear influence of the Catholic European Art in iconography and elements of style while still retaining its basic Ethiopian roots. Western artists and architects began to be commissioned by the government in the 20th century to train the ethnic students which led to creation of more westernized art even as the traditional church art continued to proliferate.
Ethiopian paintings are characterized by simplistic, vibrant and vividly colored, almost caricature like figures with distinctly large, almond shaped eyes. Even after being exposed to outside influence, Ethiopian art has stayed quite conservative in retaining its distinct character till the modern times. Crosses made of wood and metal, quite closely related to the Coptic art forms are a significant form of Ethiopian art. The most prevalent materials used were copper alloys or brass plated in gold or silver. The cross heads were normally flat cast plates that had intricate and complex openwork adornments. From the decoration emerges the form of the cross, as the entire design forms a rotated square or circle, but the designs are, in general quite creative. Lalibela Cross, an especially revered hand cross, possibly from the 12th century is famed not only for its beauty but also because of the legend. The cross was stolen from within a church in Lalibela in 1997, and was discovered in 2001 from the possessions of a Belgian collector.
Apart from this Ethiopia is famed for its diversity in the range of textiles, some with woven geometric patterns and many others that are plain. Ethiopian churches and the rituals ask for a wide variety of colorful textiles, and those that are more elaborate may often be used as church vestments and hangings, curtains and wrappings in the church. These traditional forms of textiles now seem to be giving way to more westernized textiles these days. Colorful Basketry is a popular folk art in Ethiopia which was introduced with an intent to be used as a storage for grains, seeds, and food, or to be used as tables or even bowls.