The cross is one of the most ancient religious symbols, and while it predates Christianity in both the East and the West, it is universally recognized as the principal symbol of the Christian faith today. Many variations of the symbol are used by various branches of the Christian church, including the Greek and Russian Orthodox traditions, but the original Latin cross consists of a long vertical bar intersected by a shorter, horizontal bar, and is frequently used in architecture, jewelry and religious rituals.

Cross Symbol Origins

The Christian cross symbol represents the Roman cross upon which Jesus Christ was crucified. All four of the Christian gospels – the first four books of the biblical New Testament – describe Jesus’ crucifixion on a cross between two criminals. Roman crosses were constructed of wooden beams, and the structures were used to inflict an incredibly painful death as the condemned was hung by his arms from the elevated crossbeam, resulting in exhaustion, heart failure and asphyxiation, according to a 2003 article published in the "South African Medical Journal." According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, the words "crucifixion" and "excruciating" both have at their roots the Latin word for cross, "crux."

Original Meaning

As a religious symbol, the Christian cross represents the violent death and subsequent resurrection of the Messiah, Jesus, which is the basis of the Christian faith. The Jewish Encyclopedia says that the cross was used as a Christian symbol by the Second Century, and according to researchers at the University of the Free State, the first Christian emperor, Constantine, abolished its use as a means of execution in the fourth century.

Early Symbol Use

The cross symbol quickly gained popularity among Christians, and the Jewish Encyclopedia explains that the marking of a cross upon the forehead and the chest was originally regarded as a talisman against the powers of demons. Christians used to swear by the power of the cross, but its realistic portrayal in art did not occur until centuries later, due to the early Christians’ preference for simple symbols of salvation and eternal life over symbols of brutal punishment and death. In fact, according to the Encyclopædia Britannica website, the newly converted Roman state was among the first to use the cross in artwork during the fourth century, and the symbol was highly stylized with jewels.

Changes Reflecting Theology

During the sixth century, heresy arose in the church suggesting that Jesus was not simultaneously human and divine, but only divine, and crucifix images typically depicted Christ with open eyes, as a victor over death. The Encyclopædia Britannica reports that ninth century Byzantine art began to show a dead Jesus with closed eyes, emphasizing his humanity in response to the heresy. The emphasis on a dead Christ was adopted in the West as theology, and mysticism increasingly focused on Jesus’ suffering on the cross. Representations of the Cross, whether with or without Christ, have continued to be an important subject of Western art since the early Middle Ages.