This article treats both the cross and the sign of the cross. It discusses: the history, forms, uses and blessing of the cross, the history and ways of making the sign of the cross and devotion to the cross.
History. The cross is found in both pre-Christian and non-Christian cultures, where it has largely a cosmic or natural signification. Two crossed lines of equal length signify the four dimensions of the universe. The swastika cross symbolizes the whirling sun, the source of light and power, or the power of the elements, especially of lightning, or, in some cultures, the power of generation. Such symbols with the same basic meaning occur in primitive and advanced civilizations, in areas as widely separated as India, Etruria and Peru. These natural significations of the cross are not abrogated, but rather deepened and purified by the development of Christian symbolism. Apparently unrelated to such symbolic meaning is the use of the cross in non-Christian cultures as a means of punishment.
The early Christians generally avoided representing the body of Christ on the cross, for the first evidence of such representation comes from the fifth century. In fact, until the fourth century, even the simple cross rarely appeared in public. The reasons given for this two fold phenomenon have been many.
Both pagans and Jews saw an irreconcilable contradiction in the belief of Christians that a crucified man could also be God. The opprobrium associated with crucifixion lasted for some time even among Christians. There was a certain reluctance, in some quarters, to admit the reality of Christ's death in proportion as His humanity was eclipsed. The Councils of Ephesus (431) and Chalcedon (451) marked the most intense period of the Christological controversy. Though monophysitism was condemned at Chalcedon, its adherents could see the Crucifixion only as the crucifixion of God. Hence they refused to portray the body of the crucified, and limited themselves to displaying the bare cross.
Furthermore, during the age of persecution there was fear both of being identified as Christian by the authorities because of this symbol and of its profanation at the hands of nonbelievers. An eloquent witness to the pagan mentality of these times is the second-century cartoon scratched on one of the Roman Palatine buildings. In this a man with an ass's head is shown on a cross while another man stands nearby in adoration. The words "Alexamenos adores his God" are scratched in the plaster.
There is also historical evidence to the effect that Christians showed an unwillingness to contemplate the Savior's ignominy on the cross, particularly His nudity. They preferred to see in the cross a symbol of His victory, a source of life, just as it was His means of passing to the divine glory that was His by nature.
The cross, occasionally even the crucifix, was used for private devotion in the first three centuries. In the fourth century, however, a change occurred. Peace came to the Church; the cross need no longer be hidden. Constantine claimed to have seen the cross in the heavens and had it inscribed on the shields of his soldiers. He subsequently abolished crucifixion as a death penalty. In time the cross appeared everywhere in public places.
But the event that had the most profound effect on the history of the cross was the finding of the true cross (Jerusalem, 326; see cross, finding of the holy). It was venerated as the most precious relic remaining from Our Lord's earthly life. Its wood was divided in several parts; the first step in what soon became a great dispersal of relics of the cross had been taken. Major portions of the cross were brought to Rome and later, to Constantinople. Many further divisions were made until now the individual relics are very small.
The fifth and sixth centuries were the high time of the glorified cross, although this concept continued to appear through the early Middle Ages. This type of cross was heavily studded with large jewels. In the earliest cases the jewels were represented by rich mosaic, as at Santa Pudentiana, Rome (fifth century), or San Apollinare in Classe, Ravenna (sixth century). Also from the sixth century is the gold cross of Justin, the jewels of which are semiprecious stones; a small relic of the true cross is enshrined in it. In all these cases the evident intention
was to portray the glorification of the cross, splendid and regal, the antithesis of the opprobrium-laden image of the first centuries.
Related concepts of glorification, victory and life are to be seen in the images of the Agnus Dei and the living tree. In the former a lamb is shown carrying a cross; this is an apocalyptic symbol of Christ's triumph. In the latter, two vine like branches bearing leaves arise from the foot of the cross; in this case the obvious intent is to contrast the tree of life (the cross) and the tree of death (the tree of good and evil in Paradise).
In the early Middle Ages irish crosses tended to be intricately geometrical. They were usually carved in stone and were sometimes of great size. Representation, even when the human figure was involved, was ordinarily highly abstract. Irish manuscripts, for example the "Cross Page" of the Book of Kells, show similar tendencies.
While sculptured crosses were abundant all over medieval Europe, with the late Middle Ages the use of the bare cross became less frequent. The age of "passion
mysticism" led to the predominance of the crucifix as emphasis on the suffering Savior increased.
Forms. Since the cross plays a very large part in heraldry, most of the forms of the cross are subject to the variations of heraldry. The majority of the heraldic variations occur at the ends of the arms of the cross; thus the Greek cross with forked terminations is known as the Cross Moline, while if rectangular feet are used instead it becomes the Cross Potent.
There is no rule for the relative slenderness or heaviness of the cross. This has varied according to the materials employed and the designer's concept. Nor are there any fixed proportions other than those shown in the diagram.
Uses. The cross is beyond doubt the widest used of all Christian signs. A cross was placed on the altar during Mass as early as the fifth century in Syria, but there is no proof of a similar custom in the West until much later.
It would seem that the use of a processional cross goes back at least to the late sixth century when Venantius Fortunatus composed the hymn vexilla regis prodeunt. In 800 Charlemagne gave a processional cross to the pope; the use of such a cross was common for stational processions in Rome. When the procession arrived at the church where Mass was to be celebrated the processional cross was set up at, but at first not on, the altar. A ninth century fresco in St. Clement's in Rome shows four such processional crosses. In the 13th century Innocent III prescribed that the cross was to be placed on the altar, but it was not until the following century that this cross became a crucifix.
During the Middle Ages up to the 16th century there was commonly a rood beam over the division of presbytery and nave; this was a large cross or crucifix, not to be confused with the altar crucifix.
Sometime in the Middle Ages the custom of painting 12 crosses on the walls of a church arose; these were the consecration crosses, places at which the church was anointed in the consecration ceremony. The oldest extant example of this seems to be the Carolingian chapel at Nijmegen, Holland. Also of a dedicatory character are the customs of placing the cross on the walls of buildings other than churches, for example, of homes and schools; of erecting cemetery crosses; and of sewing the cross on vestments and linens.
Blessing of Cross and Crucifix. The Roman Ritual gives three blessings of the cross. The first of these is the blessing of a cross to be placed in the fields. The other two, solemn blessings of the cross or crucifix, are reserved to the bishop; however, any priest may be delegated to impart them. Since 1840 the cross or crucifix may be blessed by means of a simple sign of the cross. The indulgences that may be put on a cross or crucifix are the Apostolic indulgences, the indulgence of the Stations of the Cross, the indulgence for a happy death (see indul gences).
Sign of the Cross. Tracing the cross on one's forehead with the thumb or index finger was already customary in the second century as a private devotion. In the fourth century it came into wide use in the liturgy. We find a signing of the breast as well as the forehead toward the end of the fourth century. The same century yields evidence for signing forehead and eyes with the Eucharistic species. Finally a signing of the lips is mentioned in the eighth century.
In the East the practice of making the sign of the cross with two or three fingers was introduced in the sixth century to combat the Monophysites. In this case the emphasis was on number—the numbers signifying the two natures of Christ or the Trinity, etc. The custom passed over into the West and in the ninth century we find a synod directing the priest to make the sign of the cross with the thumb and two fingers over the oblation at Mass. This gesture remains to this day in the Eastern rites and also in the papal rite of blessing.
The large sign of the cross made on forehead, breast and shoulders, though used in private devotion as early as the fifth century, seems to have been introduced into the monasteries first in the tenth century, although it may be more ancient. In the 13th century we find Innocent III directing that the sign is to be made with three fingers from forehead to breast and from right to left shoulder. Later the whole hand with fingers extended was used and the direction changed from left to right.
The sign of the cross was usually accompanied with a verbal formula. The most ancient of these is still used frequently: "In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit." In the Eastern rites one of the formulas is "O Holy God, O Holy Strong One, O Holy Immortal One, have mercy on us."
The sign of the cross is used in many ways during liturgical functions, thus expressing different meanings. Sometimes it is the sign of Christ impressed like a seal on the body of the catechumen indicating that the person signed belongs wholly to Christ, or a profession of unswerving faith in Christ, or an affirmation of the sovereign power of Christ against the evil spirits. It may be an invocation of God's grace, efficaciously imploring the infinite merits of Christ's cross (the meaning in all the Sacraments). It can be used as a blessing of a person or of a thing and a way of consecrating that person or thing to God, in a way analogous to the consecration of the Christian effected by Baptism. But sometimes, it is only a demonstrative sign to point out a person or a thing; the first three signs of the cross in the Canon of the Mass and perhaps those signs after the consecration have this character.
Devotion to the Cross. It was quite natural and logical that the instrument of salvation should become an object of special respect and veneration. It is clear that devotion to the cross, beginning already with St. Paul (1 Cor 1.17; Eph 2.16; Col 1.20; Gal 6.14), was not chiefly concentrated on the negative aspect of mere physical suffering and death; uppermost in the Christian mentality was the cross' saving role in the divine plan. As Christ through His Passion was a triumphant victor over death and sin, so the cross, the means of suffering, became the source of life. Thus it was looked upon as the throne and standard of the King of Glory.
Not only were the walls of homes and edifices used by Christians marked with this sacred sign in one or another of its forms, but stones and various objects carried on the person were engraved with it. With the discovery of the true cross, devotion increased. Though relics of it were gradually distributed throughout the world, pilgrimages to the holy places to adore the sacred wood became frequent.
Because of the danger of misunderstanding, the Council of Nicaea II (787) decreed that the veneration of the faithful was due the cross and images of Christ and the saints [H. Denzinger, Enchiridion symbolorum, ed. A. Schönmetzer (Freiburg 1963) 600], for he who adores the images, adores the person it represents (ibid. 601). Theologians are commonly agreed that the cult of relative latria is due to the cross. Hence the Church calls for a genuflection before the cross on Good Friday, and a special part of the liturgical service for that day is dedicated to veneration of the cross, the faithful being invited to kiss it. It should be noted, once again, that the motif of this good friday, unveiling and veneration of the cross is one of glorious triumph.
Liturgical feast. A liturgical feast in honor of the cross is of early origin. It was connected from the very beginning with the finding of the true cross and the dedication of churches at the sites of the Holy Sepulcher and Calvary in Jerusalem, the Anastasis and Martyrion. In 325 the dedication of these churches was celebrated with great solemnity on September 13 and 14. The annual
commemoration of this event was equally solemn and spread quickly to other Eastern churches. Though the feast was originally known as the Encaenia, the name "Exaltation of the Cross," given to it by Alexander of Cyprus in the sixth century, has remained. While Rome adopted the feast sometime in the seventh century and called it the "Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross," Gallican churches introduced a "Feast of the Invention of the Holy Cross" on May 3 sometime in the first half of the eighth century. May 3 was apparently chosen to commemorate Heraclius's recovery of the true cross from the Persians and its solemn return to Jerusalem on that day. The Gallican feast was added to the Roman calendar in Gaul and thus returned to Rome. Although Benedict XIV's commission for the reform of the Breviary tried in vain to drop the feast of May 3, John XXIII omitted it from his reformed calendar in 1960. The 1969 reform of the liturgical calendar recovered the historical feast of the Exaltation (or Triumph) of the Cross for the Roman Catholic Church. The Greek Church observes a feast of the Apparition of the Cross to St. Cyril of Jerusalem on May 7 and one of the Adoration of the Cross on August 1 and on the third Sunday of Lent. The Armenians celebrate a feast of the cross as one of their seven principal feasts, in the autumn near the time of the feast of the Assumption.
Bibliography: r. guardini, Sacred Signs (St. Louis 1956). a.k. porter, The Crosses and Culture of Ireland (New Haven 1931). j. gretser, De Sancta Cruce, v. 1–3 of Opera Omnia (Ratisbon 1734). j. b. o'connell, Church Building and Furnishing (Notre Dame, Ind. 1955) 105–106, 205–208. f. j. dÖlger, "Beiträge zur Geschichte des Kreuzzeichens," Jahrbuch Für Antike und Christentum, 1 (1958) 5–19; 2 (1959) 15–29; 3 (1960) 5–16; 4 (1961) 5–17; 5 (1962) 5–22. o. marucchi, The Catholic Encyclopedia, ed. c. g. herbermann et al., 16 v. (New York 1907–14; suppl. 1922) 4:517–539. n. lalibertÉ and e. n. west, The History of the Cross (New York 1960). p. thoby, Le Crucifix des origines au Concile de Trente: Étude iconographique (Nantes 1959).
cross / krôs/ • n. 1. a mark, object, or figure formed by two short intersecting lines or pieces (+ or ×). ∎ a mark of this type (×) made to represent a signature by a person who cannot write. ∎ a mark of this type (×) used to show that something is incorrect or unsatisfactory. 2. an upright post with a transverse bar, as used in antiquity for crucifixion. ∎ (the Cross) the cross on which Jesus was crucified. ∎ this, or a representation of it, as an emblem of Christianity. ∎ fig. a thing that is unavoidable and has to be endured: she's just a cross we have to bear. ∎ short for sign of the cross (see sign). ∎ a staff surmounted by a cross carried in religious processions. ∎ a cross-shaped decoration awarded for personal valor or indicating rank in some orders of knighthood: the Military Cross. ∎ (the Cross) the constellation Southern Cross. Also called crux. 3. an animal or plant resulting from crossbreeding; a hybrid: a Devon and Holstein cross. ∎ (a cross between) a mixture or compromise of two things: a cross between a monorail and a conventional railroad. 4. a sideways or transverse movement or pass, in particular: ∎ Soccer a pass of the ball across the field toward the center close to one's opponents' goal. ∎ Boxing a blow delivered across and over the opponent's lead. • v. [tr.] 1. go or extend across or to the other side of (a path, road, stretch of water, or area): he has crossed the Atlantic twice fig. a shadow of apprehension crossed her face | [intr.] we crossed over the bridge. ∎ go across or climb over (an obstacle or boundary): he attempted to cross the border into Jordan | [intr.] we crossed over a fence. ∎ [intr.] (cross over) (esp. of an artist or an artistic style or work) begin to appeal to a different audience, esp. a wider one. 2. [intr.] pass in an opposite or different direction; intersect: the two lines cross at 90°. ∎ [tr.] cause (two things) to intersect. ∎ [tr.] place (something) crosswise: Michele sat back and crossed her arms. ∎ (of a letter) be sent before receipt of another from the person being written to: our letters crossed. 3. draw a line or lines across; mark with a cross: cross the t's. ∎ (cross someone/something off) delete a name or item on a list as being no longer required or involved. ∎ (cross something out) delete an incorrect or inapplicable word or phrase by drawing a line through it. 4. (cross oneself) (of a person) make the sign of the cross in front of one's chest as a sign of Christian reverence or to invoke divine protection. 5. Soccer pass (the ball) across the field toward the center when attacking. 6. cause (an animal of one species, breed, or variety) to interbreed with one of another species, breed, or variety. ∎ cross-fertilize (a plant): a hybrid tea was crossed with a polyantha rose. 7. oppose or stand in the way of (someone): no one dared cross him. • adj. annoyed. PHRASES: at cross purposes misunderstanding or having different aims from one another: we had been talking at cross purposes. cross one's fingers (or keep one's fingers crossed) put one finger across another as a sign of hoping for good luck. ∎ hope that someone or something will be successful. cross one's mind (of a thought) occur to one, esp. transiently: it never crossed my mind to leave the tent and live in a house. cross someone's path meet or encounter someone. the way of the Crosssee way.DERIVATIVES: cross·er n. cross·ly adv. cross·ness n.
G. Ferguson (1961);
One of the oldest and most widespread symbols in history, the cross is best known as a sign of the Christian faith. However, the cross has played a significant role in many other cultures as well. Peoples as different as the ancient Egyptians and modern peace marchers have adopted it to represent an idea they considered important.
Shapes and Uses of the Cross
Throughout the world and through the ages, people have used the shape of the cross to decorate religious articles, to protect against illness, to bring good luck, and for countless other purposes. Many different versions of the cross exist, including the Xshaped St. Andrews cross and the T-shaped tau cross (named after the Greek letter). In addition, a wide variety of items have been made in the shape of the cross, including small amulets and jewelry, church altars and gravestones, and decorations on flags and shields.
Among the ancient civilizations who used the cross as a religious symbol were the Egyptians. The ankh, or Egyptian cross, was a tau cross with a circle or oval on top. The T part of the cross represented life or wisdom, and the circle or oval stood for eternity. Under the pharaoh Akhenaten, the ankh became the symbol of the Egyptian sun god, and gods and pharaohs were often shown holding the cross. Early Egyptian Christians adopted it as a symbol of eternal life through Christ's sacrifice.
Other ancient peoples, such as the Phoenicians* of the eastern Mediterranean and the Aztecs of central Mexico, also used the ankh. For the Aztecs, it was a symbol of secret knowledge available to only a few.
A Fearsome Symbol
The swastika has come to be feared and despised because of its association with the Nazis in World War II. Yet historically, the swastika was widely used as a religious symbol. To some ancient peoples, it was a pictograph of the sun revolving in the universe. American Indians used it to symbolize the workings of the winds and the waters. To the Norse, the swastika represented Thor's hammer. Early Christians used it as a disguised cross on tombs during the time when it was dangerous to display a Christian cross. Hindus use the swastika, considered a symbol of good fortune, to decorate doorways and books.
amulet small object thought to have supernatural or magical powers
The Greek cross, with two equal bars that intersect in the middle, was adopted by many peoples. The ancient Assyrians, Babylonians, and Persians all used it to represent the basic elements—earth, water, wind, and fire—from which they believed all living things were created. They also marked religious articles with the sign of the cross. Ancient Buddhists and Hindus followed a similar practice. In addition, the Greek cross has been found on items used by the Druids of Celtic* Britain and by the Aztecs. But its meaning for these peoples has not been established.
In other cultures, the Greek cross represented the four principal directions (north, south, east, and west). The Plains Indians place the cross within a circle to signify the four main directions of the heavens. In the Bible, paradise is said to be divided by four rivers that form a cross. In parts of Africa, people believe that crossroads are places where the worlds of the living and the dead meet.
The Christian Cross
The cross is the most important symbol of Christianity. It stands for the cross on which Jesus was crucified and represents the greatness of God's sacrifice and the spiritual salvation that humans gained as a result.
A Changing Symbol. In the ancient Near East and Mediterranean world, crucifixion was used mainly as a method of execution for political and religious opponents, pirates, and slaves. The condemned were tied or nailed to a cross and died of exhaustion or heart failure.
Early Christians were hesitant to adopt the cross as their symbol. Many could not accept an instrument of death as the symbol of their devotion. Moreover, until the a.d. 300S, when Christianity became the official religion of the Roman empire and crucifixion was banned, open use of the cross could lead to persecution.
The earliest crosses were empty, emphasizing Christ's triumph over death and the eternal life available to humankind. By the 300s, the figure of a lamb was added over it, symbolizing Christ. Later the human figure of Christ was portrayed on the cross, emphasizing at first his divine nature but later his human suffering.
relics pieces of bone, possessions, or other items belonging to a saint or sacred person
The True Cross. According to legend, the cross on which Jesus had been crucified was found by St. Helena, the mother of the Roman emperor Constantine, during a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. The story relates that she found three crosses (Jesus had been crucified along with two thieves). To determine which of them belonged to Christ, Helena ordered that a corpse be brought and placed on each cross in turn. When the corpse was laid on one of the crosses, it came to life, thus showing that that was the cross of Christ. Fragments of the cross were later sold as relics and honored in churches throughout Europe.
* See Names and Places at the end of this volume for further information.
cross, widely used symbol. In various forms, it can be found in such diverse cultures as those of ancient India, Egypt, and pre-Columbian North America. It also is found in the megalithic monuments of Western Europe.
The most frequent use of a cross is among Christians, to whom it recalls the crucifixion of Jesus and humanity's redemption thereby. The Christian form of blessing by tracing a cross over oneself or another person or thing originated before AD 200. The oldest Christian remains contain drawings of crosses and cruciform artifacts, and the fact that the cross was the Christian emblem before the toleration of Christianity is shown by the vision of Constantine I. His mother, St. Helena, is supposed to have found the True Cross at Calvary in 327, and the event is commemorated on May 3 as the Finding of the Cross. Splinters of the relic are widely distributed and honored by Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox. In 614, to the scandal of Christendom, Khosru II of Persia took the largest piece of the relic from Jerusalem. It was restored by Heraclius in 627; the anniversary of this event is Sept. 14, the Exaltation of the Cross. The relic was lost in the Muslim occupation of Jerusalem. Use of the cross was one of the popular practices attacked by Byzantine iconoclasm and vindicated (787) by the Second Council of Nicaea.
The crucifix—the cross with the figure of Jesus upon it—had already been established in use; at first, the figure was painted or in bas-relief, a style surviving in the Christian East. Older Western crucifixes often presented the Savior reigning, in robe and crown. The realistic dying figure, dating from the Renaissance, is now universal in Roman Catholicism.
Devotion to the cross as a symbol of the Passion is an outstanding development (from the 11th cent.) in the history of Christian piety; it has ever since been an essential part of the public and private religious life of Roman Catholics. Protestants have been generally sparing in using the cross and do not use the crucifix, but the symbolism has been retained in their literature (e.g., in the hymn, When I Survey the Wondrous Cross). The cross was the badge of the Crusades and was adopted as the emblem of the Templars, of the Knights Hospitalers (Knights of Malta), and of the Teutonic Knights. It became important in heraldry, flag designs, and decorations.
Examples of artistic effort spent on crosses are seen in the monumental crosses of market, town, and wayside in Europe (e.g., at Cheddar, Malmesbury, and Winchester, England) and in the wayside calvaries of Austria and Brittany. Some of the finest art products of the Celts were stone crosses. (For the later Eleanor Crosses, see Eleanor of Castile.) Processional crosses (on poles) lend themselves to elaboration. Crosses are also worn for personal adornment. Pectoral crosses and necklace crosses have given scope for fine enameling.
There are many shapes of crosses. The Latin cross, the commonest, has an upright longer than its transom. With two transoms it is called an archiepiscopal or patriarchal cross; with three it is a papal cross. A cross widely used by Slavs and by others of Eastern rites has two transoms and a slanting crosspiece below. The Greek cross has equal arms. St. Andrew's cross is like an X, and the tau cross is like a T. The Celtic, or Iona, cross bears a circle, the center of which is the crossing. The Maltese cross and the swastika (an ancient and widely diffused symbol) are still more elaborate.
A cross is the emblem of St Helena and St Philip.
cross of Lorraine another term for the Lorraine cross.
cross saltire a cross shaped like the letter X; this is the emblem of St Andrew.
cross upside down the emblem of St Peter (see Peter1), who was crucified head downwards.
have one's cross to bear suffer the troubles that life brings. The allusion is to Jesus (or Simon of Cyrene) carrying the Cross to Calvary for the Crucifixion. The expression is also used metaphorically in Matthew 10:38.
See also crosses are ladders that lead to Heaven, no cross, no crown.
cross one's fingers put one finger across another as a sign of hoping for good luck.
cross someone's palm with silver pay someone before having one's fortune told, originally by describing a cross on the fortune-teller's hand with a silver coin.
cross swords have an argument or dispute.
cross the floor in the British House of Commons, to change one's party allegiance, literally by moving across the floor or open space which divides the Government and the Opposition benches.
don't cross the bridge till you come to it do not concern yourself with difficulties until they arise. The saying is recorded from the mid 19th century, but is now also common as the metaphorical phrase to cross one's bridges when one comes to them.