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The Latin cross is not just one of the most recognizable religious symbols, it’s the most used symbol around the world. It’s characterized by its plain and simple look – a straight vertical line with a crossbar going horizontally, above its middle point. This makes for an extra elongated lower arm and three upper arms that are either portrayed equal in length or with the upper arm as the shortest.
This simple look is also why the Latin cross is often called the Plain Cross as well. Other names for it include Roman Cross, Protestant Cross, Western Cross, Chapel Cross or Church Cross.
Is the Latin cross universal among all Christian denominations?
The Latin cross is the unifying symbol of most Christian denominations even though some have their own variations. There are many types of crosses, including the Patriarchal cross of Orthodox Christians which has a second shorter horizontal crossbar above the first one, the Russian Orthodox cross which has a third tilted crossbar below the two horizontal ones and the crucifix which features an image of Jesus on the cross and is preferred in Catholicism.
Even among other western Christian denominations, however, the Latin cross wasn’t always recognized as an official symbol of Christianity. It’s intuitive to think that it has been the default symbol of all Christians since it represents the ancient device the Romans used to torture and kill Jesus Christ. However, until as late as the 19th century, many Protestant churches vehemently rejected the Latin cross as “Satanic” before eventually accepting it.
Today, all Christian denominations accept the Latin cross as the official symbol of Christianity. Still, it’s worth noting that different Christian denominations view and use the plain cross in different ways. Where Catholics usually don’t hesitate to carry gold or richly ornamented crosses as pendants or hang them in their homes, other denominations such as Protestants or the Amish prefer plain wooden crosses with no ornamentation.
Meaning and Symbolism of the Latin Cross
The historical meaning of the Latin cross is very well-known – it represents the torture device ancient Romans used on criminals of all sorts. According to the New Testament, Jesus Christ was crucified on such a cross until death and then buried in a tomb before eventually coming back to life. Because of that, Christians carry the cross to honor his sacrifice as it was done to absolve them of their own sins.
However, this isn’t the only ascribed meaning of the cross. According to most theologians, the plain cross also symbolizes the Holy Trinity. The three upper arms of the cross are meant to represent the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, while the longer lower arm is their Unity, reaching down to humanity.
Of course, this is a post-factum meaning given to the plain cross by clergymen and theologians long after the establishment of the Christian religion, but it’s nevertheless widely accepted.
The Cross in Other Cultures, Religions, and Myths
The cross is not an original Christian symbol and most Christians don’t have a problem admitting that. After all, the Romans used the crucifix long before Jesus Christ. But the symbol of the cross pre-dates the Roman empire and can be found in various cultures.
The cross’ simple, intuitive design virtually ensured that it’d pop up as a symbol in almost every ancient culture.
- In the Norse Scandinavian religion, the symbol of the cross was associated with the god Thor
- African cultures often used the cross symbol with various symbolic meanings
- The Ancient Egyptians used the Ankh symbol of life, which looks quite similar to the plain cross with a loop on the top
- In China, the symbol of the cross is a hieroglyphic numeral for the number 10
In fact, one could suppose that this universal recognizability of the cross is one of the many reasons why Christianity managed to spread so thoroughly across the world.
Wearing cross jewelry is popular among Christians, with pendants and charms being highly popular. Because of the cross’s simple design, it’s easy to incorporate it into various types of jewelry, either as a decorative motif or as the main design.
However, many wear the cross symbol simply for the purpose of fashion. These ‘fashion crosses’ don’t denote a religious affiliation but are worn to make a stylistic statement. As such, crosses are no longer limited to Christians, but are also worn for aesthetic reasons. Some wear the cross as a historical symbol and others simply because they respect various symbols and wish to cross boundaries between different faiths.
Other Variations and Derivatives of The Plain Cross
There are many crosses or cross-like symbols that can be listed here – the Nestorian cross, the Jerusalem cross, the Florian cross, the Maltese cross, the Celtic and Solar crosses, the Forked cross, and many others. Many of these don’t come from the Christian plain cross but are separate cross symbols with their own origins and symbolism. Some are directly derivative from the Christian plain cross, however, and are worth mentioning.
The upside-down cross, also known as the St. Peter’s cross, is a good example. It has the same design as the plain Latin cross but it’s reverted – the upper arm is longer while the lower arm is the shortest. It’s called St. Peter’s cross, or the Petrine cross, because the saint is said to have been crucified upside down on such a cross. Today, the upside-down cross is also often viewed as a Satanic symbol as it’s “the reverse” of the plain Christian cross.
There’s also the sideways cross which is also known as St. Philip’s cross. It also bears the same plain design but is tilted in only 90o from the standard Christian cross. Like St. Peter’s cross, the sideways cross is named after St. Philip because he’s believed to have been crucified sideways.
FAQs About the Latin Cross
While often used interchangeably, the Latin cross and the crucifix have a fundamental difference. Latin crosses are plain and bare, while crucifixes feature an image of Christ on the cross. This image can be a 3D figure or simply painted on.
A Greek cross features arms of equal length, making it a perfect squarish cross, whereas Latin crosses have one long vertical arm.
The cross has many symbolic meanings but primarily, it represents the crucifixion of Christ. It’s also believed to symbolize the Holy Trinity.
The Latin cross is quite possibly the most recognizable symbol in the world, worn by Christians the world over. While there are many variations of the cross, several of which have derived from the Latin cross, this original version remains the most popular.