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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.

In Christianity

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 A.D. 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.

Cross Shapes

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.
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Two lines intersecting each other at right angles so that the four arms are of equal length.
Illustrated Dictionary of Architecture Copyright © 2012, 2002, 1998 by The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc. All rights reserved


In every corner of the globe Christians and non-Christians alike recognize the cross as a symbol of Christianity. Christians adopted the cross as a symbol of their religion because Jesus Christ, the founder of their faith, died by crucifixion. Crucifixion was a form of punishment used by the ancient Romans which involved nailing a person's hands and feet to a large wooden cross planted in the ground. Christians commemorate Jesus'crucifixion on Good Friday. According to Christian scripture Jesus rose from the dead on the Sunday following his crucifixion. Christians refer to this event as the Resurrection. Easter, the most important holiday in the Christian year, celebrates the Resurrection. Both the Crucifixion and the Resurrection play central roles in Christian belief, worship, and symbolism.

In Christian symbolism the cross not only stands for the manner in which Jesus died, but also for the new life he bestows upon his followers. When used as a symbol of Jesus' death, the cross is an especially appropriate emblem for Good Friday. The crucifix, a variation of this symbol which depicts Jesus hanging on the cross, may also be used for this purpose. Christian thought teaches that Jesus willingly died for the sake of his followers and in so doing offered them a new relationship with God. Thus the cross also represents many Easter themes, including redemption and salvation. Because these themes and these events in the life of Christ are central to the Christian faith, the cross eventually became the most well known and frequently used symbol of Christianity (for cross-related customs, see Flowering of the Cross; Sunday of the Veneration of the Holy Cross; Veiling; Veneration of the Cross).


Researchers believe that the ancient Persians invented crucifixion, which they used to torture and execute prisoners. The Greek general Alexander the Great (356-323 B.C.) adopted this form of punishment from the Persians. Though never practiced in Greece itself, it was sometimes employed in Greek colonies. The Romans learned of this cruel form of punishment from the Greeks. They used it more frequently than did the Greeks, finding it ideal to punish serious crimes, execute slaves, and terrorize the peoples that they conquered, including the people of Judea. Indeed, the Bible tells us that Jesus was crucified by Roman guards, carrying out an order given by Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor. Prior to crucifixion the Romans stripped their victims and beat them with metal-tipped whips. Roman guards then forced them to carry heavy wooden cross-beams to the place of their execution. When they arrived the guards nailed or tied the victim's feet to the supporting post and his arms to the cross-beam. The condemned man endured hours or days of pain before dying of exhaustion, as the sagging weight of his body finally prevented him from breathing.

The Romans recognized crucifixion as an extreme form of punishment, so extreme that they exempted Roman citizens from crucifixion, no matter what the crime. Instead they crucified non-Romans convicted of serious crimes, especially those suspected of rebelling against Rome. Thus crucifixion was not only a painful death, but also a shameful death, the fate of outlaws, slaves, and rebels.

Early Christian Symbols

The early Christians did not use the cross as a symbol of their faith very often. Instead they drew, carved and sculpted other, more peaceful images, such as the dove, the lamb, the fish, the shepherd, the ship sailing with the wind, and the anchor. They also used the Greek letters Chi and Rho, the first two letters in the word "Christ." In explaining the relative scarcity of the cross among early Christian symbols scholars remind us that during the first several centuries after Jesus' death, Christians were harassed and sometimes killed for their faith. The cryptic symbols mentioned above, used by pagans in both decorative and religious art, would not give away anyone's identity as a Christian and so expose him or her to danger. Moreover, some of these images, the anchor and the ship in particular, could conceal a cross within them. Some scholars add that the stigma of crucifixion made some Christians reluctant to adopt the cross as a symbol, while those of other faiths found it difficult to understand how a divine man could have been crucified and thereby become a savior (see also Salvation). Nevertheless, in spite of their hesitation to depict the cross in material form, the early Christians often traced the sign of the cross over themselves in their private devotions.

The Cross Becomes the Leading Christian Symbol

The cross became an important Christian symbol in the fourth century with the conversion of the Roman emperor Constantine to Christianity. In the year 312, on the evening before an important battle the Emperor dreamed he saw a shining cross in the sky, on which were inscribed the words in hoc signo vinces, "in this sign conquer." Before going into battle Constantine had the cross inscribed on his banner and the shields of his soldiers. As predicted, the Emperor vanquished his enemy. Afterwards he granted Christians political rights, extended toleration toward the once-persecuted religion, outlawed crucifixion, and eventually converted to Christianity himself. Constantine decorated his palace, statues, and coins with the sign of the cross, as well as the Chi-Rho monogram. By the late fourth century Christianity had become the official religion of the Roman Empire. During the fourth and fifth centuries, as Christianity moved out into the open, the cross gained in popularity. By the fifth and sixth centuries it had became one of the most frequently depicted Christian symbols.

Although the crucifix can be traced back to early Christian times, it was not often used until the seventh century. After that time it was represented with increasing frequency, becoming an extremely popular form of the cross in the late Middle Ages. This change in imagery reflected a new emphasis on Jesus'suffering and death in the spiritual teachings of the time.

Over the centuries Christians have devised many variations on the basic design of the cross. For example, a Greek cross employs a horizontal and vertical bar of equal lengths. A cross in which the horizontal bar is shorter than the vertical bar is often referred to as a Latin Cross. When the Russian people converted to Christianity they began to depict the cross with three horizontal bars. The highest bar, a short horizontal plank above the level of Jesus' head, represents the inscription, "King of the Jews," that Pontius Pilate ordered the Roman soldiers to nail to the cross (John 19:19). The second highest and longest horizontal cross bar stands for the plank to which Jesus'arms were nailed. The lowest, slanted cross bar represents the short plank which, according to Russian tradition, supported Jesus'feet.

Mystical Interpretations of the Christian Cross

Some Christian thinkers have expanded the meaning of the cross by adding more abstract interpretations to the literal ones mentioned above. Because the cross extends in all four directions some Christians have understood it to represent the totality of existence. Others have interpreted the vertical bar as a symbol of eternity while the cross bar represents time. Still others have viewed the vertical beam as representing heaven and the horizontal beam earth. Thus the cross joins time to eternity and weds heaven with earth. Many Christians thinkers believe that these abstract concepts found their best and highest expression in the life, teachings, and sacrificial death of Jesus Christ.

Non-Christian Crosses

The Christians were not the first people to use the cross as a spiritual symbol. It had been used before them by other ancient peoples, and has been found in many places throughout the world. For example, designs based on the shape of the cross can be found in the sacred Left to right: Chi-Ro monogram, Greek cross, Latin cross, Russian cross, ankh, crux ansata, and swastika. artwork of some American Indians. Here the cross appears to represent the four directions. These crosses may be thought of as a symbol of all that is, in other words, of the cosmos which stretches out in all four directions. Other peoples besides American Indians seem to have interpreted the cross in much the same way.

The ancient Egyptians used the cross as a symbol of life. Called an ankh, the ancient Egyptian cross looked like a capital "T" with a loop added on top of it. In Egyptian carvings and paintings a god often holds the ankh up to the nose of a dead person, offering him or her eternal life. The Christians later adopted this image into their repertoire of crosses, calling it a crux ansata, or "handled cross."

The swastika, a Greek cross with lines projecting at right angles from each of its arms, has been found in many parts of the world. It was used by the ancient peoples of Central and South America as a symbol of the rain god. Moreover, the symbol can be found throughout much of the ancient Middle East and India. Scholars suspect that to some of these peoples the swastika served as a symbol of the sun and solar power. In India it became a symbol of the cosmos spinning around on its central axis and also of the Hindu god Vishnu. The Buddhists adopted it as the sign of the Buddha, particularly his teaching regarding the wheel of law. Eventually the symbol migrated to China where it was adopted as an emblem of abundance, long life, prosperity, and the totality of all living things. In the twentieth century the German Nazis adopted the swastika as their symbol. Since that time many people have come to view the swastika as a threatening image, representing the kind of racism, violence, and totalitarianism that characterized Nazi rule.

Further Reading

Child, Heather, and Dorothy Colles. Christian Symbols, Ancient and Modern. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1972. Cooper, J. C. An Illustrated Encyclopedia of Traditional Symbols. London, England: Thames and Hudson, 1978. "Cross." In Richard Cavendish ed. Man, Myth and Magic. Volume 4. New York: Marshall Cavendish, 1997. Goldsmith, Elizabeth. Ancient Pagan Symbols. 1929. Reprint. Detroit, MI: Gale Research, 1976. Horsley, Richard A., and Neil Asher Silberman. The Message and the Kingdom. New York: Grosset/Putnam, 1997. Miller, J. H. "Cross." In New Catholic Encyclopedia. Volume 4. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1967. Rees, Elizabeth. Christian Symbols, Ancient Roots. London, England: Jessica Kingsley, 1992. Ries, Julien. "Cross." In Mircea Eliade, ed. The Encyclopedia of Religion. Volume 4. New York: Macmillan, 1987. Schoenberg, M. W. "Crucifixion." In New Catholic Encyclopedia. Volume 4. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1967.

Web Site

For more on the history and practice of crucifixion in the ancient world, see "Crucifixion in Antiquity," an article by Joe Zias, a former curator for the state of Israel's Antiquities Authority. Posted on "The Jewish Roman World of Jesus" web site, compiled by University of North Carolina at Charlotte religious studies professor James D. Tabor at:
Encyclopedia of Easter, Carnival, and Lent, 1st ed. © Omnigraphics, Inc. 2002


(religion, spiritualism, and occult)

Small stones found in Le Mas d'Azil, France, from approximately 10,000 BCE, bear equal-armed crosses painted and engraved on them. This is probably the oldest known use of the cross, although its meaning at that site is uncertain.

Crosses have frequently been associated with the sun and sun deities. For this reason the cross was used as a protection from vampires and their like—not because the cross was a Christian symbol, but because it represented light.

Among the many variations on the cross, there are four basic types: (1) the crux quadrata, or Greek Cross, with equal arms; (2) the crux immissa, or Latin Cross, with the lower arm longer than the upper three; (3) the crux commissa, or Tau cross, which is three-armed and has no top section; (4) the crux decussata, or St. Andrew's Cross with diagonal arms. The Egyptian form, known as the crux ansata (see ankh), is a Tau cross with a loop at the top, and is a symbol for life. There are other wellknown variations, such as the Celtic Cross (crux quadrata or crux immissa with a circle around the central intersection) and the Swastika (crux gamita).

Many Witches use the Greek Cross, the Celtic Cross and the Ankh, although they favor the symbol of the pentacle over that of the cross.

Schliemann's excavations at Troy unearthed a number of crosses marked on the pubic region of female figures. These may have been pure decoration, perhaps a tattoo, or may have represented defense against entry from evil spirits, but their purpose remains unclear. Early explorers of Mexico found crosses used in a clearly religious context. In one example, a scene depicts a figure offering a sacrifice to a cross in the form of a tree, and the Aztec goddess of the rains carried a cross.

In Africa, Hottentot women place wooden crosses above them to ease childbirth, and they also view crosses as symbols of the moon.

The Witch Book: The Encyclopedia of Witchcraft, Wicca, and Neo-paganism © 2002 Visible Ink Press®. All rights reserved.
The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.



one of the main Christian symbols and an object of Christian worship.

As a fetish, the cross was used in primitive society. It was later widely used as a religious symbol in the religions of ancient Egypt, Babylonia, Assyria, Greece, Rome, and elsewhere. In the Roman Empire, where Christianity formed, a wooden structure in the form of a cross was used to execute slaves and other persons of low birth. The Christian church bases adoration of the cross on the gospel story of the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. Christianity turned the cross from a symbol of a shameful death into a symbol of suffering that redeemed humanity from sin, that is, into a sign of salvation and eternal life.

The cult of the cross was established and introduced into Christian worship in the fourth century. The cross is not found among the early symbols of Christianity (the fish, bread, the lamb, etc.). A legend was created that Emperor Constantine I saw the image of a cross in the heavens with the message “By this sign thou shalt conquer.” According to another legend, Helen, the mother of Constantine I, while in Jerusalem, acquired the cross on which Christ had been crucified. In the fifth century crosses were used to decorate church apses, and they were placed on the roofs of Christian churches. In about the year 400 the crucifixion of Christ on the cross was given pictorial form. In the 11th century crosses were introduced on the altar. The form of the cross also became a symbol of secular power; it appeared on the diadems of monarchs and on coins and coats of arms.


Neikhardt, A. A. Proiskhozhdenie kresta. Moscow, 1956.
The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.

What does it mean when you dream about a cross?

To a religious Christian, a cross carries a clear theological meaning. To someone raised in Christianity but not a practicing Christian, a cross in a dream can represent some aspect of their childhood. We also talk about an unpleasant responsibility, as in a “cross we have to bear.”

The Dream Encyclopedia, Second Edition © 2009 Visible Ink Press®. All rights reserved.




McGraw-Hill Dictionary of Scientific & Technical Terms, 6E, Copyright © 2003 by The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc.


cross, 3
1. An object consisting primarily of two straight or nearly straight pieces forming right angles with one another; the usual symbol of the Christian religion.
2. A monument or small building of any kind surmounted by a cross, 1, as a market cross.
McGraw-Hill Dictionary of Architecture and Construction. Copyright © 2003 by McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc.


the upon which Christ was crucified. [N.T.: Matthew 27:31–50]


used to frighten away devils and protect from evil. [Christian Iconog.: Leach, 265]
Allusions—Cultural, Literary, Biblical, and Historical: A Thematic Dictionary. Copyright 2008 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.


1. a representation of the Cross used as an emblem of Christianity or as a reminder of Christ's death
2. a sign representing the Cross made either by tracing a figure in the air or by touching the forehead, breast, and either shoulder in turn
3. any conventional variation of the Christian symbol, used emblematically, decoratively, or heraldically, such as a Maltese, tau, or Greek cross
4. Christianity or Christendom, esp as contrasted with non-Christian religions
5. the place in a town or village where a cross has been set up
6. Biology
a. the process of crossing; hybridization
b. an individual produced as a result of this process
7. Boxing a straight punch delivered from the side, esp with the right hand
8. Football the act or an instance of kicking or passing the ball from a wing to the middle of the field


Richard Assheton, 1st Viscount. 1823--1914, British Conservative statesman, home secretary (1874--80); noted for reforms affecting housing, public health, and the employment of women and children in factories


2 the
1. the cross on which Jesus Christ was crucified
2. the Crucifixion of Jesus
Collins Discovery Encyclopedia, 1st edition © HarperCollins Publishers 2005