Skip to content
Deacon Keith Fournier Hi readers, it seems you use Catholic Online a lot; that's great! It's a little awkward to ask, but we need your help. If you have already donated, we sincerely thank you. We're not salespeople, but we depend on donations averaging $14.76 and fewer than 1% of readers give. If you donate just $5.00, the price of your coffee, Catholic Online School could keep thriving. Thank you. Help Now >

Archæology of the Cross and Crucifix

Free World Class Education
FREE Catholic Classes


The sign of the cross, represented in its simplest form by a crossing of two lines at right angles, greatly antedates, in both the East and the West, the introduction of Christianity. It goes back to a very remote period of human civilization. In fact, some have sought to attach to the widespread use of this sign, a real ethnographic importance. It is true that in the sign of the cross the decorative and geometrical concept, obtained by a juxtaposition of lines pleasing to the sight, is remarkably prominent; nevertheless, the cross was originally not a mere means or object of ornament, and from the earliest times had certainly another -- i.e. symbolico-religious -- significance. The primitive form of the cross seems to have been that of the so-called "gamma" cross ( crux gammata ), better known to Orientalists and students of prehistoric archæology by its Sanskrit name, swastika .

At successive periods this was modified, becoming curved at the extremities, or adding to them more complex lines or ornamental points, which latter also meet at the central intersection. The swastika is a sacred sign in India, and is very ancient and widespread throughout the East. It has a solemn meaning among both Brahmins and Buddhists, though the elder Burnouf ("Le lotus de la bonne loi, traduit du sanscrit", p. 625; Journ. Asiatic Soc. of Great Britain, VI, 454) believes it more common among the latter than among the former. It seems to have represented the apparatus used at one time by the fathers of the human race in kindling fire; and for this reason it was the symbol of living flame, of sacred fire, whose mother is Maia, the personification of productive power (Burnouf, La science des religions ). It is also, according to Milani, a symbol of the sun (Bertrand, La religion des Gaulois , p. 159), and seems to denote its daily rotation. Others have seen in it 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. Emile Burnouf (op. cit., p. 625), taking the Sanskrit word literally, divided it into the particles su-asti-ka , equivalents of the Greek eu-estike . In this way, especially through the adverbial particle, it would mean "sign of benediction", or "of good omen" ( svasti ), also "of health" or "life". The particle ka seems to have been used in a causative sense (Burnouf, Dictionnaire sanscrit-français, 1866). The swastika sign was very widespread throughout the Orient, the seat of the oldest civilizations. The Buddhist inscriptions carved in certain caves of Western India are usually preceded or closed by this sacred sign (Thomas Edward, "The Indian Swastika", 1880; Philip Greg, "On the Meaning and Origin of the Fylfot and Swastika"). The celebrated excavations of Schliemann at Hissarlik on the site of ancient Troy brought to light numerous examples of the swastika: on spindle-racks, on a cube, sometimes attached to an animal, and even cut upon the womb of a female idol, a detail also noticeable on a small statue of the goddess Athis. The swastika sign is seen on Hittite monuments, e.g. on a cylinder ("The monuments of the Hittites " in "Transactions of the Soc. of Bibl. Archæology", VII, 2, p. 259. For its presence on Galatian and Bithynian monuments, see Guillaume and Perrot, "Exploration archéologique de la Galatie et de la Bithynie", Atlas, Pl. IX). We find it also on the coins of Lycia and of Gaza in Palestine. In the Island of Cyprus it is found on earthenware vessels. It originally represents, as again at Athens and Mycenæ, a flying bird. In Greece we have specimens of it on urns and vases of Botia, on an Attic vase representing a Gorgon, on coins of Corinth ( Raoul-Rochette, "Mém. de l'acad. des inscr.", XVI, pt. II, 302 sqq.; "Hercule assyrien", 377-380; Minervini in " Bull. arch. Napolit.", Ser. 2, II, 178-179), and in the treasury of Orchomenus. It seems to have been unknown in Assyria, in Phnicia, and in Egypt. In the West it is most frequently found in Etruria. It appears on a cinerary urn of Chiusi, and on the fibula found in the famous Etruscan tomb at Cere (Grifi, Mon. di Cere, Pl. VI, no. 1). There are many such emblems on the urns found at Capanna di Corneto, Bolsena, and Vetulonia; also in a Samnite tomb at Capua, where it appears in the centre of the tunic of the person there depicted (Minervini, Bull. arch. Napolit., ser. 2, Pl. II, 178-179) This sign is also found in Pompeian mosaics, on Italo-Grecian vases, on coins of Syracuse in Sicily ( Raoul-Rochette, "Mém. de l'acad. des inscr." Pl. XVI, pt. II, 302 sqq.; Minervini, " Bull. arch. Nap.", ser. 2, Pl. II, p. 178-179); finally among the ancient Germans, on a rock-carving in Sweden, on a few Celtic stones in Scotland, and on a Celtic stone discovered in the County of Norfolk, England, and now in the British Museum. The swastika, appears in an epitaph on a pagan tombstone of Tebessa in Roman Africa (Annuaire de la Société de Constantine, 1858-59, 205, 87), on a mosaic of the ignispicium (Ennio Quirino Visconti, Opere varie, ed. Milan, I, 141, sqq.), and in a Greek votive inscription at Porto. In the last monument the swastika is imperfect in form, and resembles a Phnician letter. We shall explain below the value and symbolical meaning of this crux gammata when found on Christian monuments. But the swastika is not the only sign of this kind known to antiquity. Cruciform objects have been found in Assyria. The statutes of Kings Asurnazirpal and Sansirauman, now in the British Museum, have cruciform jewels about the neck (Layard, Monuments of Nineveh, II, pl. IV). Cruciform earrings were found by Father Delattre in Punic tombs at Carthage.

Another symbol which has been connected with the cross is the ansated cross ( ankh or crux ansata ) of the ancient Egyptians, wrongly called the "ansated key of the Nile". It often appears as a symbolic sign in the hands of the goddess Sekhet. From the earliest times also it appears among the hieroglyphic signs symbolic of life or of the living, and was transliterated into Greek as Anse ( Ansa ). But the meaning of this sign is very obscure (Da Morgan, Recherches sur les origines de l'Egypte, 1896-98); perhaps it was originally, like the swastika, an astronomical sign. The ansated cross is found on many and various monuments of Egypt (Prisse d'Avennes, L'art Egyptien, 404). 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 and LXX-LXXI), (For further information regarding the resemblance between the cross and the oldest symbolic signs see G. de Mortillet, "Le signe de la croix avant le christianisme", Paris, 1866; Letronne, "La croix ansée égyptienne" in "Mémoires de l'académie des inscriptions", XVI, pt. II, 1846, p. 236-84; L. Müller, "Ueber Sterne, Kreuze und Kränze als religiöse Symbole der alten Kulturvölker", Copenhagen, 1865; W. W. Blake, "The Cross, Ancient and Modern" New York, 1888; Ansault, "Mémoire sur le culte de la croix avant Jésus-Christ", Paris, 1891.) We may add that some have claimed to find the cross on Grecian monuments in the letter ( chi ), which, sometimes in conjunction with ( rho ), represented on coins the initial letters of the Greek word chrysoun , "gold", or other words indicative of the value of the coin, or the name of the coiner (Madden, "History of Jewish Coinage", London, 1864, 83-87; Eckhel, "Doctrina nummorum", VIII, 89; F. X. Kraus, "Real-Encyklopädie der christlichen Alterthümer", II, 224-225). We shall return, later on, to these letters.

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. These pre-Christian figures of the cross have misled many writers to see in them types and symbols of the manner in which Jesus Christ was to expiate our sins. Such inferences are unwarranted, being contrary to the just rules of criticism and to the exact interpretation of ancient monuments.


The crucifixion of living persons was not practised among the Hebrews; capital punishment among them consisted in being stoned to death, e.g. the protomartyr Stephen ( Acts 7:57-58 ). But when Palestine became Roman territory the cross was introduced as a form of punishment, more particularly for those who could not prove their Roman citizenship; later on it was reserved for thieves and malefactors (Josephus, Antiq., XX, vi, 2; Bell. Jud., II, xii, 6; XIV, 9; V, xi, 1). Though not infrequent in the East, it was but rarely that the Greeks made use of it. It is mentioned by Demosthenes (c. Mid.) and by Plato (Rep., II, 5; also Gorgias). The stake and the gibbet were more common, the criminal being suspended on them or bound to them, but not nailed. Certain Greeks who had befriended the Carthaginians were crucified near Motya by order of Dionysius of Syracuse (Diodor. Sic., XIV, 53). Both in Greece and in the East the cross was a customary punishment of brigands (Hermann, Grundsätze und Anwendung des Strafrechts, Göttingen, 1885, 83). It was at Rome, however, that from early republican times the cross was most frequently used as an instrument of punishment, and amid circumstances of great severity and even cruelty. It was particularly the punishment for slaves found guilty of any serious crime. Hence in two places (Pro Cluent., 66; I Philipp., ii), Cicero calls it simply "servile supplicium" the punishment of slaves -- more explicitly (In Verr., 66), "servitutis extremum summumque supplicium" -- the final and most terrible punishment of slaves. Hüschke, however (Die Multa), does not admit that it was originally a servile punishment. It was inflicted also, as Cicero tells us (XIII Phil., xii; Verr., V, xxvii), on provincials convicted of brigandage. It is certain, however, that it was absolutely forbidden to inflict this degrading and infamous punishment on a Roman citizen (Cic., Verr. Act., I, 5; II, 3, 5; III, 2, 24, 26; IV, 10 sqq.; V, 28, 52, 61, 66); moreover, an illegal application of this punishment would have constituted a violation of the leges sacratæ . Concerning a slave, the master might act in one of two ways; he might condemn the slave arbitrarily (Horace, Sat. iii; Juvenal, Sat. vi, 219), or he might turn him over to the triumvir capitalis , a magistrate whose duty it was to look after capital punishment.

The legal immunity of the Roman citizen was somewhat modified when the poorer citizens ( humiliores ) were declared subject to the punishment of the cross (Paul., "Sent.", V, xxii, 1; Sueton., "Galba", ix; Quintil., VIII, iv). The punishment of the cross was regularly inflicted for such grave crimes as highway robbery and piracy (Petron., lxxii; Flor., III, xix), for public accusation of his master by a slave ( delatio domini ), or for a vow made against his masters prosperity ( de salute dominorum , see Capitolin., Pertinax, ix; Herodian, V, ii; Paul., "Sent.", V, xxi, 4), for sedition and tumult (Paul., Fr. xxxviii; Digest. "De Pnis", XLVIII, 19, and "Sent.", V, 221; Dion., V, 52; Josephus, "Antiq.", XIII, xxii, and "Bell. Jud.", II, iii), for false witness, in which case the guilty party was sometimes condemned to wild beasts ( ad bestias, Paul., "Sent.", V, xxiii, 1), and on fugitive slaves, who who sometimes burned alive (Fr. xxxviii, S. 1; Digest. "De Pnis", XLVIII, xix). According to Roman custom, the penalty of crucifixion was always preceded by scourging ( virgis cædere , Prud., "Enchirid.", xli, 1); after this preliminary punishment, the condemned person had to carry the cross, or at least the transverse beam of it, to the place of execution (Plut., "Tard. dei vind.", ix, "Artemid.", II, xli), exposed to the jibes and insults of the people (Joseph., "Antiq.", XIX, iii; Plaut., "Most.", I, 1, 52; Dion., VII, 69). On arrival at the place of execution the cross was uplifted (Cic., Verr., V, lxvi). Soon the sufferer, entirely naked, was bound to it with cords (Plin., "Hist. Nat.", XXVIII, iv; Auson., "Id.", VI, 60; Lucan, VI, 543, 547), indicated in Latin by the expressions agere, dare, ferre , or tollere in crucem . He was then, as Plautus tells us, fastened with four nails to the wood of the cross ("Lact.", IV, 13; Senec., "Vita beat.", 19; Tert., "Adv. Jud.", x; Justus Lipsius "De Cruce", II, vii; xli-ii). Finally, a placard called the titulus bearing the name of the condemned man and his sentence, was placed at the top of the cross ( Eusebius, "Hist. Eccl", V, 1; Suet., "Caligula", xxxviii and "Domit." x; Matthew 27:37 ; John 19:19 ). Slaves were crucified outside of Rome in a place called Sessorium, beyond the Esquiline Gate; their execution was entrusted to the carnifex servorum (Tacit., "Ann.", II, 32; XV, 60; XIV, 33; Plut., "Galba", ix; Plaut., "Pseudol.", 13, V, 98). Eventually this wretched locality became a forest of crosses (Loiseleur, Des peines), while the bodies of the victims were the pray of vultures and other rapacious birds (Horace, "Epod.", V, 99, and the scholia of Crusius; Plin., "Hist. Nat.", XXXVI, cvii). It often happened that the condemned man did not die of hunger or thirst, but lingered on the cross for several days (Isid., V, 27; Senec., Epist. ci). To shorten his punishment therefore, and lessen his terrible sufferings, his legs were were sometimes broken ( crurifragium, crura frangere; Cic., XIII Philipp., xii). This custom, exceptional among the Romans, was common with the Jews. In this way it was possible to take down the corpse on the very evening of the execution (Tert., "Adv. Jud.", x; Isid., V, xxvii; Lactant., IV, xvi). Among the Romans, on the contrary, the corpse could not be taken down, unless such removal had been specially authorized in the sentence of death. The corpse might also be buried if the sentence permitted (Valer. Max., vi, 2; Senec., "Controv.", VIII, iv; Cic., "Tusc.", I, 43; Catull., cvi, 1; Horace, "Epod.", I, 16-48; Prudent., "Peristephanon", I, 65; Petron., lxi sqq.).

The punishment of the cross remained in force throughout the Roman Empire until the first half of the fourth century. In the early part of his reign Constantine continued to inflict the penalty of the cross ( affigere patibulo ) on slaves guilty of delatio domini, i.e. of denouncing their masters (Cod. Th. ad leg. Jul. magist.). Later on he abolished this infamous punishment, in memory and in honour of the Passion of Jesus Christ (Eus., "Hist. Eccl.", I, viii; Schol. Juvenal., XIV, 78; Niceph., VII, 46; Cassiod., "Hist. Trip.", I, 9; Codex Theod., IX, 5, 18). Thereafter, this punishment was very rarely inflicted (Eus., "Hist. Eccl.", IV, xxxv; Pacat., "Paneg.", xliv). Towards the fifth century the furca , or gibbet, was substituted for the cross (Pio Franchi de' Cavalieri, "Della forca sostituita alla croce" in "Nuovo bulletino di archeologia cristiana", 1907, nos. 1-3, 63 sqq.).

The penalty of the cross goes back probably to the arbor infelix , or unhappy tree, spoken of by Cicero (Pro, Rabir., iii sqq.) and by Livy, apropos of the condemnation of Horatius after the murder of his sister. According to Hüschke (Die Multa, 190) the magistrates known as duoviri perduellionis pronounced this penalty (cf. Liv., I, 266), styled also infelix lignem (Senec., Ep. ci; Plin., XVI, xxvi; XXIV, ix; Macrob., II, xvi). This primitive form of crucifixion on trees was long in use, as Justus Lipsius notes ("De cruce", I, ii, 5; Tert., "Apol.", VIII, xvi; and "Martyrol. Paphnut." 25 Sept.). Such a tree was known as a cross ( crux ). On an ancient vase we see Prometheus bound to a beam which serves the purpose of a cross. A somewhat different form is seen on an ancient cist at Præneste ( Palestrina ), upon which Andromeda is represented nude, and bound by the feet to an instrument of punishment like a military yoke -- i.e. two parallel, perpendicular stakes, surmounted by a transverse bar. Certain it is, at any rate, that the cross originally consisted of a simple vertical pole, sharpened at its upper end. Mæcenas (Seneca, Epist. xvii, 1, 10) calls it acuta crux ; it could also be called crux simplex . To this upright pole a transverse bar was afterwards added to which the sufferer was fastened with nails or cords, and thus remained until he died, whence the expression cruci figere or affigere (Tac., "Ann.", XV, xliv; Potron., "Satyr.", iii) The cross, especially in the earlier times, was generally low. it was elevated only in exceptional cases, particularly whom it was desired to make the punishment more exemplary or when the crime was exceptionally serious. Suetonius (Galba, ix) tells us that Galba did this in the case of a certain criminal for whom he caused to be made a very high cross painted white -- "multo præter cætteras altiorem et dealbatam statui crucem jussit".

Lastly, we may note, in regard to the material form of the cross that somewhat different ideas prevailed in Greece and Italy. The cross, mentioned even in the Old Testament, is called in Hebrew, `êç , i.e. "wood", a word often translated crux by St. Jerome ( Genesis 40:19 ; Joshua 8:29 ; Esther 5:14 ; 8:7 ; 9:25 ). In Greek it is called, which Burnouf would derive from the Sanskrit stâvora . The word was however frequently used in a broad sense. Speaking of Promotheus nailad to Mount Caucasus, Lucian uses the substantive and the verbs and, the latter being derived from which also signifies a cross. In the same way the rock to which Andromeda was fastened is called crux , or cross. The Latin word crux was applied to the simple pole, and indicated directly the nature and purpose of this instrument, being derived from the verb crucio , "to torment", "to torture" (Isid., Or., V, xvii, 33; Forcellini, s. vv. Crucio, Crux). It is also to be noted that the word furca must have been at least partially equivalent to crux . In fact the identification of those two words is constant in the legal diction of Justinian (Fr. xxviii, 15; Fr, xxxviii, S. 2; Digest. "De pnis", xlviii, 19).


Among the Romans the cross never had the symbolical meaning which it had in the ancient Orient; they regarded solely as a material instrument of punishment. There are in the Old Testament clear allusions to the Cross and Crucifixion of Jesus Christ. Thus the Greek lefter (tau or thau) appears in Ezechiel (ix, 4), according to St. Jerome and other Fathers, as a solemn symbol of the Cross of Christ -- "Mark Thau upon the foreheads of the men that sigh". The only other symbol of crucifixion indicated in the Old Testament is the brazen serpent in the Book of Numbers (xxi, 8-9). Christ Himself thus interpreted the passage: "As Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert, so must the Son of man be lifted up" ( John 3:14 ). The Psalmist predicts the piercing of the hands and the feet (Ps. xxi. 17). This was a true prophecy, inasmuch as it could not be conceived from any custom then existing; the practice of nailing the condemned to a T-shaped cross being, as we have seen, at that time exclusively Western. The cross on which Jesus Christ was nailed was of the kind known as immissa , which means that the vertical trunk extended a certain height above the transverse beam; it was thus higher than the crosses of the two thieves, his crime being judged a graver one, according to St. John Chrysostom (Homil. v, c. i., on I Corinth.). The earliest Christian Fathers who speak of the Cross describe it as thus constructed. We gather as much from St. Matthew (xxvii, 37), where he tells us that the titulus , or inscription containing the cause of His death, was placed, "over", the head of Jesus Christ (cf. Luke 23:38 ; John 19:19 ). St. Irenæus (Adv. Haer., II, xxiv) says that the Cross had five extremities: two in its length, two in its breadth, and the fifth a projection ( habitus ) in the middle -- "Fines et summitates habet quinque, duas in longitudine, duas in latitudine, unam in medio". St. Augustine agrees with him: "Erat latitudo in qua porrectæ sunt manus longitudo a terrâ surgens, in quâ erat corpus infixum; altitudo ab illo divexo ligno sursum quod imminet" (Enarr. in Ps. ciii; Serm. i, 44) and in other passages quoted by Zöckler (Das Kreuz, 1875, pp. 430, 431).

Nonnus confirms the statement that Jesus Christ was crucified on a quadrilateral cross ( ). St. Irenæus, in the passage cited above says that the Cross had a fifth extremity, on which the Crucified One was seated. St. Justin calls it a horn, and compares it to the horn of a rhinoceros (Dialogus cum Tryphone, xci). Tertullian calls it sedilus excessus , a projecting seat, or shelf (Ad. Nat., I, xii). This little seat ( equuleus ) prevented the weight of the body from completely tearing the nail-pierced hands, and it helped to support the sufferer. It has never been indicated, however, in representations of the Crucifixion. On the Cross of Christ was placed the titulus, as to the wording of which the Four Evangelists do not agree. St. Matthew (xxvii, 37) gives, "This is Jesus the King of the Jews "; St. Mark (xv, 26) "The King of the Jews "; St. Luke (xxiii, 38), "This is the King of the Jews "; St. John, an eyewitness (xix, 19), " Jesus of Nazareth , the King of the Jews ". In representations of the Crucifixion there often appears beneath the feet a wooden support (, suppedaneum ); that it ever existed is very doubtful. The first express mention of it occurs in Gregory of Tours (De Gloriâ Martyrum, vi). St. Cyprian , Theodoret, and Rufinus hint at it.

A microscopic examination of the fragments of the Cross scattered through the world in the form of relics reveals the fact that it was made from a pine-tree ( Rohault de Fleury , "Mémoire sur les instruments de la Passion", Paris, 1870, 63). According to an ancient, but somewhat dubious, tradition the Cross of Jesus Christ measured in length very nearly 189 inches (4.80 metres), from 90½ to 102½ inches (2.30 to 2.60 metres). As noted by the Evangelists, two thieves were crucified, one on either side of Christ. Their crosses must have resembled the one on which He suffered; in Christian art and tradition they generally appear lower ( St. John Chrysostom, Hom. i, xxvi, on I Cor.; on Rom., v, 5). A large portion of the cross of the good thief (traditionally known as Dismas) is preserved at Rome in the altar of the Chapel of the Relics at Santa Croce in Gerusalemme.

The historical narrative of the Passion and Crucifixion of Jesus Christ, as found in the Four Gospels, agrees exactly with all we have set down above concerning this form of punishment. Jesus Christ was condemned for the crime of sedition and tumult, as were also some of the Apostles ( Malalas, "Chronogr.", X, p. 256). His Crucifixion was preceded by the Scourging.

Deacon Keith Fournier Hi readers, it seems you use Catholic Online a lot; that's great! It's a little awkward to ask, but we need your help. If you have already donated, we sincerely thank you. We're not salespeople, but we depend on donations averaging $14.76 and fewer than 1% of readers give. If you donate just $5.00, the price of your coffee, Catholic Online School could keep thriving. Thank you. Help Now >

He then bore His Cross to the place of punishment. Finally the legs of Jesus would have been broken, according to the custom of Palestine, in order to permit of burial that very evening, had not the soldiers, on approaching Him, seen that He was already dead ( John 19:32, 33 ). Besides, in ancient Christian art and tradition, the Crucifixion of Christ appears as done with four nails, not with three, according to the usage of the more recent Christian art (see below).


Since by His holy sacrificial death upon the Cross Christ sanctified this former instrument of shame and ignominy, it must have very soon become in the eyes of the faithful a sacred symbol of the Passion, consequently a sign of protection and defence ( St. Paulinus of Nola, "Carm. in Natal. S. Felicis", XI, 612; Prudent., "Adv. Symm.", I, 486). It is not, therefore, altogether strange or inconceivable that, from the beginning of the new religion, the cross should have appeared in Christian homes as an object of religious veneration, although no such monument of the earliest Christian art has been preserved. Early in the third century Clement of Alexandria ("Strom.", VI, in P. G., IX, 305) speaks of the Cross as tou Kyriakou semeiou typon , i.e. signum Christi , "the symbol of the Lord" (St. Augustine, Tract. cxvii, "In Joan."; De Rossi, " Bull. d'arch. crist", 1863, 35, and "De titulis christianis Carthaginiensibus" in Pitra, "Spicilegium Solesmense", IV, 503). The cross, therefore, appears at an early date as an element of the liturgical life of the faithful, and to such an extent that in the first half of the third century Tertullian could publicly designate the Christian body as "crucis religiosi", i.e. devotees of the Cross (Apol., c. xvi, P. G., I, 365-66). St. Gregory of Tours tells us (De Miraculis S. Martini, I, 80) that in his time Christians habitually had recourse to the sign of the cross. St. Augustine says that by the sign of the cross and the invocation of the Name of Jesus all things are sanctified and consecrated to God. In the earliest Christian life, as can be seen from the metaphorical language of the primitive faithful, the cross was the symbol of the principal Christian virtue, i.e. mortification or victory over the passions, and suffering for Christ's sake and in union with Him ( Matthew 10:38 ; 16:24 ; Mark 8:34 ; Luke 9:23 ; 14:27 ; Galatians 2:19 ; 6:12, 14 ; 5:24 ). In the Epistles of St. Paul the cross is synonymous with the Passion of Christ ( Ephesians 2:16 ; Hebrews 12:2 ) even with the Gospel, and with religion itself ( 1 Corinthians 1:18 ; Philippians 3:18 ). Very soon the sign of the cross was the sign of the Christian. It is, moreover, very probable that reference to this sign is made in the Apocalypse (vii, 2): "And I saw another angel ascending from the rising of the sun, having the sign of the living God ."

It is from this original Christian worship of the cross that arose the custom of making on one's forehead the sign of the cross. Tertullian says: "Frontem crucis signaculo terimus" (De Cor. mil. iii), i.e. "We Christians wear out our foreheads with the sign of the cross." The practice was so general about the year 200, according to the same writer, that the Christians of his time were wont to sign themselves with the cross before undertaking any action. He says that it is not commanded in Holy Scripture , but is a matter of Christian tradition, like certain other practices that are confirmed by long usage and the spirit of faith in which they are kept. A certain Scriptural authority for the sign of the cross has been sought by some in a few texts rather freely interpreted, especially in the above-mentioned words of Ezechiel (ix, 4), "Mark Thau upon the foreheads of the men that sigh, and mourn for all the abominations that are committed in the midst thereof", also in several expressions of the Apocalypse (vii, 3; ix, 4; xiv, 1). It would seem that in very early Christian times the sign of the cross was made with the thumb of the right hand (St. John Chrys., Hom. ad pop. Antioch. xi; St. Jerome, Ep. ad Eustochium; a practice still in use among the faithful during Mass, e.g. at the reading of the Gospel) and generally on the forehead; gradually, by reason of its symbolism, this sign was made on other parts of the body, with particularized intention (St. Ambrose, De Isaac et animâ, Migne, P. L., XIV, 501-34). Afterwards these different signs of the cross were united in one large sign such as we now make. In the Western Church the hand was carried from the left to the right shoulder; in the Eastern Church, on the contrary, it was brought from the right shoulder to the left, the sign being made with three fingers. This apparently slight difference was one of the (remote) causes of the fatal Eastern Schism.

It is probable, though we have no historical evidence for it, that the primitive Christians used the cross to distinguish one another from the pagans in ordinary social intercourse. The latter called the Christians "cross-worshippers", and ironically added, "id colunt quod merentur", i.e. they worship that which they deserve. The Christian apologists, such as Tertullian (Apol., xvi; Ad. Nationes, xii) and Minucius Felix (Octavius, lx, xii, xxviii), felicitously replied to the pagan taunt by showing that their persecutors themselves adored cruciform objects. Such observations throw light on a peculiar fact of primitive Christian life, i.e. the almost total absence from Christian monuments of the period of persecutions of the plain, unadorned cross ( E. Reusens, "Eléments d'archéologie chrétienne" 1st ed., 110). The truculent sarcasms of the heathens prevented the faithful from openly displaying this sign of salvation. When the early Christians did represent the sign of the cross on their monuments, nearly all sepulchral in character, they felt obliged to disguise it in some artistic and symbolical way. One of the oldest of the symbols of the cross is the anchor. cemeteries of Callistus, Domitilla, Priscilla, and others.--> Originally a symbol of hope in general, the anchor takes on in this way a much higher meaning: that of hope based on the Cross of Christ. The similarity of the anchor to the cross made the former an admirable Christian symbol. Another cruciform symbol of the early Christians, though not very common and of a somewhat later date, is the trident, some examples of which are seen on sepulchral slabs in the cemetery of Callistus. In one inscription from that cemetery the symbolism of the trident is even more subtle and evident, the instrument standing erect as the mainmast of a ship entering port, symbolical of the Christian soul saved by the Cross of Christ. We must note, too, the use of this peculiar symbol in the third century in the region of Tauric Chersonesus (the Crimea) on coins of Totorses, King of the Bosporus, dated 270, 296, and 303 (De Hochne, "Déscription du musée Kotschonbey", II, 348, 360, 416; Cavedoni, "Appendice alle ricerche critiche intorno alle med. Costantiniane", 18, 19 -- an extract from the "Opuscoli litterari e religiosi di Modena " in " Bull. arch. Napolit.", ser. 2, anno VII, 32). We shall speak again of this sign apropos of the dolphin. On a picture in the Crypts of Lucina, artistically unique and very ancient, there seems to be an allusion to the Cross. Turned towards the altar are two doves gazing at a small tree. The scene appears to represent an image of souls loosed from the bonds of the body and saved by the power of the Cross ( De Rossi , Roma Sotterranea Cristiana, I, PL. XII).

Before passing to the study of other, more or less disguised, forms of the cross, e.g. various monograms of the name of Christ, it may be well to say a word of various known forms of the cross on primitive monuments of Christian art, some of which we shall meet with in our early study of the said monograms. -- The crux decussata or decussated cross, so called from its resemblance to the Roman decussis or symbol for the numeral 10, is in shape like the Greek letter chi ; it is also known as St. Andrew's Cross, because that Apostle is said to have suffered martyrdom on such cross, his hands and feet bound to its four arms (Sandini, Hist. Apostol., 130). The crux commissa , or gallows-shaped cross, is, according to some, the one on which Jesus Christ died. In order to explain the traditional longitudinal extension of the Cross, which makes it resemble the crux immissa , it is asserted that this extension is only apparent, and is really only the titulus crucis , the inscription mentioned in the Gospels. This form of the cross ( crux commissa ) is probably represented by the Greek letter tau (), and is identical with the "sign" mentioned in the text of Ezechiel (ix, 4) already quoted. Tertullian comments (Contra Marc., III, xxii) as follows on this text: "The Greek letter and our Latin letter T are the true form of the cross, which, according to the Prophet, will be imprinted on our foreheads in the true Jerusalem." Specimens of this veiled form of the cross are met with on the monuments of the Roman catacombs, a very fine one, e.g., in an epitaph of the third century found in the cemetery of St. Callistus, which reads IRE T NE ( De Rossi, "Bulletino d'archeologia cristiana", 1863, 35). In the same cemetery a sarcophagus exhibits clearly the gallows-cross formed by the intersection of the letters T and V in the monogram of a proper name carved in the centre of the cartella , or label. This second letter (V) was also figurative of the cross, as is evident from the inscriptions scratched on rock-surfaces at Mount Sinai (Lenormant, "Sur l'origine chrétienne des inscriptions sinaïtiques", 26, 27; De Rossi, loc. cit.). A monogram of a proper name (perhaps Marturius), discovered by Armellini on the Via Latina, shows the crux commissa above the intersection of the letters. Other monograms show similar forms. ( De Rossi, "Bulletino d'archeologia cristiana", 1867, page 13, fig. 10, and page 14). It had been attempted to establish a connection between this form and the crux ansata of the Egyptians, mentioned above; but we see no reason for this (cf. Letronne, Matériaux pour l'histoire du christianisme en Egypte, en Nubie, et en Abyssinie). It would seem that St. Anthony bore a cross in the form of tau on his cloak, and that it was Egyptian in origin. Such a cross is still used by the Antonine monks of Vienne in Dauphiny, and appear on their churches and on the monuments of art belonging to the order. St. Zeno of Verona, who in the second half of the fourth century was bishop of that city, relates that he caused a cross in form of a tau to be placed on the highest point of a basilica. There was also another motive for choosing the letter T as symbolical of the cross. As, in Greek, this letter stands for 300 that number in Apostolic times was taken as a symbol of the instrument of our salvation. The symbolism was carried farther, and the number 318 became a symbol of Christ and His Cross: the letter ( iota ) being equal to 10, and ( eta ) to 8 in Greek (Allard, "Le symbolisme chrétien d'après Prudence " in "Revue de l'art chrétien", 1885; Hefele, Ed. Ep. St. Barnabæ, ix).

The cross most commonly referred to and most usually depicted on Christian monuments of all ages is that called the crux immissa , or crux capitata (i.e. the vertical trunk extending beyond the transverse beam). It was on a cross such as this that Christ actually died, and not, as some would maintain, on a crux commissa . And this opinion is largely supported by the testimony of the writers we have quoted. The crux immissa is that which is usually known as the Latin cross, in which the transverse beam is usually set two-thirds of the way up the vertical. The equilateral, or Greek cross, adopted by the East and by Russia, has the transverse set half-way up the vertical.

Both the Latin and Greek crosses play an important part in the architectural and decorative styles of church buildings during the fourth and subsequent centuries. The church of Santa Croce at Ravenna, is in the form of a Latin cross; and on the pillars of a church built by Bishop Paulinus at Tyre in the fourth century the cross is carved in the Latin way. The façade of the Catholicon at Athens shows a large Latin cross. And this style of cross was adopted by West and East until the schism occurred between the two churches. Indeed, at Constantinople the church of the Apostles, the first church of S. Sophia, consecrated by Constantine, those of the monastery of St. John at Studium, of St. Demetrius at Salonica, of St. Catherine on Mount Sinai, as well as many churches at Athens, are in the form of the Latin cross; and it appears in the decorations of capitals, balustrades, and mosaics. In the far-off lands of the Picts, the Bretons, and the Saxons, it was carved on stones and rocks, with elaborate and complex Runic decorations. And even in the Catholicon at Athens, crosses no less lavishly ornamented are to be found. In out-of-the-way places in Scotland, too, it has been discovered (cf. Dictionnaire de 1'Académie des Beaux-Arts, V, 38).

The Greek cross appears at intervals and rarely on monuments during the early Christian centuries. The Crypts of Lucina, in the Catacomb of St. Callistus, yield an inscription which had been placed on a double grave or sepulchre, with the names ROUPHINA: EIRENE . Beneath this is seen the equilateral cross -- disguised image of the gibbet on which the Redeemer died ( De Rossi, Rom. Scott., I, p. 333, Pl. XVIII). It is to be found also painted into the mantle of Moses in a fresco from the Catacomb of St. Saturninus on the Via Salaria Nuova, (Perret, Cat. de Rome, III, Pl. VI). In later times it is to be seen in a mosaic of a church at Paris built in the days of King Childebert (Lenoir, Statistique monumentale de Paris ) and carved on the pedestals of the columns in the basilica of Constantine in the Agro Verano; also on the roofs and pillars of churches, to denote their consecration. More often, as we might expect, we find it on the façades of the Byzantine basilicas and in their adornments, such as altars, iconastases, sacred curtains for the enclosure, thrones, ambones and sacerdotal vestments. When the Emperor Justinian erected the church of Santa Sophia at Constantinople, with the aid of the architects Artemius of Tralles, and Isidore of Miletus, a new architectural type was created which became the model for all churches subsequently built within the Byzantine Empire, and the Greek cross inscribed in a square thus became their typical ground-plan. Perhaps, too the church of the Twelve Apostles may have been built upon this plan, as a famous epigram of St. Gregory Nazianzen would seem to indicate. There are other forms of cross, such as the crux gammata , the crux florida , or flowering cross, the pectoral cross, and the patriarchal cross. But these are noteworthy rather for their various uses in art and liturgy than for any peculiarity of style.

The complete and characteristic form of Christ's monogram is obtained by the superposition of the two initial Greek letters, chi and rho , of the name CHRISTOS . This is inexactly called the Constantinian monogram, although it was in use before the days of Constantine. It gained this name, however, because in his day it came much into fashion, and derived a triumphal signification from the fact that the emperor placed it on his new standard, i.e. the Labarum (Marucchi, "Di una pregevole ed inedita inscrizione cristiana" in "Studi in Italia", anno VI, II, 1883). Older, but less complete, forms of this are made up of the crux decussata accompanied by a defective letter T, differing only slightly from the letter I, or encircled by a crown. These forms, which were used principally in the third century present a striking resemblance to a cross, but all of them are manifest allusions or symbols.

Another symbol largely employed during the third and fourth centuries, the swastika already spoken of at some length, still more closely resembles the cross. On monuments dating within the Christian Era it is known as the crux gammata , because it is made by joining four gammas at their bases. Many fantastic significations have been attached to the use of this sign on Christian monuments, and some have even gone so far as to conclude from it that Christianity is nothing but a descendant of the ancient religions and myths of the people of India, Persia, and Asia generally; then these theorists go on to point out the close relationship that exists between Christianity, on the one hand, Buddhism and other Oriental religions, on the other. At the very least they insist upon seeing some relation between the symbolical concepts of the ancient religions and those of Christianity. Such was the opinion held by Emile Burnouf (cf. Revue des Deux Mondes, 15 August, 1868, p. 874). De Rossi ably refuted this opinion, and showed the real value of this symbol on Christian monuments ( Bull. d' arch. crist., 1868, 88-91). It is fairly common on the Christian monuments of Rome, being found on some sepulchral inscriptions, besides occurring twice, painted, on the Good Shepherd's tunic in an arcosolium in the Catacomb of St. Generosa in the Via Portuensis, and again on the tunic of the fossor Diogenes (the original epitaph is no longer extant. In the catacomb of St. Domitilla in the Via Ardeatina. Outside of Rome it is less frequent. There is one example in an inscription found at Chiusi (see Cavedoni, Ragguaglio di due antichi cimiteri di Chiusi). A stone in the museum at Bergamo bears the monogram joined to the gamma cross, but it would seem to be of Roman origin. Another in the Mannheim Museum, with the name of a certain Hugdulfus, belongs to the fifth or sixth century. In a sarcophagus at Milan belonging to the fourth century it is repeated over and over again, but evidently as a mere ornamental motive (see Allegranza, Mon. di Milano, 74).

De Rossi (Rom. Sott. Crist., II, 318) made researches into the chronology of this symbol, and the examples of it to be found in the catacombs at Rome, and he observed that it was seldom or never used until it took the place of the anchor, i.e. about the first half of the third century, whence he inferred that, not being of ancient tradition, it came into fashion as the result of studied choice rather than as a primitive symbol linking the beginnings of Christianity with Asiatic traditions. Its genesis is reflex and studied, not primitive and spontaneous. It is well known how anxiously the early Christians sought out means whereby they could at once portray and conceal the Cross of Christ. That in this way they should have discovered and adopted the crux gammata , is easily intelligible, and it is explained not merely by what has already been said, but also by the similarity between the Greek character gamma () and the Phnician character tan . The latter has been famous since Apostolic times as a symbol of the Cross of Christ and of the Redemption (cf. Barnabæ Epist., ix, 9).

The so-called Constantinian monogram prevailed during the whole of the fourth century, assuming various forms, and combining with the apocalyptic letters Alpha and Omega , but ever approaching more and more closely to the form of the cross pure and simple. In the latter part of that century what is known as the "monogrammatic cross" makes its appearance; it closely resembles the plain cross, and foreshadows its complete triumph in Christian art . The early years of the fifth century are of the highest importance in this development, because it was then that the undisguised cross first appears. As we have seen, such was the diffidence induced, and the habit of caution enforced, by three centuries of persecution, that the faithful had hesitated all that time to display the sign of Redemption openly and publicly. Constantine by the Edict of Milan had given definitive peace to the Church ; yet, for another century the faithful did not judge it opportune to abandon the use of the Constantinian monogram in one or other of its many forms But the fifth century marks the period when Christian art broke away from old fears, and, secure in its triumph, displayed before the world, now become Christian also, the sign of its redemption. To bring about so profound a change in the artistic traditions of Christianity, besides the altered condition of the Church in the eyes of the Roman State, two facts of great importance played a part: the miraculous apparition of the Cross to Constantine and the

Never Miss any Updates!

Stay up to date with the latest news, information, and special offers.

Catholic Online Logo

Copyright 2020 Catholic Online. All materials contained on this site, whether written, audible or visual are the exclusive property of Catholic Online and are protected under U.S. and International copyright laws, © Copyright 2020 Catholic Online. Any unauthorized use, without prior written consent of Catholic Online is strictly forbidden and prohibited.

Catholic Online is a Project of Your Catholic Voice Foundation, a Not-for-Profit Corporation. Your Catholic Voice Foundation has been granted a recognition of tax exemption under Section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code. Federal Tax Identification Number: 81-0596847. Your gift is tax-deductible as allowed by law.