Bill Long 5/22/05
It is a commonplace among scholars of early Christianity that the cross was only one of three identifying symbols, along with Christ the Good Shepherd and the Fish, for the earliest Christians. Yet, by the early Middle Ages the Cross had supplanted the other two, and it has regined supreme since that time. Catholics depict the crucified Christ on the cross while Protestants take pride in the empty cross in their Churches. St. Paul emphasized the importance of a theology of the cross in his letters--"I am crucified with Christ, yet I live..." he says in Galatians. Martin Luther and the early Reformers made their theology of the cross central to their entire theological venture.
The theological emphasis on the cross has been supplemented by hymns that point to the centrality of this object for Christian faith. John Bowring could write,
"In the cross of Christ I glory, towering o'er the wrecks of time; all the light of sacred story gathers round its head sublime."
And the Scottish Presbyterian Elizabeth Clephane penned these words in 1868, words that, when set to music by Frederick Maker, became a famous Protestant hymn:
"Beneath the cross of Jesus I fain would take my stand; The shadow of a mighty rock within a weary land; A home within the wilderness, a rest upon the way, From the burning of the noontide heat, and the burden of the day."
Though I could go on forever with these songs, what interests me here is the various ways the cross has been depicted throughout the history of the Church, as well as the language that has been used to describe it. I only have space to mention a few words here, so let's get to it.
The Various "Cruces"
The Merriam Webster Collegiate Dictionary (11th Ed.) gives drawings of about 20 types of crosses under the entry "cross," and it is not my purpose to repeat those entries here. More to my purpose is to introduce several Latin terms which point to various types of crosses. These terms are the crux decussata, crux immisa, crux commissa and crux gammata. Several other "cruces" will also be mentioned as I introduce these.
The Big Three
Let's begin with the simple form of the 'X." Though not usually considered a "cross," because of our assocation of that word with a "T" or "+"-shaped object, it is known as the crux decussata ("decussate" means in the form of an "X") or the St. Andrew's Cross. The OED entry under "decussate" has both a theological and botanical definition. An 1835 scientific entry has: "Decussate, arranged in pairs that alternately corss each other." The verb "decuss" is rare (having nothing to do with swearing!), but you get the picture by now. However, I think the word "decussate" has a very promising future outside of its dictionary usages. Why not speak of a "determined person with decussate arms"?
More frequent in early Christianity was the "Tau" cross ("T"), also known as the crux commissa or the "connected cross." It could also be called the St. Anthony's cross. St. Anthony, a 3rd-4th century man widely honored in early Christianity for his eremitical life, lived in the Egyptian desert. But the OED says that this designation, the Tau Cross, was also applied to the Egyptian "ankh," the Tau with a circule resting atop it. This symbol was the symbol of life in Ancient Egypt, so it is not unusual that when the early Christians of Egypt designed their own cross they would be indebted to earlier (pagan) models from their land. As the early Christian apolgists said, they, like the Hebrews of old, 'spoiled' the Egyptians. The ankh symbol is known as the crux ansata or ansated cross. The word "ansated" derives from the Latin and means "having handles, or something in the form of handles."
The crux immisa or the "cross hanging down" is also known as the crux ordinaria or the crux capitata-- cross with a head. This cross is known as the "ordinary" cross probably because of the frequency of its appearance. Unlike the Greek Cross, which is a cross with the beams bisecting each other equally ("+"), the crux immisa is defined in the unabridged as a "cross of crucifixion in which the top of the upright shaft extends above the transverse beam." This is more popularly known as the Latin Cross.
One Final Term
Actually, I will introduce a few more terms here, but only focus on one. A crux stellata, a "starred cross," is one with arms that end in stars. The term that interests me more is the crux gammata--the "gammate cross." The unabridged entry is under gammadion, and that word is defined as "a cross formed by four capital gammas." It gives two examples of these: the fylfot or swastika cross, with which we are all familiar, where the four gammas intersect to form the symbol of the Third Reich; and the "voided Greek cross." The latter looks like the intersection of two roads, with the intersecting roads being left blank and the borders being four capital "gammas."
The OED has an unusually long note in which it explains the rather precarious history of the word fylfot, but it does say that the swastika cross was also knows as the cross cramponee. Though I don't follow the definition of the latter clearly, the OED defines cramponee as follows: "Said of a cross having a square hook-like bend at the end of each limb, all turned thus..." (I cannot reproduce the hook).
Time and space would fail me were I to try to review the various types of heraldic crosses depicted in the major dictionaries. Let me just close by saying that one of these crosses is the "avellan cross"--a simple Greek cross with filberts or hazlenuts on the end. Since filberts are the state nut of Oregon, I kind of think of it as the Oregon cross, though the Christian faith wasn't introduced here until the 19th century, and the avellan cross dates from centuries before that! Well, one can always dream...
Copyright © 2004-2008 William R. Long