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The Christian cross is a familiar religious symbol of Christianity. Its significance lies in the belief that Jesus Christ was executed by the governor of Judea on a large wooden cross. According to the New Testament Gospels, the manner of Christ's death was crucifixion, which involved being tied or (in Christ's case) nailed to the cross, and left to die. This painful method of execution was common for slaves and non-Romans convicted of serious crimes in the Roman Empire at the time.
During the first three centuries of Christianity, the cross was absent from Christian imagery. The Chi-Rho monogram, which was adopted by the emperor Constantine in the fourth century as his banner called the labarum, was an Early Christian symbol of wider use. The Cross first became prominent in Christian imagery during the 3rd century. An early third century reference (there are few others) is in Clement of Alexandria's unfinished Stromateis or 'Miscellanies' (book VI): he speaks of the Cross as tou Kyriakou semeiou typon, i.e. "the symbol of the Lord." His contemporary Tertullian could designate the body of Christian believers as crucis religiosi, i.e. "devotees of the Cross" (Apol., chapter xvi).
The Cross was the first of the Instruments of the Passion that came to be venerated in the form of relics. In time, even the nails that were used to nail Christ to the cross would be sought out, discovered, elaborately mounted as relics, and venerated in Catholic circles. A nail, said to be one of these, is mounted in the Iron Crown of Lombardy, preserved in the cathedral of the former Lombard capital, Monza.
In Eastern Orthodox Christianity, the cross represents Christ's victory over death and sin, since it is believed that through His death he conquered death itself. Catholic and Orthodox Christians often make the sign of the cross by moving their right hand so as to draw a cross upon themselves. Making the sign of the cross was already a common Christian practice in the time of Augustine. One of the twelve great feasts in the Eastern Orthodox Church is the Exaltation of the Cross on September 14, which commemorates the consecration of the basilica on the site where the (allegedly) original cross was discovered in 326 by Helena, mother of Constantine the Great. In the Catholic Church the comparable feast is the Invention of the Cross, celebrated on May 3.
Numerous relics are claimed to be pieces of the True Cross, often brought to Europe during the Crusades. By the 16th century, skepticism surfaced: Erasmus joked that one could build a ship with all that wood. Santo Toribio de Liébana in Spain holds the biggest of these pieces and is one of the most privileged pilgrimage sites for the Catholic Church. Even a large portion of the cross of the 'good thief' crucified with Jesus (who came to be given the name Dismas in medieval legend) has been recovered; it is reverenced at Rome in the altar of the Chapel of the Relics at the church of Santa Croce in Gerusalemme.
Connected with the cross is the medieval legend of the Tree of Jesse, from the wood of which the cross was said to have been fashioned.
The cross is often shown in different shapes and sizes, in many different styles. It may be used in personal jewelry, or used on top of church buildings. It is shown both empty, and with the body of Christ (corpus) nailed to it, in which case it is typically called a crucifix. Roman Catholic depictions of the cross are often crucifixes, in order to emphasize Christ's sacrifice; but many Protestant traditions depict the cross without the corpus, in order to emphasize the resurrection.
Crosses are a prominent feature of Christian cemeteries, either carved on gravestones or as sculpted stellas. Because of this death meaning, planting small crosses is sometimes used in countries of Christian culture to protest for alleged deaths. Crosses have been erected or carved on pagan sites of worship like mountain tops or menhirs to counter their influences. In Catholic countries, crosses are often erected on the peaks of prominent mountains, such as the Zugspitze, Switzerland, so as to be visible over the entire surrounding area.
Perhaps the best-known form of the Christian cross is that depicted here, called the Latin cross, an equal-armed cross with a longer foot. It may be so called because it is the type of cross used in the Latin (Roman Catholic) church, as opposed to the Eastern Orthodox cross.
Other forms of the Christian cross include:
- the Celtic Cross, with the crossing circled, as in the standing High crosses;
- St. Andrew's Cross, the decussate cross that takes the form of the Roman numberal 10, an 'X' shape or saltire, the symbol of Scotland;
- the Cross of Lorraine, with a smaller bar above the main horizontal one;
- the Eastern Orthodox Cross, like the Cross of Lorraine, sometimes with a crossbar at the bottom;
- the Maltese Cross or Greek Cross with all members the same shape and form;
- the Cross of St. Peter, an upside down cross, also a symbol of Satanism;
- the Cross of St. Anthony, or Tau Cross, because it is shaped as a capital 'T'.
See also: Christian symbolism