History of the Cross
Primitive Cruciform Signs
The sign of the Cross, represented in its simplest form by a crossing of two lines
at right angles, greatly antedates, in both the East and the West, the introduction of Christianity.
It goes back to a very remote period of human civilization. In fact, some have
sought to attach to the widespread use of this sign, a real ethnographic importance.
It is true that in the sign of the Cross the decorative and geometrical concept,
obtained by a juxtaposition of lines pleasing to the sight, is remarkably prominent; nevertheless, the Cross was
originally not a mere means or object of ornament, and from the earliest times had certainly another -- i.e. symbolic-religious
The primitive form of the Cross seems to have been that of the
so-called "gamma" Cross
(crux gammata), better known to Orientalists and students of prehistoric
archeology by its Sanskrit name, swastika.
At successive periods this was modified, becoming curved at the extremities, or adding to them more complex lines
or ornamental points, which latter also meet at the central intersection.
The swastika is a sacred sign in India, and is very
ancient and widespread throughout the East.
It has a solemn meaning among both Brahrnins and Buddhists. It seems to have represented the apparatus used at
one time by the fathers of the human race in kindling fire - and for this reason it was the symbol of living
flame, or sacred fire.
It is a symbol of the sun and seems to denote its daily rotation. Others have seen in it the mystic
representation of lightning or of the god of the tempest, and even the emblem of the Aryan pantheon and the primitive Aryan civilization.
Therefore, the cruciform signs were very widespread throughout the Orient, the seat of the oldest
The Cross as an Instrument of Punishment in the Ancient World
The crucifixion of living persons was not practiced among the Hebrews; capital
punishment among them consisted in being stoned to death. But when Palestine became Roman territory the
Cross was introduced as a form of punishment, more particularly for those who
could not prove their Roman citizenship; later on it was reserved for thieves and
Though not infrequent in the East, it was but rarely that the Greeks made use of it.
It is mentioned by Demosthenes and by Plato. The stake and the gibbet were more common, the
criminal being suspended on them or bound to them, but not nailed. Certain Greeks who had befriended
the Carthaginians were crucified near Motya by order of Dionysius of Syracuse.
Both in Greece and in the East the Cross was a customary
punishment of brigands. It was at Rome, however, that from early republican
times the Cross was most frequently used as an instrument of punishment, and
amid circumstances of great severity and cruelty. It was particularly the
punishment for slaves found
guilty of any serious crime. Hence in two places, Cicero calls it simply
"servile supplicium" the punishment of
slaves; more explicitly, "servitutis extremum
summumque supplicium", the final and most terrible punishment of
The punishment of the Cross was also regularly inflicted
for such grave crimes as highway robbery and piracy, for
public accusation of his master by a slave, for a vow made against his masters prosperity,
and for sedition and tumult. According to Roman custom, the penalty of
crucifixion was always preceded by scourging; after this preliminary
punishment, the condemned person had to carry the Cross, or at least the transverse
beam of it, to the place of execution, exposed to the jibes
and insults of the people.
On arrival at the place of execution the Cross was
uplifted. Soon the sufferer, entirely naked, was bound to it with cords.
He was then fastened with four nails to the wood of the Cross. Finally, a
placard called the Titulus bearing the name of the condemned man and his sentence, was placed at the top of the Cross.
Slaves were crucified outside of Rome in a place called Sessorium, beyond the Esquiline Gate.
Eventually this wretched locality became a forest of Crosses, while the bodies of the
victims were the prey of vultures and other rapacious birds. It often happened that the condemned man did not
die of hunger or thirst, but lingered on the Cross for several days.
To shorten his punishment therefore, and lessen his terrible sufferings, his
legs were were sometimes broken. This custom exceptional among the Romans, was common with the Jews. In this way it was possible to take
down the corpse on the very evening of the execution. Among the Romans, on the
contrary, the corpse could not be taken down, unless such removal had been specially authorized in the
sentence of death. The corpse might also be buried if the sentence permitted.
The punishment of the cross remained in force throughout the Roman Empire
until the first half of the fourth century. In the early part of his reign Constantine continued to
inflict the penalty of the cross on slaves
guilty of denouncing their masters. Later on he abolished this infamous punishment, in
memory and in honor of the Passion of Jesus Christ. Thereafter,
this punishment was very rarely inflicted.
The Crucifixion of Jesus Christ
Among the Romans, the Cross never had the symbolical meaning which it had in the
ancient Orient; they regarded it solely as a material instrument of punishment. There are in the Old Testament
clear allusions to the Cross and Crucifixion of
Jesus Christ. Thus the Greek letter tau appears in Ezechiel according to
Saint Jerome and other Fathers, as a solemn symbol of the Cross of Christ,
"Mark Tau upon the foreheads of the men that sigh".
The only other symbol of crucifixion indicated in the Old Testament is
the brazen serpent in the Book of Numbers 21:8-9. Christ Himself thus
interpreted the passage: "As Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert, so must the Son of man
be lifted up" (John 3:14). The Psalmist predicts the piercing of the hands and the feet (Psalm 22:16).
This was a true prophecy, inasmuch as it could not be conceived from any custom then existing; the practice of nailing the condemned to
a T-shaped Cross was, as we have seen, at that time exclusively Western.
The Cross on which Jesus Christ was nailed was of the
kind known as Immissa, which means that the vertical trunk
extended a certain height above the transverse beam; it was thus higher than the Crosses of the two thieves,
His crime being judged a graver one, according to Saint John Chrysostom. The earliest Christian
Fathers who speak of the Cross describe it as thus constructed. We gather as much
from Saint Matthew 27:37, where he tells us that the
Titulus, or inscription containing
the cause of His death, was placed,
"over", the head of Jesus Christ.
Saint Irenaeus says that the Cross had five extremities:
two in its length, two in its breadth, and the fifth a projection in
the middle. Saint Augustine agrees with him.
Some believe that Jesus Christ was crucified on a
Cross that had a fifth extremity, on which the Crucified
One was seated. Saint Justin calls it a horn, and compares it to the horn of a
rhinoceros. This little seat (equuleus) prevented the weight of the body from
completely tearing the nail-pierced hands, and it helped to support the sufferer. It has never been indicated,
however, in representations of the Crucifixion. Others contend that since the authorities wanted
Jesus to die before sunset, the seat was not used.
On the Cross of Christ was placed the
Titulus, as to the wording of which the Four Evangelists do not agree.
Saint Matthew gives, "This is Jesus the King of the Jews";
Saint Mark "The King of the Jews";
Saint Luke, "This is the King of the Jews";
Saint John, an eyewitness, "Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews".
In representations of the Crucifixion there often appears beneath the feet a wooden support
(suppedaneum); that it ever existed is very doubtful.
A microscopic examination of the fragments of the Cross scattered through the world
in the form of relics reveals the fact that it was made from a pine tree. As
noted by the Evangelists, two thieves were crucified, one on either side of
Christ. Their Crosses must have resembled the one on which
He suffered; in Christian art and tradition they
generally appear lower. A large portion of the Cross of the good thief (traditionally known as Dismas) is
preserved at Rome in the altar of the Chapel of the Relics at Santa Croce in Gerusalemme.
The historical narrative of the Passion and Crucifixion
of Jesus Christ, as found in the Four Gospels, agrees exactly with all we have set down above concerning
this form of punishment. Jesus Christ was condemned for the crime of sedition
and tumult, as were also some of the Apostles at later dates. His Crucifixion was
preceded by the Scourging. He then bore His
Cross to the place of punishment. Finally the legs of
Jesus would have been broken, according to the custom of Palestine, in order to permit the burial that very evening, had not the
soldiers, on approaching Him, seen that He was already
dead. Lastly, in ancient Christian art and tradition, the Crucifixion of
Christ appears as done with four nails, not with
three, according to the usage of the more recent Christian art.
Contrary to the above opinion, Forensic Examination of the Holy Shroud
shows that three nails were probably used.