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It’s remarkable how many diverse crosses there are in Christianity, and the distinctions between them are often purely aesthetic. These differences tend to reflect the era in which the cross and its denomination became prominent, rather than any profound symbolism.
Nevertheless, some crosses do bear additional symbolic significance, and a prime example is the Byzantine cross. Unlike other crosses, the Byzantine cross features two extra horizontal crossbeams – one at the top and one in the middle – in addition to the one every other cross has, creating a unique and compelling design.
In this article, we’ll take a closer look at the Byzantine cross, exploring its history, meaning, and the symbolism behind its unique features.
What is the Byzantine Cross?
The Byzantine cross may not be as widely recognized as other Christian symbols, but its history and symbolism are worth exploring. Although the Byzantine Empire fell centuries ago, the cross lives on today as the Russian Orthodox cross, and is also referred to as the Orthodox cross or Slavonic cross.
So, what sets the Byzantine cross apart? It shares the basic design of the Latin cross, with a long vertical beam and a shorter horizontal beam crossing it above the midpoint where Christ’s arms were nailed. However, the Byzantine cross adds two distinctive features that give it added symbolic meaning.
Firstly, there is a second horizontal beam above the first one, which is shorter in length and represents the plaque that the Romans had nailed above Christ’s head that mockingly read “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews.” This addition to the cross emphasizes the humiliation and suffering that Jesus endured during his crucifixion.
Secondly, a third short and slanted beam is located near the lower point of the cross’ vertical beam. This addition symbolizes the footrest where Christ’s feet were positioned during the crucifixion. Even though Christ’s feet were also nailed, the inclusion of the footrest highlights the physical torment that he endured on the cross.
As for the slanted beam, the interpretation is that the higher left side (or right side, from Christ’s perspective) points toward Heaven, while the lower right side (left, from Christ’s perspective) points toward Hell. This represents Christ’s power to save souls from eternal damnation and bring them to Heaven.
Renaming the Byzantine Cross
The Byzantine Empire may have fallen centuries ago, but its cultural and religious legacy lives on. The Byzantine cross, also known as the Russian Orthodox cross, is a prime example of this. Despite being the symbol of an empire that existed from the 4th to the 15th century, the cross still holds great significance for many Orthodox Christians today.
After the fall of the Byzantine Empire, the Russian Orthodox Church took on a leadership role within the Orthodox Christian world. With many Orthodox Christian kingdoms in Eastern Europe and the Balkans falling to the Ottoman Empire, the Moscow-based church became the de facto leader of the religion.
As a result, the Russian Orthodox Church continued to use the Byzantine cross, which became associated with the church’s leadership and its unique interpretation of Christianity. Today, the cross is commonly known as the Russian Orthodox cross, but it is still recognized as the symbol of the Byzantine Empire and its rich history.
Other names for the Byzantine cross, such as the Slavonic cross, come from the fact that most Orthodox Christian countries today have Slavic ethnicities. However, not all Orthodox nations are Slavic, so the name “Orthodox cross” is probably the most accurate. Regardless of its name, the cross remains an important symbol for Orthodox Christians around the world, connecting them to the rich cultural and religious heritage of the Byzantine Empire.
Are There Other Byzantine Crosses?
The term “Byzantine cross” is often used today to refer to a variety of cross designs that were used throughout the Byzantine Empire’s long history. However, it’s important to note that this term wasn’t actually used during the time of the empire. In fact, the Byzantine Empire itself wasn’t even called that at the time – it was known as the East Roman Empire or simply the Roman Empire. The label “Byzantine” was only applied by later historians to distinguish it from the West Roman Empire, which fell centuries earlier.
Interestingly, the crosses that are now labeled as “Byzantine” were not necessarily used exclusively in the empire. The empire employed many different cross designs on its flags and churches, and historians have simply tagged some of them as “Byzantine” in modern times. So while the Byzantine cross may not have been called that during the empire’s existence, it remains an important symbol of Orthodox Christianity and an intriguing piece of history.
The Byzantine cross, with its unique design, has endured the test of time and remains an important symbol of the Orthodox Christian faith. Although it was not actually called the Byzantine cross during the time of the Byzantine Empire, it has come to represent the empire’s legacy and influence on Orthodox Christianity.
Today, the cross can be found in various forms across the world and continues to inspire awe and reverence among believers and non-believers alike.