History of the Cross

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Angels carrying the Cross - by MICHELANGELO di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni - from Cappella Sistina, Vatican


History of the Cross

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Primitive Cruciform Signs

crux2a.jpg (32415 bytes) 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 -- significance.

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 civilizations.


The Cross as an Instrument of Punishment in the Ancient World

crucifixion3.jpg (1600 bytes)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 malefactors.

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 slaves.

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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.

crucifixion2.jpg (20550 bytes)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.