The Patriarchal cross is a variant of the Christian cross, the universal religious symbol of Christianity. Similar to the familiar Latin cross, the Patriarchal cross possesses a smaller crossbar placed above the main one, so that both crossbars are near the top. Sometimes the patriarchal cross has a short, slanted crosspiece near its foot. This slanted, lower crosspiece often appears in Byzantine Greek and Eastern European iconography, as well as Eastern Orthodox churches.
The symbol, often referred to as the patriarchal cross, appeared in the Byzantine Empire in large numbers in the 9th century. In the Byzantine Empire of the 9th century, the double cross was not a religious, but a political symbol used by Byzantine clerks and missionaries.
The top beam represents the plaque bearing the inscription "Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews" (often abbreviated in the Latinate "INRI", and in the Greek as "INBI"). A popular view is that the slanted bottom beam is a foot rest, however there is no evidence of foot rests ever being used during crucifixion, and it has a deeper meaning. The bottom beam may represent a balance of justice. Some sources suggest that, as one of the thieves being crucified with Jesus repented of his sin and accepted Jesus as the Messiah and was thus lifted into Heaven, the other thief rejected and mocked Jesus and therefore descended into Hell.
Many symbolic interpretations of the double cross have been put forth. One of them says that the first horizontal line symbolized the secular power and the other horizontal line the ecclesiastic power of Byzantine emperors. Also, that the first cross bar represents the death and the second cross the resurrection of Jesus Christ.
The Eastern Orthodox cross (also known as Crux Orthodoxa, the Byzantine cross, the Eastern cross, and the "Russian" cross) can be considered a modified version of the Patriarchal cross, having two smaller crossbeams, one at the top and one near the bottom, in addition to the longer crossbeam. The lower crossbeam represents the footrest (suppendaneum) to which the feet of Jesus were nailed. In most earlier representations (and still currently in the Greek Church) the crossbar near the bottom is straight. In later Russian and other traditions, it came to be depicted as slanted, with the side to the viewer's left usually being higher. One tradition says that this comes from the idea that as Jesus took his last breath, the bar his feet were nailed to broke, thus slanting to the side. It is also said that the slanted bar represents the repentant thief and the unrepentant thief that were crucified with Christ, the one to Jesus' right hand repenting and rising to be with God, and one on his left falling to Hell and separation from God. In this manner it also reminds the viewer of the Last Judgement. Another explanation of the slanted crossbar would suggest the Cross Saltire, as tradition holds that the Apostle St. Andrew introduced Christianity to lands north and west of the Black Sea: today's Romania, Moldova, Belarus, Russia, and Ukraine.
The Cross of Lorraine originally differed from the patriarchal cross: it had two horizontal bars of equal length placed with the lower bar located close to the bottom and the upper bar close to the top. On the patriarchal cross on the other hand, both bars are near the top and the upper is noticeably smaller than the other. In the twentieth century the cross of Lorraine began to be represented, as in the flag of the Free French Forces, as almost identical with the patriarchal cross, the only difference being that the two horizontal crossbars, of unequal length, were placed somewhat lower than is traditional in the patriarchal cross.
Though the two-barred cross is here called a patriarchal cross, Roman Catholic and some other archbishops also use it as a symbol of their office. It distinguishes the coat-of-arms of Roman Catholic archbishops from that of bishops who do not have the rank of archbishop. The primatial staff (similar to a crozier) of the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church has the same design.