The Christian cross is the best-known religious symbol of Christianity. It is a representation of the instrument of thecrucifixion of Jesus Christ. It is related to the crucifix (a cross that includes a representation of Jesus' body) and to the more general family of cross symbols.
History of use of the symbol
Pre-Christian cross-like symbols
The cross-shaped sign, represented in its simplest form by a crossing of two lines at right angles, greatly antedates, in both East and West, the introduction of Christianity. It goes back to a very remote period of human civilization. It is supposed to have been used not just for its ornamental value, but also with religious significance.
Some have sought to attach to the widespread use of this sign, in particular in its swastika form, a real ethnographic importance. It may have represented the apparatus used in kindling fire, and thus as the symbol of sacred fire or as a symbol of the sun, denoting its daily rotation. It has also been interpreted as the mystic representation of lightning or of the god of the tempest, and even the emblem of the Aryan pantheon and the primitive Aryan civilization.
Another symbol that has been connected with the cross is the ansated cross (ankh or crux ansata) of the ancient Egyptians, which often appears as a symbolic sign in the hands of the goddess Sekhet, and appears as a hieroglyphic sign of life or of the living. In later times the Egyptian Christians (Copts), attracted by its form, and perhaps by its symbolism, adopted it as the emblem of the cross (Gayet, "Les monuments coptes du Musée de Boulaq" in "Mémoires de le mission française du Caire", VIII, fasc. III, 1889, p. 18, pl. XXXI–XXXII & LXX–LXXI).
In the Bronze Age we meet in different parts of Europe a more accurate representation of the cross, as conceived in Christian art, and in this shape it was soon widely diffused. This more precise characterization coincides with a corresponding general change in customs and beliefs. The cross is now met with, in various forms, on many objects: fibulas, cinctures, earthenware fragments, and on the bottom of drinking vessels. De Mortillet is of opinion that such use of the sign was not merely ornamental, but rather a symbol of consecration, especially in the case of objects pertaining to burial. In the proto-Etruscan cemetery of Golasecca every tomb has a vase with a cross engraved on it. True crosses of more or less artistic design have been found in Tiryns, at Mycenæ, in Crete, and on a fibula from Vulci.
- The material in this section is a slightly abbreviated copy of text in the public-domain Catholic Encyclopedia reproduced in full Catholic Encyclopedia (1913)/Archæology of the Cross and Crucifix.
Early Christian use
During the first two centuries of Christianity, the cross may have been rare in Christian iconography
, as it depicts a purposely painful and gruesome method of public execution
. The Ichthys
, or fish symbol, was used by early Christians. The Chi-Rho
monogram, which was adopted by Constantine I
in the fourth century as his banner (see labarum
), was another Early Christian
symbol of wide use.
However, the cross symbol was already associated with Christians in the second century, as is indicated in the anti-Christian arguments cited in the Octavius of Minucius Felix, chapters IX and XXIX, written at the end of that century or the beginning of the next, and by the fact that by the early third century the cross had become so closely associated with Christ that Clement of Alexandria, who died between 211 and 216, could without fear of ambiguity use the phrase τὸ κυριακὸν σημεῖον (the Lord's sign) to mean the cross, when he repeated the idea, current as early as the apocryphal Epistle of Barnabas, that the number 318 (in Greek numerals, ΤΙΗ) in was interpreted using numerology as a foreshadowing (a "type") of the cross (T, an upright with crossbar, standing for 300) and of Jesus (ΙΗ, the first two letter of his name ΙΗΣΟΥΣ, standing for 18), and his contemporary Tertullian could designate the body of Christian believers as crucis religiosi, i.e. "devotees of the Cross". In his book De Corona, written in 204, Tertullian tells how it was already a tradition for Christians to trace repeatedly on their foreheads the sign of the cross.
The Jewish Encyclopedia says:
- The cross as a Christian symbol or "seal" came into use at least as early as the second century (see "Apost. Const." iii. 17; Epistle of Barnabas, xi.-xii.; Justin, "Apologia," i. 55-60; "Dial. cum Tryph." 85-97); and the marking of a cross upon the forehead and the chest was regarded as a talisman against the powers of demons (Tertullian, "De Corona," iii.; Cyprian, "Testimonies," xi. 21–22; Lactantius, "Divinæ Institutiones," iv. 27, and elsewhere). Accordingly the Christian Fathers had to defend themselves, as early as the second century, against the charge of being worshipers of the cross, as may be learned from Tertullian, "Apologia," xii., xvii., and Minucius Felix, "Octavius," xxix. Christians used to swear by the power of the cross (see Apocalypse of Mary, viii., in James, "Texts and Studies," iii. 118).
In contemporary Christianity
In Christendom the cross reminds Christians of God's act of love and atonement in Christ's sacrifice at Calvary—"the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world." The cross also reminds Christians of Jesus' victory over sin and death, since it is believed that through His death and resurrection He conquered death itself.
Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox, members of the major branches of Lutheranism, some Anglicans,and other Christians often make the sign of the cross upon themselves. This was already a common Christian practice in the time of Tertullian. One of the twelve great feasts in the Eastern Orthodox Church is the Exaltation of the Cross on September 14, which commemorates the consecration of the basilica on the site where the original cross of Jesus was reportedly discovered in 326 by Helena of Constantinople, mother of Constantine the Great. The Catholic Church celebrates the feast on the same day and under the same name ("In Exaltatione Sanctae Crucis"), though in English it has been called the feast of the Triumph of the Cross. Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox and Anglican bishops place a cross [+] before the name when signing a document.
Rejection of the cross as a symbol of Christianity
, noting the pre-Christian use of the cross symbol and lack of its early use by Christians until after the deaths of the apostles, reject it as essentially pagan
in origin. They hold that the instrument on which Jesus died was really a single-beamed "torture stake". See Cross or stake as gibbet on which Jesus died
The Greek word "σταυρός" (stauros) is rendered "cross" in nearly all English translations of the Bible. In classical Greek - the Greek that was used in the fifth and fourth centuries before Christ - this word meant merely an upright stake, or pale. In the Koine Greek of the New Testament, the Greek used by some of those who witnessed Jesus' death, the word was used to refer to a cross, as in the writings of the first-century B.C. Diodorus Siculus and in later writers, such as Plutarch and Lucian. Jehovah's Witnesses also hold that the use in, for instance, of the Greek word "ξύλον" (xylon), meaning "wood", "timber", for the instrument of Christ's death indicates that the original writers had in mind an upright piece of timber, not a wooden cross. In fact, the word "ξύλον" was used of wooden objects as varied as firewood, a cudgel, a wooden collar or stocks for a prisoner, a gallows, a stake, a table, a wooden spoon, and a live tree.
Jehovah's Witnesses' main reason for rejecting the cross is because they see it as an idol, the use of which in worship is condemned in the Bible (Ex 20:4,5; Ex 32:3-10; Ps 115:4-8; 1Co 10:14; Re 21:8). And, for them, it is unthinkable that the instrument of Christ's brutal murder should be seen as holy or worthy of veneration.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (the Mormon church) also rejects the cross as a symbol, seeing it as a sign of Christ's death and therefore inappropriate as a symbol of the living Christ or his church.
Forms of the Cross
The cross is often shown in different shapes and sizes, in many different styles. It may be used in personal jewelry, or used on top of church buildings. It is shown both empty, and with the body of Christ (corpus
) nailed to it, in which case it is typically called a crucifix
, though this word, in its original sense, denotes the body affixed to the cross. Roman Catholic
and High Anglican depictions of the cross are often crucifixes, in order to emphasize Jesus' sacrifice. Many Protestant
traditions depict the cross without the corpus, interpreting this form as an indication of belief in the resurrection rather than as representing the interval between the death and the resurrection of Jesus.
Crosses are a prominent feature of Christian cemeteries, either carved on gravestones or as sculpted stelas. Because of this, planting small crosses is sometimes used in countries of Christian culture to mark the site of fatal accidents, or to protest alleged deaths.
In Catholic countries, crosses are often erected on the peaks of prominent mountains, such as the Zugspitze or Mount Royal, so as to be visible over the entire surrounding area.
Forms of the Christian cross include:
- Altar cross. Cross on a flat base to rest upon the altar of a church. Earliest known example is a picture in a manuscript from the 9th century; by the 10th century they were commonly used, but the earliest extant altar cross is from the 12th century located at Great Lavra on Mt. Athos.
- Andrew cross. See, below, Saltire.
- Ankh. Shaped like the letter T surmounted by an oval or circle. Originally the Egyptian symbol for "life", it was adopted by the Copts (Egyptian Christians). Also called a crux ansata, meaning "cross with a handle".
- Anthony's cross. See, below, Tau cross.
- Archiepiscopal cross. A double-barred cross carried by an archbishop.
- Basque cross. The lauburu.
- Calvary cross. Either a stepped cross (see below), or a Gothic-style cross mounted on a base shaped to resemble Mt. Golgatha (where Christ was crucified), with the Virgin Mary and Saint John on either the base or crossarms.
- Canterbury cross. A cross with four arms of equal length which widen to a hammer shape at the outside ends. Each arm has a triangular panel inscribed in a triquetra (three-cornered knot) pattern. There is a small square panel in the center of the cross. A symbol of the Anglican and Episcopal Churches.
- Celtic Cross. Essentially a Latin cross, with a circle enclosing the intersection of the upright and crossbar, as in the standing High crosses;
- Consecration cross. One of 12 crosses painted on the walls of a church to mark where it had been anointed during its consecration.
- Coptic cross The original Coptic cross has its origin in the Coptic ankh.
- Crux fourchette. A cross with flared or forked ends (see illustration at Crosses in Heraldry).
- Cruciform floor plans of churches.
- Crux gemmata. A cross inlaid with gems. Denotes a glorification of the cross, this form was inspired by the cult of the cross that arose after Saint Helena's discovery of the true cross in Jerusalem in 327.
- Crux hasta. A cross with a long descending arm; a cross-staff.
- Crux pattée. A Greek cross with flared ends.
- Double cross. A cross with two crossbars. See Patriarchal cross.
- Gammadion. A hooked cross or swastika, also known as a crux gammata.
- Globus cruciger. Globe cross. An orb surmounted by a cross; used in royal regalia.
- Greek cross. With arms of equal length. One of the most common Christian forms, in common use by the 4th century.
- Gnostic cross. Cross used by the early Gnostic sects.
- Latin cross. With a longer descending arm. Along with the Greek cross, it is the most common form, it represents the cross of Jesus' crucifixion.
- Living cross. One of two possibilities: Either a natural cross made of living vines and branches. Or, a man-made cross with vines or plants planted at its base. In the all-natural version, it refers to the legend that Jesus' cross was made from the Tree of Life. In the man-made cross with plants planted at the base, it contrasts the "new" Tree of Life (the cross) with the Book of Genesis Tree of Life. In both cases it shows Jesus' death (the cross) as a redemption for original sin (Tree of Life).
- Lorraine cross. Once with crossbars of equal length near the top and the bottom, now practically identical with the patriarchal cross
- Maltese cross. A Greek cross with arms that taper into the center. The outer ends may be forked.
- Marian Cross. A term invented to refer to Pope John Paul II's combination of a Latin cross and the letter M, representing the Mary present on Calvary.
- Occitan cross
- Papal Cross. A cross with three bars near the top. The bar are of unequal length, each one shorter than the one below.
- Patriarchal cross, also called an archiepiscopal cross or a crux gemina. A double cross, with the two crossbars near the top. The upper one is shorter, representing the plaque nailed to Jesus' cross. Similar to the Cross of Lorraine, though in the original version of the latter, the bottom arm is lower. The Eastern Orthodox cross adds a slanted bar near the foot.
- Pectoral cross. A large cross worn in front of the chest (in Latin, pectus) by some clergy.
- Peter cross. A cross with the crossbeam placed near the foot, that is associated with Saint Peter because of the tradition that he was crucified with head down. In modern times it has been used also as a symbol of the Devil and Satanism.
- Rose Cross is the central symbol to all groups embracing the Esoteric Christian philosophy of the Rosicrucians.
- Russian orthodox cross: See Suppedaneum cross.
- Saltire or crux decussata. An X-shaped cross associated with St. Andrew, patron of Scotland, and so a national symbol of that country. The shape is that of the cross on which Saint Andrew is said to have been martyred. Also known as St. Andrew's Cross or Andrew Cross.
- Stepped cross. A cross resting on a base with three steps, also called a graded or a Calvary cross.
- Suppedaneum cross. Also known as Crux Orthodoxa, Byzantine cross, Eastern cross, Russian cross, Slavic or Slavonic cross. A three-barred cross in which the short top bar represents the inscription over Jesus' head, and the lowest (usually slanting) short bar, placed near the foot, represents his footrest (in Latin, suppedaneum). This cross existed very early in Byzantium, and was adopted by the Russian Orthodox Church and especially popularized in the Slavic countries.
- Saint Thomas Cross. The ancient cross used by the Syrian Malabar Nasrani community of Saint Thomas Christians in Kerala, India.
- Tau cross. A T-shaped cross. Also called the Saint Anthony's cross and crux commissa.
For further information on the forms in which the cross is represented, including its heraldric use, see the article Cross.
The Dagger symbol also represents the Christian cross. In Unicode, it is U+2020(†).
Here are some examples of crosses: