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Cross symbols have existed for thousands of years, signifying different things for the cultures in which they were valued. The oldest religious symbol is believed to be the solar cross, which influenced many subsequent cross symbols.
Today, the cross is the most-recognized symbol of Christianity and many variations of crosses have Christian associations. However, there are also many secular meanings connected with types of crosses. With that said, here’s a look at popular types of crosses and what they symbolize.
Other Names: Crux Immissa, Crux Ordinaria, Christian Cross, High Cross
The Latin Cross is the most recognizable symbol of Christianity and is representative of the cross upon which Jesus died. This type of cross has a vertical post with a crossbeam near the top. The three upper arms are typically of the same length, but the topmost arm is sometimes depicted as being shorter. Many believers keep this cross close as a symbol of their faith, generally wearing it in pendants or carrying it as a charm. It’s believed to bring peace, solace and comfort to Christians.
Other Names: Five-Fold Cross, Cross and Crosslets, Crusaders Cross, Cantonese Cross
The Jerusalem cross features a central cross with equidistant arms and crossbars at the ends of each arm, with four smaller Greek crosses in each quadrant of the larger cross. The design features five crosses in total. The Jerusalem cross was significant during the Crusades and was carried as a heraldic cross. When Jerusalem, the Holy Land, was captured from the Moslems, the cross became the symbol for the Crusader state. It symbolizes the five wounds of Christ, the five main nations involved in the Crusades and is a reminder of Christianity’s link to Jerusalem.
Other Names: Thieves’ Cross, Robber’s Cross, Y-Cross, Furca, Ypsilon Cross, Crucifixus Dolorosus
The Forked Cross is a Y-shaped cross, with arms extending upwards. Some believe that thieves in Roman times were crucified on forked crosses, but there is no evidence to suggest this. Also, constructing a forked cross takes more labor and expense. Many historians believe that the forked cross is a recent addition to the pantheon of crosses, emerging in the 1300s as a product of mysticism. The forked cross was especially popular during the Middle Ages, when there was a strong focus on the Passion of Christ. Today, the forked cross is not as popular as it once was and isn’t commonly seen on Christian iconography.
The Celtic cross features a cross within a circle, with the bottom arm extending below the circle. It’s commonly found in graveyards and public monuments and is seen as an emblem of Irish, Welsh and Scottish heritages. The exact origins of the Celtic cross are unknown, but evidence suggests that it was in use before Christianity came to the region and has pagan associations. It may have simply been adapted by missionaries to aid in their evangelizing efforts. The Celtic cross continues to be a popular variant of Christian crosses.
Other Names: Sun Cross, Sun Wheel, Wheel Cross
The solar cross is considered to be among the oldest religious symbols in the world, with some believing it to be the oldest. It has links to Indian, Native American, European, Middle Eastern and Asian symbology, dating back to prehistoric times. It has many meanings but is commonly associated with the sun and with ancient sun worship.
The design is simple, featuring an equidistant cross set within a circle. In this regard, it’s similar to the Celtic cross which is believed to have derived from the solar cross. The difference is that the Celtic cross has a longer bottom post. The swastika is also a variation of the solar cross.
Other Names: Papal Staff
The Papal cross features three horizontal bars set on long post, with the bars graduating in size towards the top. The cross is the official symbol for the office of the Pope and can only be carried and used by the Pope. Many statues of Popes feature the Papal cross, as a symbol of his authority and status. This cross is similar to the patriarchal cross, which only has two horizontal beams. The additional beam signifies the Pope’s higher ecclesiastical rank compared to an archbishop. The three bars are said to signify the Holy Trinity, the three roles of the Pope and the three theological virtues.
Other Names: Crux Gemina, Archiepiscopal Cross
This cross variant features two horizontal bars and is the official heraldic emblem of the archbishops of the Roman Catholic Church. The exact symbolism of the two-barred cross is not clear, but some believe that the second bar signifies the plaque hung above Jesus when he was crucified, proclaiming who he was to all who watched. Others believe that the patriarchal cross represents Jesus’ death and resurrection.
The Patriarchal cross is sometimes confused with the Cross of Lorrraine, which is also a two-barred cross. However, the original version of the Lorraine cross has a bottom arm that’s set much lower down on the vertical post, than the Patriarchal cross.
Other Names: Amalfi Cross
The Maltese cross has four v-shaped quadrilaterals that meet in the center, effectively creating a cross with 8 points. The overall shape looks similar to four arrows meeting in the center. The symbol’s first notable use was during the Crusades and was the official emblem of the Knights Hospitallers. The latter were stationed on the island of Malta, which is where the cross’s name comes from.
Although the symbol was popular during the Middle Ages, evidence suggests that it existed as early as the 6th century in the Byzantine era. The cross represents the 8 Langues (regions) from where the knights came. It can also represent the 8 beatitudes in the Bible. More recently, the Maltese cross has been given a secular meaning, representing the 8 characteristics of a good first aider.
Named after St. Florian, born in 250 A.D., the Florian cross is similar to the Maltese cross in design, but is curvier and more flower-like overall. It also has 8 points, but these look more like curved edges than points per se. The Florian cross is a common emblem of firefighting departments and symbolizes firefighters. The 8 points of the cross are believed to represent the virtues of knighthood.
Russian Orthodox Cross
Other Names: Orthodox Cross, Russian Cross, Slavonic Cross, Suppedaneum Cross
The Russian Orthodox Cross is very similar to the Patriarchal Cross but has an extra slanted crossbeam near the bottom of the cross. This lower bar represents a footrest that Jesus’ feet were nailed to when he hung on the cross, while the uppermost bar represents his head. The middle crossbeam represents his outstretched hands. This variation of the cross is commonly used in the Russian Orthodox church.
Other Names: Crux Immissa Quadrata
The Greek Cross has arms of equal lengths, not much longer than its width. It’s a stocky, compact looking cross and is the same design used in the symbol of the Red Cross. Before Christianity, the Greek Cross was used as a decorative motif, often featured on architecture, clothing, buildings and accessories. The symbol held sacred meaning for Pythagoreans, who took their vows on it. It was also used by Egyptians in decorations. Today, the Greek Cross is associated with the Eastern Orthodox Church and with Early Christianity.
Cross of Lorraine
Other Names: Cross of Anjou
The Cross of Lorraine is a heraldic cross featuring two crossbeams. It’s similar to the Patriarchal cross, but its typically featured with the lower crossbeam set further down the vertical post. The cross is the emblem of Lorraine in eastern France,which was captured by the Germans along with Alsace. The Cross of Lorraine represents the French struggle against German forces, and more universally, is a symbol of resistance against evil forces.
A crucifix is a cross with the figure of Jesus depicted upon it. Many Roman Catholics prefer crucifixes over crosses, as it is a reminder of Jesus’ suffering on the cross. However, Protestants tend to prefer crosses, as an indication that Jesus is no longer suffering and has overcome the cross. Crucifixes in the West typically feature a 3-dimensional image of Christ, whereas in Eastern Orthodoxy, the image of Christ is simply painted onto the cross.
Other Names: Cross of St. Francis, Crux Commissa, Anticipatory Cross, Old Testament Cross, Cross of St. Anthony, Franciscan Tau Cross
The Tau cross is so called because it resembles the Greek letter tau in upper-case form. It basically looks like a letter T, with the horizontal arms slightly flaring out towards the ends. While the Tau cross is associated with Christianity, it existed long before Christianity and held significance to pagan groups. Today, the Tau cross is commonly associated with St. Francis, as he chose this cross to be his emblem, even using it as his signature. Tau crosses are typically carved out of wood to represent its symbolism of humility, piety, flexibility and simplicity. It’s one of the most beloved and most popular type of Christian cross.
Upside Down Cross
Other Names: Cross of St. Peter, Petrine Cross
The Upside-Down Cross is an inverted Latin cross and is associated with the crucifixion of St. Peter the Apostle. Accordingly, Peter requested to be crucified upside down, as he did not feel worthy of being crucified in the same way as Jesus. In modern times, the Petrine cross is sometimes viewed as an anti-Christian symbol, which has somewhat tainted the symbolism of the cross.
Unlike many of the crosses on this list, the Ankh is directly connected to ancient Egypt rather than to Christianity. While it was used in Christian contexts and possibly adapted by early missionaries to assist in their evangelizing efforts, the Ankh remains a predominantly Egyptian symbol.
The Ankh features a cross with a loop at the top, instead of the topmost arm. It was a popular hieroglyph and was used to symbolize the concept of life. It’s also believed to symbolize eternal life, life after death and the divine right to rule. The most common portrayal of the Ankh is as an offering from an Egyptian deity to a pharaoh.
The above 16 cross variations are among the most popular, but this is by no means an exhaustive list. There are many more types of crosses, but most are associated with Christianity. Cross symbolism continues to be highly significant to religious and secular groups and can be found everywhere.