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The Encyclopedia Britannica on the Cross

The meaning ordinarily attached to the word “cross” is that of a figure composed of two or more lines which intersect, or touch each other transversely. Thus, two pieces of wood, or other material, so placed in juxtaposition to one another, are understood to form a cross. It should be noted, however, that Lipsius and other writers speak of the single upright stake to which criminals were bound as a cross, and to such a stake the name of crux simplex has been applied. The usual conception, however, of a cross is that of a compound figure. Punishment by crucifixion was widely employed in ancient times. It is known to have been used by nations such as those of Assyria, Egypt, Persia, by the Greeks, Carthaginians, Macedonians, and from very early times by the Romans. It has been thought, too, that crucifixion was also used by the Jews themselves, and that there is an allusion to it (Deut. xxi. 22, 23) as a punishment to be inflicted.

Two methods were followed in the infliction of the punishment of crucifixion. In both of these the criminal was first of all usually stripped naked, and bound to an upright stake, where he was so cruelly scourged with an implement, formed of strips of leather having pieces of iron, or some other hard material, at their ends, that not merely was the flesh often stripped from the bones, but even the entrails partly protruded, and the anatomy of the body was disclosed. In this pitiable state he was reclothed, and, if able to do so, was made to drag the stake to the place of execution, where he was either fastened to it, or impaled upon it, and left to die. In this method, where a single stake was employed, we have the crux simplex of Lipsius. The other method is that with which we are more familiar, and which is described in the New Testament account of the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. In such a case, after the scourging at the stake, the criminal was made to carry a gibbet, formed of two transverse bars of wood, to the place of execution, and he was then fastened to it by iron nails driven through the outstretched arms and through the ankles. Sometimes this was done as the cross lay on the ground, and it was then lifted into position. In other cases the criminal was made to ascend by a ladder, and was then fastened to the cross. Probably the feebleness, or state of collapse, from which the criminal must often have suffered, had much to do in deciding this. It is not quite clear which of these two plans was followed in the case of the crucifixion of Christ, but the more general opinion has been that He was nailed to the cross on the ground, and that it was then lifted into position. The contrary opinion, has, however, prevailed to some extent, and there are representations of the crucifixion which depict Him as mounting a ladder placed against the cross. Such representations may, however, have been due to a pious desire, on the part of their authors, to emphasize the voluntary offering of Himself as the Saviour of the World, rather than as being intended for actual pictures of the scene itself. It may be noted, however, that among the “Emblems of the Passion,” as they are called, and which were very favourite devices in the middle ages, the ladder is not infrequently found in conjunction with the crown of thorns, nails, spear, &c.

Historic Use of the Cruciform

From its simplicity of form, the cross has been used both as a religious symbol and as an ornament, from the dawn of man’s civilization. Various objects, dating from periods long anterior to the Christian era, have been found, marked with crosses of different designs, in almost every part of the old world. India, Syria, Persia and Egypt have all yielded numberless examples, while numerous instances, dating from the later Stone Age to Christian times, have been found in nearly every part of Europe. The use of the cross as a religious symbol in pre-Christian times, and among non-Christian peoples, may probably be regarded as almost universal, and in very many cases it was connected with some form of nature worship. Two of the forms of the pre-Christian cross which are perhaps most frequently met with are the tau cross, so named from its resemblance to the Greek capital letter T, and the svastika or fylfot, also called “Gammadion” owing to its form being that of four Greek capital letters gamma placed together. The tau cross is a common Egyptian device, and is indeed often called the Egyptian cross. The svastika has a very wide range of distribution, and is found on all kinds of objects. It was used as a religious emblem in India and China at least ten centuries before, the Christian era, and is met with on Buddhist coin and inscriptions from various parts of India. A fine sepulchral urn found at Shropham in Norfolk, and now in the British Museum, has three bands of cruciform ornaments round it. The two uppermost of these are plain circles, each of which contains a plain cross; the lowest band is formed of a series of squares, in each of which is a svastika. In the Vatican Museum there is an Etruscan fibula of gold which is marked with the svastika, but it is a device of such common occurrence on objects of pre-Christian origin, that it is hardly necessary to specify individual instances. The cross, as a device in different forms, and often enclosed in a circle, is of frequent occurrence on coins and medals of pre-Christian date in France and elsewhere. Indeed, objects marked with pre-Christian crosses are to be seen in every important museum.

The death of Christ on a cross necessarily conferred a new significance on the figure, which had hitherto been associated with a conception of religion not merely non-Christian, but in its essence often directly opposed to it. The Christians of early times were wont to trace, in things around them, hidden prophetical allusions to the truth of their faith, and such a testimony they seem to have readily recognized in the use of the cross as a religious emblem by those whose employment of it betokened a belief most repugnant to their own. The adoption by them of such forms, for example, as the tau cross and the svastika or fylfot was no doubt influenced by the idea of the occult Christian significance which they thought they recognized in those forms, and which they could use with a special meaning among themselves, without at the same time arousing the ill-feeling or shocking the sentiment of those among whom they lived.

It was not till the time of Constantine that the cross was publicly used as the symbol of the Christian religion. Till then its employment had been restricted, and private among the Christians themselves. Under Constantine it became the acknowledged symbol of Christianity, in the same way in which, long afterwards, the crescent was adopted as the symbol of the Mahommedan religion. Constantine’s action was no doubt influenced by the vision which he believed he saw of the cross in the sky with the accompanying words [?], as well as by the story of the discovery of the true cross by his mother St Helena in the year 326. …

The employment of the cross as the Christian symbol has been so manifold in its variety and application, and the different forms to which the figure has been adapted and elaborated are so complex, that it is only possible to deal with the outline of the subject. We learn from Tertullian and other early Christian writers of the constant use which the Christians of those days made of the sign of the cross. Tertullian (De Cor. Mil. cap. iii.) says: “At each journey and progress, at each coming in and going out, at the putting on of shoes, at the bath, at meals, at the kindling of lights, at bedtime, at sitting down, whatsoever occupation engages us, we mark the brow with the sign of the cross.” With so frequent an employment of the sign of the cross in their domestic life, it would be strange if we did not find that it was very frequently used in the public worship of the church. The earliest liturgical forms are comparatively late, and are without rubrics, but the allusions by different writers in early times to the ceremonial use of the sign of the cross in the public services are so numerous, and so much importance was attached to it, that we are left in no manner of doubt on the point. St Augustine, indeed, speaks of the sacraments as not duly ministered if the use of the sign of the cross were absent from their ministration (Hom, cxviii. in S. Joan.). Of the later liturgical use of the sign of the cross there is little need to speak, as a reference to the service books of the Greek and Latin churches will plainly indicate the frequency of, and the importance attached to, its employment. Its occasional use is retained by the Lutherans, and in the Church of England it is authoritatively used at baptism, and at the “sacring” or anointing of the sovereign at the coronation. …

In the middle ages the cross form, in one way or another, was predominant everywhere, and was introduced whenever opportunity offered itself for doing so. The larger churches were planned on its outline, so that the ridge line of their roofs proclaimed it far and wide. This was more particularly followed in the north of Europe, but when it was first introduced is not quite certain. All the ancient cathedral churches of England and Wales arc cruciform in plan, except Llandaff.

The artistic skill and ingenuity of the medieval designer has produced cross designs of endless variety, and of singular elegance and beauty. Some of the most beautiful of these designs are the gable crosses of the old churches. … Other architectural crosses, of great beauty of design, are those which occur on the grave slabs of the middle ages. Instances of a plainer type occur in Saxon times, but it was not till after the [?]th century that they were fashioned after the intricate and beautiful designs with which our ancient churches are, as a rule, so plentifully supplied. Sometimes these crosses are incised in the slab, and almost as often they are executed in low relief. The long shaft of the cross is most commonly plain, but there are a very large number of instances in which this is not so, and in which branches, with leaf designs, are thrown out at intervals the entire length of the shaft. In some cases the shaft rises from a series of steps at its base, and in such a case the name of a Calvary cross is applied to it. Often, by the side of the cross, an emblem or symbol is placed, denoting the calling in life of the person commemorated. Thus a sword is placed to indicate a knight or soldier, a chalice for a priest, and so forth; but it would be travelling beyond the scope of this article to enter into a discussion as to such symbols. Of upright standing crosses, the Irish and lona types are well known, and their great artistic beauty and elaboration and excellence of sculpture are universally recognized. These crosses arc sometimes spoken of as “Runic Crosses “; and the interlacing knotwork design with which many of them are ornamented is also at times spoken of as “Runic.” This is an erroneous application of the word, and has arisen from the fact that some of these crosses bear inscriptions in Runic characters. Standing crosses, of different kinds, were commonly set up in every suitable place during the middle ages, as the mutilated bases and shafts still remaining readily testify. Such crosses were erected in the centre of the market place, in the churchyard, on the village green, or as boundary stones, or marks to guide the traveller. Some, like the Black Friars cross at Hereford, were preaching stations, others, like the beautiful Eleanor crosses at Northampton, Geddington and Waltham, were commemorative in character. …

Of the ecclesiastical use of the sign of the cross mention has already been made, and it is desirable to mention briefly one or two instances of the ecclesiastical use of the cross itself. From a fairly early period it has been the prerogative of an archbishop or metropolitan, to have a cross borne before him within the limits of his province. The question urged between the archbishops of Canterbury and York about the carrying of their crosses before them, in each other’s province, was a fruitful source of controversy in the middle ages. The archicpiscopd cross must not be confused with [?] or pastoral staff. The latter, which is formed with a crook at the end, is quite distinct, and is used by archbishops and bishops alike, who bear it with the left hand in processions, and when blessing the people. The archiepiscopal cross, on the contrary, is always borne before the archbishop, or during the vacancy of the archiepiscopal see before the guardian of the spiritualities sede tacanlt. The bishop of Dol in Brittany, of ordinary diocesan bishops, alone possessed the privilege of having a cross borne before him in his diocese. Good illustrations of the archiepiscopal cross occur on the monumental brasses of Archbishop Waldeby, of York (1307), at Westminster Abbey, and of Archbishop Cranky, of Dublin (1417) in New College chapel, Oxford.

The custom of carrying a cross at the head of an ecclesiastical procession can be traced back to the end of the 4th century. The cross was originally taken from the altar, and raised on a pole, and so borne before the procession. Afterwards a separate cross was provided for processions, but in poor churches, where this was not the case, the altar cross continued to be used till quite a late period. A direction to this effect occurs as late as 1829, in the Rilucl published for the diocese of La Rochelle in that year. In England altar crosses were not very usual in the middle ages.

As a personal ornament the cross came into common use, and was usually worn suspended by a chain from the neck. A cross of this kind, of very great interest and beauty, was found about 1690, on the breast of Queen Dagmar, the wife of Waldcmar II., king of Denmark (d. 1213). It is of Byzantine design and workmanship, and is of enamelled gold; on one side is the Crucifixion, and on the other side the half figure of our Lord in the centre, with the Virgin and St John the Evangelist on either side, and St Chrysostom and St Basil above and below. From the way in which such crosses were worn, hanging over the chest, they are called pectoral crosses. At the present day a pectoral cross forms part of the recognized insignia of a Roman Catholic bishop, and is worn by him over his robes, but this official use of the pectoral cross is not ancient, and no instance is known of it in England before the Reformation. The custom appears to have taken rise in the 16th century on the continent. It was not unusual to wear cruciform reliquaries, as objects of personal adornment, and such a reliquary was found on the body of St Cuthbert, when his tomb was opened in 1827, but it was placed under, and not over his episcopal vestments, and formed no part of his bishop’s attire. The custom of wearing a pectoral cross over ecclesiastical robes has, curiously enough, been copied from the comparatively modern Roman Catholic usage by the Lutheran bishops and superintendents in Scandinavia and Prussia; and in Sweden the cross is now delivered to the new bishop, on his installation in office, by the archbishop of Upsala, together with the mitre and crozier. Within the last generation the use of a pectoral cross, worn over their robes as part of the insignia of the episcopal office, has been adopted by some bishops of the Church of England, but it has no ancient sanction or authority.


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