The The Cross: Its History and Symbolism Cross

The The Cross: Its History and Symbolism Cross

by George Willard Benson

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Centuries before the Christian era, crosses were used as pagan emblems. Early Christians did not employ the symbolism of the cross, which came into general use three centuries after the death of Jesus and has since come to be recognized around the world as a symbol of sacrifice and redemption. This fascinating book begins with legends, and proceeds to an exploration


Centuries before the Christian era, crosses were used as pagan emblems. Early Christians did not employ the symbolism of the cross, which came into general use three centuries after the death of Jesus and has since come to be recognized around the world as a symbol of sacrifice and redemption. This fascinating book begins with legends, and proceeds to an exploration of the many facts, myths, and curious customs and superstitions connected with the history of the cross.
In simple, direct language, this volume recounts the notable events and stories of people whose lives are interwoven with the symbol of the cross, such as the crusaders, who wore heraldic crosses as emblems of valor and bravery. Numerous illustrations depict the variety of forms and uses of the cross, as well as the symbols that appear upon many crosses, and the text traces their similarity and significance to the symbolism found in religious paintings, mosaics, and stained glass. The history, the legends, and the art and symbolism with which the cross is intimately connected form the keynote of this study, which is presented in a reverent spirit and a manner accessible to readers of every background.

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By George Willard Benson

Dover Publications, Inc.

Copyright © 2005 Dover Publications, Inc.
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-486-14970-7



THE cross for centuries past has been a symbol of vital influence in the worship and the lives of countless men and women.

No other symbol has had the widespread and important significance of the cross. It is the supreme emblem of Christianity, symbolic of sacrifice and redemption.

Four centuries and more ago, Savonarola, at the close of an impassioned appeal, held aloft a cross and cried, "Florence behold! This is the Lord of the universe. Wilt thou have Him for thy King?"

And with loud shouts the vast throng before him instantly responded, "Long live Christ our King!"

How came it about that the uplifting of a mere symbol could arouse the people to such an outburst of religious zeal and loyalty?

It was not merely the eloquence of Savonarola that stirred them—they refused to listen to him not long afterwards—but the symbol of their faith which he held high above his head. The cross was a vital force in their lives. It stood for the hope and belief they could not otherwise express. It was to them a sacred and impressive symbol.

This was at the end of the fifteenth century. A little more than four centuries later I stood in the same public square in Florence in which Savonarola was burned at the stake. Around about me were many of the same buildings that he last gazed upon. In one of them, the Palazzo Vecchio, I had just seen the little chapel where he spent his last night in prayer before a cross.

I wondered, as I watched the throng about me, some hurrying by, others idling and gossiping in the outdoor cafés, if they also could be stirred as were their forefathers, by the cross.

A useless question, I thought, impossible in this materialistic age and skeptical generation. A few days later I was convinced otherwise.

It was Corpus Christi day and I stood in the midst of thousands of people in front of the Duomo and saw a great religious procession come out of that beautiful cathedral, priests, acolytes and choristers—an innumerable host—bearing many banners, emblazoned with the emblem of the cross, and carrying hundreds of Processional Crosses of rare workmanship and beauty. Most of the sacred banners and crosses of the various churches of Florence, many of them centuries old, were to be seen in that most impressive procession, and while it passed, for nearly an hour, the vast throng of spectators stood with bared heads and in reverent silence.

All through the centuries the cross has been a symbol that has stirred the hearts and revived the faith of millions of believers.

Joan of Arc, bound to the stake, with the crackling flames all about her, begged for a cross. A soldier fastened two small faggots of wood together and with this crude semblance of a cross in her hand and a prayer on her lips, Joan of Arc died. To her it was not only the emblem of her faith, but the assurance of her soul's salvation.

It is difficult for us in the midst of our modern and intensely material civilization to realize how vital and how widespread has been the influence of the cross all through the centuries.

In our own country at the beginning of its history, the cross had its place and influence.

About the same time that Savonarola uplifted the cross and made his appeal in old Florence, Columbus bore the cross into the New World. That was the custom of the age. All explorers carried the cross as well as a compass.

There is a painting in the Capitol at Washington of Columbus, with raised cross and unfurled banner, taking possession of the land he had discovered for God and king.

There is still to be seen beside the Fountain of Youth in St. Augustine, a cross of rough stones outlined in the earth which tradition claims was placed there in 1513 by Ponce de Leon to mark his landing place on the shores of Florida.

On the bank of the James River at Richmond, Virginia, is a great bronze cross that was erected on the spot where over three hundred years ago Captain John Smith had placed a wooden cross to mark the end of his journey of exploration up the river from Jamestown.

It was significant of the spirit of the age. The early discoverers raised a cross wherever they went as a symbol that it was to be a Christian land.

But the cross was seldom seen after the first permanent settlers came to these shores. They were the Pilgrims, Puritans, Quakers, Dissenters and adventurers. Not a cross- bearer among them. In only a few scattered communities where there were followers of the Established Church of England and that of Rome was the cross to be found.

But in the old world, for centuries before and after the new world was discovered, the cross was almost everywhere to be seen. No great enterprise or crusade was undertaken that did not have the cross carried upon a staff or embroidered upon a banner.

Throughout all Christendom the cross appeared. It stood upon the altars of the churches, was carried in religious processions, and woven into the vestments of the priests, pictured on canvas and in stained glass, in frescos and mosaics fashioned with rich craftsmanship and hung upon the walls of cathedrals which were themselves built in the design of the cross. On every spire and many gables were crosses of iron and stone, and in the churchyards they marked the resting places of the dead. Everywhere were wayside shrines with crosses of wood and stone, Market Crosses of sculptured marble and Sanctuary Crosses to which men fled for refuge.

The Crusader's sword was cross-hilted and every Knight dedicated his sword upon the altar and wore a cross upon his breast, as he went forth upon a crusade.

The escutcheons of most ancient families bore it in varied forms and it appeared frequently on the coins and medals of the realm. The crowns of kings and nobles were almost invariably surmounted by a cross.

The prevailing use and influence of this supreme symbol of Christianity is remarkable. The study of its origin, history, and symbolism is an investigation full of value and interest.

The cross is a symbol more universal in its use and more important in its significance than any other in the world.



THE cross is the oldest symbol in the world. Centuries before the Christian era ancient crosses were in use as pagan emblems. They have been found carved in stone dating back to remote ages.

The origin of the cross is in the mists of antiquity. We do not know who first discovered fire, or who shaped the first pottery vase, or who built the first human habitation, nor do we know who first made a cross. It differed in shape and design as ancient peoples and civilizations differed. But in some form, all through the ages, the cross has existed and has had a vital significance and influence.

The ancients worshipped various gods whom they represented as adorned with crosses either on their persons or garments or carried in their hands.

The cross symbol was even more frequently used by itself; carved upon monuments, in bas-relief upon walls, made of pottery, wrought in bronze, silver and other metals.

Its use as a religious symbol seemed to have been almost a universal custom among ancient peoples.

The origin of the cross may have been due to the facility with which it could be outlined. From the dawn of antiquity when man first discovered that he could draw shapes and forms upon flat stones, or could carve crude outlines upon them, evolved the symbol of the cross.

It is possible that it may not have been originally a religious emblem, or had any sacred significance. It is not improbable that it might have originated in some ancient game like the childish one of the three crosses and three circles in a row. These simple designs are easily drawn and have been strangely associated together all through the ages. The circle entwining the cross has become a familiar Christian emblem symbolizing eternal life, without beginning and without end. (Frontispiece.)

Many ancient crosses were not simple in design. They were overloaded with curious unintelligible decorations. Some of these embellishments are even grotesque. What was their original purpose and meaning is largely conjectural. The old proverb that "Antiquity is not always a mark of verity" is undoubtedly true of ancient crosses. They may have had a religious purpose or an entirely different significance. The undeniable truth is that crosses of many forms and designs that were made in remote times have been found nearly everywhere in the world. They are made even to this day by pagan peoples. Undoubtedly most of these crosses have a religious significance connected with some form of nature worship.

The simple equilateral cross probably was symbolic of space, the earth and sky. It is one of the earliest forms of ancient crosses and was traced on walls and carved in stone long before the birth of Christ.

This ancient cross, now known as the Greek Cross is today the symbol of the faith of millions of Christians.



PROBABLY the earliest known form of the cross was represented by the intersection of two lines at right angles. From it evolved the Swastika or Gam-mate Cross, which in its original form was in the shape of a curious capital Z. Its earliest significance was prosperity, its latest, for it is a symbol still in use, is good luck.

The Swastika Cross is of Sanskrit origin. Under somewhat varied forms it appeared among the ancient Aryan nations and early became a religious emblem. Its most familiar form was two arms intersected called pramatha and swastika. The early Aryans were fire worshippers and this was to them symbolic of two sticks with handles which rubbed together kindled the sacred fire. The Grecian myth of Prometheus who stole the fire of heaven from Zeus in a hollow staff and kindled the divine spark of life in man, possibly may have been derived therefrom. (Page 22).

The Swastika Cross differing in that its arms turn from left to right instead of right to left, appeared on early medallions of the Buddhists and is still used by some Hindu sects. It is known as the Good Omen.

The Swastika or Fylfot in its varied forms appeared as a Good Fortune symbol in nearly all the early civilizations of Asia, Africa, Europe and America. It has been frequently found upon the pottery, jewelry, coins and monuments of the ancient peoples of India, Persia, China, Japan, Mexico and South America. Also on the pottery and baskets of the North American Indians and is still in use by them. The Swastika, all through the ages until the present time, has been a symbol of good fortune. Its use among modern nations is a curious survival of ancient paganism. Its latest and most notable use is as the German Nazi emblem.

There have been found ancient crosses, the handiwork of western Indian tribes of North America, with four arms of equal length with symbols of the four winds. The top of the cross is the cold north wind, represented by an arrow, the left arm the sharp east wind, represented by a star, the bottom the warm south wind portrayed by the sun, and the gentle west wind by a heart.

The Chinese had a saying that God fashioned the earth in the form of a cross. To represent that idea they placed the equilateral, or Greek Cross, within a square. The four ends of the cross indicating the four points of the compass.

Excavations in America and Mexico have brought forth crosses of many forms and designs made by the aborigines during the mound building period. Most of them are varied forms of the Swastika, also of the simple Greek Cross and the more ornate Maltese Cross.

It is curious and interesting to find these evidences of similar civilizations and religious beliefs existing in prehistoric times in both the eastern and western worlds. These ancient crosses made by widely separated and alien peoples, similar in shapes and designs, have been found carved in stone and engraved on metals and shells and as decorations on pottery.

Almost from the beginning of recorded history there was another cross in frequent use known as the Tau Cross. In form it resembled the capital letter T. (Page 35). It has been called the cross of the Old Testament as it was known to the Jews. They may possibly have become familiar with it during their bondage to the Egyptians, as a cross much resembling the Tau Cross with a loop at the top appeared frequently in Egyptian hieroglyphs and carved on their ancient sepulchers and monuments. It was known as the Cross of Horus, an Egyptian god, and is usually held in the hand of a god, king, or priest. It was the symbol of life, and has been called the Key of Life.

In varied forms, the Tau Cross appeared throughout the ancient world. The Phoenicians adapted it to a crude representation of their goddess, Astarte—"she who gives life." The Greeks transformed and beautified the handled cross of the Egyptians into a representation of their Goddess of Life, somewhat similar in appearance to the figure of a woman with outstretched arms in the form of a cross.

Another form of cross known as the Greek Cross was used by various ancient races. It was simple in design, an upright line crossed at right angles by a horizontal line. (Page 25).

The primitive Greek Cross, in use a thousand and more years before the Christian era, was in form the same as the modern Christian Greek Cross. Recent excavations in Athens have unearthed ancient crosses similar in design to the familiar cross of the Greek Catholic Church in use at the present time. Its form is unchanged from the ancient Pagan Cross, except that it is usually embellished with ornamentation.

Another cross in use by some primitive peoples is the so-called St. Andrew's Cross which is merely the Greek Cross in another position. It resembles the capital letter X. How it came by its present name is due, doubtless to the fact that St. Andrew, the patron saint of Scotland, was martyred on a cross of this shape. (Page 39).

Saint Patrick, the patron saint of Ireland, has also been associated with it, but the reason is not very obvious, as he devoted his life to ridding Ireland of sin and snakes and died a natural death. However confusing these things may be historically, in art these saints are easily recognized. Saint Andrew has always his cross and Saint Patrick his Bishop's crook, with and without snakes.

Among the Romans and all Latin peoples another ancient cross was much in use. It resembled the Greek Cross with a long arm extending below. It was called originally the Latin Cross and is now known as the Christian Cross. (Page 15). From three ancient crosses, the Tau, the Greek, and the Latin, have evolved all the varied forms and designs of the Christian Cross.

The meaning and symbolism of the various Pagan Crosses, often vague and obscure, usually had reference to life in some of its manifestations, such as prosperity, abundance, fertility, and the blessings and desirable things pertaining to earthly existence. The sun, the source of all life, and the moon, stars, wind, water, and fire, also contributors to the needs of human life, were symbolized and invested with special significance.



HOWEVER mystifying and confficting may be the meanings of the different Pagan Crosses, some of the symbolism that clusters around them has become interwoven into the symbolic thought connected with the Christian Cross.

The ancient Druids, who worshipped the sun, took as the symbol of their god a living tree, a stately oak, cutting off all its branches except two on opposite sides, forming thereby a giant cross.

The "accursed tree," as the early Christians designated the cross upon which Christ was crucified, a death of suffering and disgrace, has become the symbol of vicarious sacrifice and atonement. Christ Himself proclaimed that He must be lifted upon the Cross that He might draw all men to Him.

The meaning of the Christian Cross is clear and significant. It is the symbol of life eternal, of redemption and resurrection through faith. This is why it has been of real vital significance to millions of believers since the day upon which Christ suffered death upon a cross.

Christ's mission was to teach men, by word and deed the way of right living. His message was the revelation to the world of God the Father. Until He came, men had thought of God as Jehovah, a just God without mercy. Christ proclaimed Him the Heavenly Father—a God of love and forgiveness. Other teachers have taught wisdom and morality; others have healed the sick and done deeds of charity. Christ, alone, brought to the knowledge of men that they were the sons of God, and pointed the way through faith and service to life eternal.

This revelation and all it meant, the Fatherhood of God and the Brotherhood of man, might have been unaccepted and forgotten by the world, had it not been that Christ made the supreme sacrifice.

The cross upon which He died was undoubtedly made of wood and in the shape of the familiar Latin Cross. This was the kind of gallows used by the Romans for the execution of criminals. No Roman citizen could be crucified, but slaves and the condemned of other and despised races, were put to death, either upon a single stake driven through their bodies, or by being bound or nailed upon a cross.


Excerpted from THE CROSS by George Willard Benson. Copyright © 2005 Dover Publications, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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