The Online Encyclopedia and Dictionary






Christian cross

The traditional form of the Christian cross, known as the Latin cross
The traditional form of the Christian cross, known as the Latin cross

The Christian cross is a familiar religious symbol of most Christianity. Its significance lies in the belief that Jesus Christ was executed by the governor of Judea on a large wooden cross. The New Testament reports that the manner of Christ's death was crucifixion, which involved being tied or (in Christ's case) nailed to the cross (Gr. stauros), and left to die. This painful method of execution was common for slaves and non-Romans convicted of serious crimes in the Roman Empire at the time.


History and Usage

During the first three centuries of Christianity, the cross was rare in Christian iconography, although descriptions of it are found in Christian writings from the early 2nd century onwards. The Ichthys was a symbol used by early covert Christians to identify each other. The Chi-Rho monogram, which was adopted by the emperor Constantine in the fourth century as his banner called the labarum, was an Early Christian symbol of wider use.

The Cross first became prominent in Christian imagery during the 3rd century. An early third century reference (there are few others) is in Clement of Alexandria's unfinished Stromateis or 'Miscellanies' (book VI): he speaks of the Cross as tou Kuriakou semeiou tupon, i.e. "the symbol of the Lord." His contemporary Tertullian could designate the body of Christian believers as crucis religiosi, i.e. "devotees of the Cross" (Apol., chapter xvi).

In Christianity, the cross represents Christ's victory over death and sin, since it is believed that through His death he conquered death itself. Catholic and Orthodox Christians often make the sign of the cross by moving their right hand so as to draw a cross upon themselves. Making the sign of the cross was already a common Christian practice in the time of Augustine. 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 (allegedly) original cross was discovered in 326 by Helena, mother of Constantine the Great. In the Catholic Church the comparable feast is the Invention of the Cross, celebrated on May 3.

The Cross was the first of the Instruments of the Passion that came to be venerated in the form of relics. In time, even the "Holy Nails" that were used to nail Christ to the cross would be sought out, discovered, elaborately mounted as relics, and venerated in Catholic circles. A nail, said to be one of these, is mounted in the Iron Crown of Lombardy, preserved in the cathedral of the former Lombard capital, Monza.

Numerous relics are claimed to be pieces of the True Cross, often brought to Europe during the Crusades. By the 16th century, skepticism surfaced: Erasmus joked that one could build a ship with all that wood. Santo Toribio de Liébana in Spain holds the biggest of these pieces and is one of the most privileged pilgrimage sites for the Catholic Church. Even a large portion of the cross of the 'good thief' crucified with Jesus (who came to be given the name Dismas in medieval legend) has been recovered; it is reverenced at Rome in the altar of the Chapel of the Relics at the church of Santa Croce in Gerusalemme .

Connected with the cross is the medieval legend of the Tree of Jesse, from the wood of which the cross was said to have been fashioned.

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. Roman Catholic depictions of the cross are often crucifixes, in order to emphasize Christ's sacrifice; but many Protestant traditions depict the cross without the corpus, in order to emphasize the resurrection.

Crosses are a prominent feature of Christian cemeteries, either carved on gravestones or as sculpted stelae. Because of this death meaning, planting small crosses is sometimes used in countries of Christian culture to protest alleged deaths.

Crosses have been erected or carved on pagan sites of worship like mountain tops or menhirs to counter their influences. 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.

Perhaps the best-known form of the Christian cross is that depicted here, called the Latin cross, an equal-armed cross with a longer foot. It may be so called because it is the type of cross used in the Latin (Roman Catholic) church, as opposed to the Eastern Orthodox cross.

Other forms of the Christian cross include:

In heraldry, while the overwhelming majority of forms of crosses are symbolic of Christianity, it should be noted that a very few, such as the cross moline, are not. See cross (heraldry) .

See also: Christian symbolism, Sign of the Cross

Compare the crossed circle of the Norse god Odin. 'Cross' itself is a word taken from Old Norse, which supplanted the former word 'rood' in Old English. See Roodmas, Rood screen, Rood loft .

Alternative theological views of the cross

A number of Christian Anabaptist theologians including John H. Yoder and Walter Wink suggest an alternative reading of the cross in Jesus's teaching. Instead of seeing Jesus instructions to "take up the cross" as simply a spiritual call to endure suffering, they interpret the phrase as a call to a life of radical Christian discipleship that may end in death at the hands of the state. For these theologians, accepting the possibility of crucifixion (often the penalty for political prisoners in Roman times) means rejecting the use of violence as well. This view would be most prevalent among Mennonites and other Peace churches with a history of martyrdom. This view is for the most part shared by Roman Catholic and Orthodox theologians, with the exception that they do not completely reject the use of violence.

Since the 1930s Jehovah's Witnesses have taught that Christ died suspended not on a cross, but on a torture stake. The New Testament word for cross is stauros, which can refer either to a cross or to a single upright position stake without a crossbeam; Jehovah's Witnesses accept only the latter meaning, believing the cross to be a pagan symbol. Cruciform symbols do antedate Christianity; see cross for more information.

For Muslims, Jews and Jehovah's Witnesses the symbol of the Cross or Religious Icons are sacrilegious as God cannot be depicted in any physical form. For more on Jesus see Non-Christian perspectives on Jesus

According to Vine "...Both the noun [stauros] and the verb stauroo, "to fasten to a stake or pale," are originally to be distinguish form the ecclesiastical form of a two-beamed 'cross.' The shape of the latter had its origin in ancient Chaldea, and was used as the symbol of the god Tammuz (being in the shape of the mystic Tau, the initial of his name) in that country and in adjacent lands, including Egypt. By the middle of the 3rd cent. A.D. the churches had either departed from, or had travestied, certain doctrines of the Christian faith. In order to increase the prestige of the apostate ecclesiastical system pagans were received into the churches apart from regeneration by faith, and were permitted largely to retain their pagan signs and symbols. Hence the Tau or T, in its most frequent form with the cross-piece lowered, was adopted to stand for the 'cross' of Christ" p. 138.

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Last updated: 05-13-2005 07:56:04