The cross is the central symbol of the Christian faith, a potent reminder of Jesus’ death and resurrection, and an image recognized worldwide. Whether specifically a crucifix or a plain cross, this image has been associated with Christianity since the beginning of the church, becoming its primary emblem around the 4th century AD (crucifixes emerging closer to the 6th century). As early as the 200s, the cross was referred to as “the Lord’s Sign” by Clement of Alexandria, and Tertullian referred to the Christian people as crucis religiosi, “people of the Cross”. But there are so many permutations of the basic perpendicular crossbars, signifying various religious orders, cultural traditions, spiritual messages, and more, that identifying them all can be quite a challenge. The following is a brief, not-at-all comprehensive overview of some of the most common types of cross and crucifix in use by the faithful today.
Latin and Greek Crosses
The Latin cross is perhaps the most universal signifier of the Christian faith today; its width to length has a ratio of 2:3. The Greek cross is symmetrical, with arms of equal length (like a ‘plus’ sign). The Greek cross predates the Latin cross, and can be found on many gravestones within the Roman catacombs. It is also used often in flags and heraldry, such as on the Swiss flag, in the corner of the Greek flag, on the English flag as the Saint George’s Cross (which, combined with the white saltire of Scotland and the red saltire of Northern Ireland, makes up the crosses on the Union Jack), and as the symbol of the International Red Cross organization. The plain Latin cross is common in jewelry and sacred art in almost all Christian denominations, while crucifixes (featuring an image of Jesus crucified on the cross) are today most common among Catholics specifically, though also used by Lutherans and Anglicans. The crucifix was taken as idolatrous by early Protestant reformers, and many evangelical Protestant denominations today (particularly Baptists) consider a plain cross to be indicative of Christ’s resurrection, and avoid the image of His death. Catholics, on the other hand, consider Jesus’ death and suffering for our sins as inseparable from the meaning of His resurrection, and display the corpus as a reminder of the depth of love for us which lead Him to accept the cross. Catholic churches are required to have a crucifix within the sanctuary which is visible to the congregation.Though there is no prohibition on plain crosses for Catholics in jewelry or to display within the home (as they are not a denial of His death, but rather a simplified, iconic symbol of the faith as a whole and Jesus’ death and resurrection specifically), many opt solely for the crucifix.
Along with IHS and ICXC, the Chi Rho is an early Christogram. An extremely prevalent symbol in the early (and current) church, it is a combination of the Greek letters chi (rhyming with pie) and rho (rhyming with snow), the first two letters of “Christ”. The letter chi, written as “X”, has also for millenia stood by itself as an abbrevation for the word “Christ”, hence the (in no way secular) use of “Xmas”. (The chi-rho symbol was also used by ancient Greek scholars to mark, in the margins of a page, a particularly relevant passage – in this case the letters stood for chrēstos, or ‘useful’.) The Emperor Constantine adopted the Chi Rho as a holy symbol on the shields of his soldiers in the year 312 AD, just before the Battle of the Milvian Bridge – there are varying accounts of a dream or vision telling him to do so. It was in use on sarcophagi and frescoes dating from the early 300s, and by about the year 350 had appeared on the back of coinage. It is common in churches today, and can be found on chalices, banners, and church linens as well as worn on a pendant.
This is a five-fold cross – one large cross surrounded by smaller Greek crosses (with arms of equal length). The Jerusalem Cross originated during the First Crusade, in the late 1090s AD. A few different interpretations of the cross’s meaning have arisen: The five crosses representing the five wounds of Christ; Christ in the center (as the largest cross) with the four corners of the world around Him signaling worldwide evangelization; Christ in the center surrounded by the four Gospel writers, and so on. At times referred to as the Crusader’s Cross, it was used as a symbol on banners during Greek War of Independence, and appeared on the English shilling during the reign of Mary, Queen of Scots. Edward VII had a Jerusalem Cross tattooed on his arm in 1862. For Protestants and Catholics alike, it has become a symbol of world evangelization; proponents of Deism have adopted it as a representation of the 20 words that they believe sum up Jesus’ message: “There is one God. I will love God with all my heart and love all others as I love myself.”
Mariner’s Cross / Anchor Cross
A symbol of hope and safety, specifically the hope of salvation, an anchor (which fortuitously has a cross in its design anyway) is one of the most ancient Christian symbols. It was an easy way to disguise the cross in times of persecution, and it echoes Hebrews 6:18-19: “…[We] hold fast to the hope that lies before us. This we have as an anchor of the soul…” It is also, of course used by sailors, both as a symbol of faith and as a petition for protection at sea. The anchor is sometimes referred to as “St. Clement’s Cross”, a reference to Saint Pope Clement I having been martyred by being tied to an anchor and cast into the sea. The Roman catacombs show frequent use of the anchor in epitaphs and on tombs, and it can be seen in the cemeteries of Saints Calixtus, Priscilla, and Flavia Domitilla. This last example depicts the anchor with a fish grasping each of the two points in its mouth – the fish of course being one of the other ancient Christian symbols.
A vertical cross of equal length with three points/flourishes at each end, the Coptic Cross is a widespread symbol of the Coptic Christian church, and it is common in many regions of the Middle East and Africa for Copts to have a small one tattooed on their arm or wrist.The twelve points on the cross represent the twelve apostles, each set of three flourishes represents the Trinity, and the circle in the center represents God’s eternal love for us.
Cross of Lorraine
The Cross of Lorraine is a two-barred Patriarchal cross: a standard cross with an additional, slightly shorter crossbar above the main one. An emblem of numerous organizations (also referred to as the Gaullist Cross), it is perhaps best known as a symbol of the French Resistance during World War II, and of French independence and patriotism. It was also the insignia of the 79th Infantry Division of the United States Army during both World Wars. The Cross of Lorraine is considered a symbol of the Crusaders among Filipino Catholics, referred to as the cruzado. If the two sets of crossbars are of equal length, the cross denotes the rank of Archbishop. Its name is derived from its history as the heraldic symbol of the Duchy of Lorraine, dating back at least to the 15th century. The cross can also found in the national symbols of Slovakia, Poland, Hungary, and Belarus, and has been adopted as the emblem of the American Lung Association.
Modeled after a Saxon brooch of bronze which dates back to around the year 850 AD, the Canterbury Cross is a cross of equal arm length, with a small square in the center. The four arms of the cross grow wider as they radiate so that they resemble triangles, symbolizing the Trinity. The tips of each arm extend in arcs, making the whole cross somewhat resemble a wheel in motion. The brooch in question was discovered in 1867 in Canterbury, England, and has become a Christian symbol particularly popular in the Anglican church. It is emblematic of Canterbury Cathedral, and the communion of the Church of England in general. In 1932 a Canterbury Cross with a piece of stone from Canterbury was sent to each of the Anglican cathedrals in the world.
Papal and Orthodox Crosses
The ecclesiastical symbol of the Pope, a Papal Cross is a staff with three crossbars of decreasing width as the top of the cross is approached. The design of the cross is echoed in that of the Papal tiara. The Orthodox cross is similar in structure, but its shortest crossbar is at the foot, and slanted. Though in early Byzantine iconography the bottom bar is horizontal, almost all modern representations in Orthodox art slant down to the right. This slant is held to represent the foot rest on the Cross breaking when Christ perished, as well as the differing fates of the good thief and the bad thief to either side of Him – one ascending and one descending. The top bar represents the sign which read “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews.”
Dating back at least to the 8th century AD, the Celtic Cross is one of the most popular cross variants, particularly in regions such as Europe and the United States with a significant Irish population. The cross, which may be made up of intricate Celtic knots (a prolific element of Hiberno-Saxon art for milennia), has circle or ‘nimbus’ around its center. The Sun Cross, a plain circle with a “plus-sign” style cross within it, was a pagan symbol originating in the Bronze Age. According to his legend, Saint Patrick combined the sun symbol with the cross – either to help his Irish converts envision the life-giving nature of the cross, or to represent the cross superseding the sun, emphasizing Christ’s supremacy over the false pagan deities. Celtic crosses are common in jewelry, tattoos, and churches, and are particularly common as cemetery headstones.
As its name implies, this is a cross in the shape of the Greek letter tau. Also sometimes called the Old Testament Cross, Anticipatory Cross, St Anthony’s or more commonly St Francis’s Cross, it is associated with the sign in Ezekiel 9:4 which is marked on the foreheads of the saved ones, and/or the outstretched arms of Moses. A Tau-Rho was used to abbreviate the Greek word for ‘cross’ in very early manuscripts of the New Testament, and because it is also the last letter of the Hebrew alphabet, it connotes Christ’s fulfillment of the Old Testament and establishment of the new covenant. The term Anticipatory Cross is used due to the resemblance of the Tau to the pole Moses raised with a bronze snake on it, prefiguring the cross of Christ, both of which “anyone can look on and live”. Saint Anthony the Great wore a Tau on his cloak. Today the Tau is best known as the emblem of the Franciscan order. Saint Francis of Assisi used the Tau as his seal when writing (Job also used this as his signature in the Old Testament), painted it on the walls and doors of places he stayed, and spoke of it often. As a reminder of Saint Francis’s ministry and philosophy, it has been adopted by both Franciscan religious orders and laypeople alike.
Saint Andrew’s Cross
An X-shaped cross, with arms of even length. Saint Andrew was martyred on such a cross and is often depicted carrying one. Some historical texts indicate that Saint Andrew may have been bound to such a cross, but not nailed to it; traditionally he was held to have been granted such a form of death at his own request, deeming himself unworthy to die in the same way as Jesus did. Also known as the saltire, this shape is used as a heraldic symbol, and appears on numerous flags, such as those of Scotland and Jamaica. The one on Scotland’s flag is a reference to Saint Andrew, who is the region’s patron, and the Jamaican saltire hints at their former Scotch-Irish colonization.
Saint Brigid’s Cross
The Cross of Saint Brigid is a small four-armed cross woven from rushes (or designed to appear so). A square forms in the middle of the cross. Along with the shamrock and harp, it is a prominent symbol of Ireland. The weaving of these crosses likely predates the spread of Christianity, and may have originally been related to the sun cross (as mentioned above). It is also associated with the movement of the Big Dipper through the sky as the year progresses. Later appropriated by the Church, it is associated with Saint Brigid, and is traditionally woven on her feast day, February 1st. Brigid is said to have woven such a cross on the deathbed of either her father or another pagan lord, who upon learning its meaning, asked to be baptized.
Cross of San Damiano
The original San Damiano crucifix was a rood cross (a large crucifix set above the entrance to a medieval chapel or church) before which Saint Francis of Assisi was praying when he received a commission from God to go rebuild the Church. It is often classed as an icon cross, since in addition to Jesus it also portrays various saints and figures of the crucifixion scene. This style of crucifix is of particular significance to Franciscans as a reminder of their mission. The Virgin Mary, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, Saint John the Evangelist, and the Roman centurion who asked Jesus to heal his son all appear surrounding Christ’s torso, and the centurion’s son can be seen as a tiny figure at his shoulder. The Roman soldiers who pierced Jesus’ side and gave him vinegar wine on a sponge are smaller, located at the witnesses’ feet. Six angels surround the cross, discussing and marveling at the event. At the foot of the cross are Saints Damian, Michael, Rufino, John the Baptist, Peter, and Paul. In addition to the crucified Christ in the center, the risen Christ is depicted at the top, exiting his tomb and entering Paradise, where the hand of God extends a blessing. A small bird can be seen just beside Jesus’ left calf (right side of the cross) – this is interpreted alternately as a rooster (symbolizing Peter’s denial) or a peacock (an early symbol of immortality).
Saint Peter’s Cross
Saint Peter’s Cross is an inverted plain cross – Peter was crucified upside down, because like Saint Andrew he felt unworthy to die in the same manner as Jesus. In addition to Petrine (and therefore Papal) associations, the cross also connotes humility before the sacrifice of Christ. In modern times, it has also inaccurately been appropriated by anti-Christian or Satanist groups (both faux and genuine), as well as appearing in some occult-themed horror films. This newer interpretation has not fully eclipsed the original meaning of an upside-down cross, however; nor will it if Saint Peter’s cross is still used for this purpose and not relinquished to angst-ridden teenagers as a fashion statement. The Vatican occasionally uses this inverted cross in papal symbolism, although not as frequently as the more usual Keys of Saint Peter.
This is usually attached to a penal rosary, which was developed in Ireland during the times in history when being Catholic meant imprisonment or worse. The penal rosary is easy to hide – a one-decade which can be hidden in the palm or up the sleeve, with a ring to go around one’s thumb in order to discreetly hold onto it. The penal cross contains the hammer and nails of the Passion, a halo (for the Crown of Thorns), binding cords (for the Scourging), a spear, a rooster in a pot (a reference to an apocryphal folk tale about Judas the betrayer), and small marks along the side of the cross, which symbolize both the ladder used in the crucifixion and an ascent to Heaven. They are used today, often by people with Irish heritage, as a reminder of those who kept their Faith in spite of persecution.
Four- and Five-Way Medals
Four- and five-way medals are a popular among Catholics as a convenient combination of devotions. Shaped like a cross, they contain within them images of the Virgin Mary (in the form of the Miraculous Medal), Saint Joseph, the Sacred Heart of Jesus, and Saint Christopher, as well as in the case of the five-way medal, the Holy Spirit (in the center). When worn around the neck, many have inscribed on the back the phrase I am a Catholic, please call a priest, to indicate that if the wearer is injured or dying they will wish to receive Last Rites.
Popes Francis and John Paul II’s Crucifixes
Pope Francis wears a simple silver pectoral cross designed and crafted by Italian artist Giuseppe Albrizzi, which he has used since long before his election as Pontiff. It portrays Jesus as the Good Shepherd in the foreground, barefoot and simply dressed, carrying a lamb on his shoulders and followed by his flock of sheep. Above him, the Holy Spirit appears as a dove. This humble design has been reproduced for the faithful to wear themselves, and due to Pope Francis’s immense popularity it has rapidly become a well-loved reminder of his gently modest persona. Blessed Pope Paul VI used a distinctive crucifix as his ferula (the Papal staff or crozier), designed by artist Lello Scorzelli, which has been passed down to subsequent Popes but is by far most associated with Saint Pope John Paul II. It is an extremely expressive depiction of the suffering Christ took on for the sins of the world, and its bent crossbar adds a sense of weight to the image of His sacrifice. This curved crossbar is also reminiscent of the type of crozier carried by a bishop in the Eastern Rite of the Catholic Church.
Many more forms of Christian crosses and crucifixes exist, not to mention symbols of similar shape from other religions, and pagan and secular sources. But each of the above provides the opportunity for insight into the ways we express our faith, devotion, and heritage.