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The Christian Cross, seen as a representation of the instrument of the crucifixion of Jesus, is the best-known symbol of Christianity. It is related to the crucifix (a cross that includes a usually three-dimensional representation of Jesus' body) and to the more general family of cross symbols.
The cross-shaped sign, represented in its simplest form by a crossing of two lines at right angles, greatly predates, in both East and West, the introduction of Christianity. It goes back to a very remote period of human civilization. It is supposed to have been used not just for its ornamental value, but also with religious significance. It may have represented the apparatus used in kindling fire, and thus as the symbol of sacred fire or as a symbol of the sun, denoting its daily rotation. It has also been interpreted as the mystic representation of lightning or of the god of the tempest, or the emblem of the Aryan pantheon and the primitive Aryan civilization.
Another associated symbol is the ansated cross (ankh or crux ansata) of the ancient Egyptians, often depicted in the hands of the goddess Sekhet, and as a hieroglyphic sign of life or of the living. Egyptian Christians (Copts) adopted it as the emblem of the cross. In his book, The Worship of the Dead, Colonel J. Garnier wrote: "The cross in the form of the 'Crux Ansata' ... was carried in the hands of the Egyptian priests and Pontiff kings as the symbol of their authority as priests of the Sun god and was called 'the Sign of Life'." 
In the Bronze Age a representation of the cross as conceived in Christian art appeared, and the form was popularised. The more precise characterization coincided with a corresponding general change in customs and beliefs. The cross then came into use in various forms on many objects: fibulas, cinctures, earthenware fragments, and on the bottom of drinking vessels. De Mortillet believed that such use of the sign was not merely ornamental, but rather a symbol of consecration, especially in the case of objects pertaining to burial. In the proto-Etruscan cemetery of Golasecca every tomb has a vase with a cross engraved on it. True crosses of more or less artistic design have been found in Tiryns, at Mycenæ, in Crete, and on a fibula from Vulci.
During the first two centuries of Christianity, the cross may have been rare in Christian iconography, as it depicts a purposely painful and gruesome method of public execution and Christians were reluctant to use it. A symbol similar to the cross, the staurogram, was used to abbreviate the Greek word for cross in very early New Testament manuscripts such as P66, P45 and P75, almost like a nomina sacra. The extensive adoption of the cross as Christian iconographic symbol arose from the 4th century.
However, the cross symbol was already associated with Christians in the 2nd century, as is indicated in the anti-Christian arguments cited in the Octavius of Minucius Felix, chapters IX and XXIX, written at the end of that century or the beginning of the next, and by the fact that by the early 3rd century the cross had become so closely associated with Christ that Clement of Alexandria, who died between 211 and 216, could without fear of ambiguity use the phrase τὸ κυριακὸν σημεῖον (the Lord's sign) to mean the cross, when he repeated the idea, current as early as the apocryphal Epistle of Barnabas, that the number 318 (in Greek numerals, ΤΙΗ) in Genesis 14:14 was interpreted as a foreshadowing (a "type") of the cross (T, an upright with crossbar, standing for 300) and of Jesus (ΙΗ, the first two letter of his name ΙΗΣΟΥΣ, standing for 18), and his contemporary Tertullian could designate the body of Christian believers as crucis religiosi, i.e. "devotees of the Cross". In his book De Corona, written in 204, Tertullian tells how it was already a tradition for Christians to trace repeatedly on their foreheads the sign of the cross. It is important to note that the crucifix, that is a cross upon which an image of Christ is present, is not known to have been used until the 6th century AD.
The cross as a Christian symbol or "seal" came into use at least as early as the second century (see "Apost. Const." iii. 17; Epistle of Barnabas, xi.-xii.; Justin, "Apologia," i. 55-60; "Dial. cum Tryph." 85-97); and the marking of a cross upon the forehead and the chest was regarded as a talisman against the powers of demons (Tertullian, "De Corona," iii.; Cyprian, "Testimonies," xi. 21–22; Lactantius, "Divinæ Institutiones," iv. 27, and elsewhere). Accordingly the Christian Fathers had to defend themselves, as early as the second century, against the charge of being worshipers of the cross, as may be learned from Tertullian, "Apologia," xii., xvii., and Minucius Felix, "Octavius," xxix. Christians used to swear by the power of the cross
In contemporary Christianity, the cross is a symbol of the atonement and reminds Christians of God's love in sacrificing his own son for humanity. It represents Jesus' victory over sin and death, since it is believed that through his death and resurrection he conquered death itself. See Colossians 2:15, "Having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross".
Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox, members of the major branches of Lutheranism, some Anglicans, and other Christians often make the Sign of the Cross upon themselves. This was already a common Christian practice in the time of Tertullian.
The Feast of the Cross is an important Christian feast. One of the twelve Great Feasts in Eastern Orthodoxy is the Exaltation of the Cross on September 14, which commemorates the consecration of the basilica on the site where the original cross of Jesus was reportedly discovered in 326 by Helena of Constantinople, mother of Constantine the Great. The Catholic Church celebrates the feast on the same day and under the same name (In Exaltatione Sanctae Crucis), though in English it has been called the feast of the Triumph of the Cross.
Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox and Anglican bishops place a cross [+] before their name when signing a document. The dagger symbol (†) placed after the name of a dead person (often with the date of death) is sometimes taken to be a Christian cross.
Although Christians accepted that the cross was the gallows on which Jesus died, they had already begun in the 2nd century to use it as a Christian symbol. During the first three centuries of the Christian era the cross was "a symbol of minor importance" when compared to the prominence given to it later, but by the second century it was nonetheless so closely associated with Christians that Tertullian could designate the body of Christian believers as crucis religiosi, i.e. "devotees of the Cross". and it was already a tradition for Christians to trace repeatedly on their foreheads the sign of the cross. Martin Luther at the time of the Reformation retained the cross and crucifix in the Lutheran Church. Luther wrote: "The cross alone is our theology." He believed one knows God not through works but through suffering, the cross, and faith[need quotation to verify].
The Protestant Reformation spurred a revival of iconoclasm, a wave of rejecting sacred images—including the cross—from worship. For example, during the 16th century, Nicholas Ridley, James Calfhill, and Theodore Beza, rejected practices that were described as cross worship. Considering it a form of idolatry, there was a dispute in 16th century England over the baptismal use of the sign of the cross and even the public use of crosses. There were more active reactions to religious items that were thought as 'relics of Papacy', as happened for example in September 1641, when Sir Robert Harley, pulled down and destroyed the cross at Wigmore. Writers during the 19th century indicating a pagan origin of the cross included Henry Dana Ward, Mourant Brock, and John Denham Parsons. David Williams, writing of medieval images of monsters, says: "The disembodied phallus is also formed into a cross, which, before it became for Christianity the symbol of salvation, was a pagan symbol of fertility." The study, Gods, Heroes & Kings: The Battle for Mythic Britain states: "Before the fourth century CE, the cross was not widely embraced as a sign of Christianity, symbolizing as it did the gallows of a criminal."
Jehovah's Witnesses do not use the symbol of the cross in their worship, which they believe constitutes idolatry. They believe that Jesus died on a single upright torture stake rather than a two-beam cross, based on the classical Greek term stauros as being a single upright pole. Although early Watch Tower Society publications associated with the Bible Student movement taught that Christ was executed on a cross, it no longer appeared on Watch Tower Society publications after the name Jehovah's witnesses was adopted in 1931, and use of the cross was officially abandoned in 1936.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints teaches that Jesus died on a cross, however, their prophet Gordon B. Hinckley stated that "for us the cross is the symbol of the dying Christ, while our message is a declaration of the living Christ." When asked what was the symbol of his religion, Hinckley replied "the lives of our people must become the only meaningful expression of our faith and, in fact, therefore, the symbol of our worship." Prophet Howard W. Hunter encouraged Latter-day Saints "to look to the temple of the Lord as the great symbol of your membership." Images of LDS temples and the Angel Moroni (who is found in statue on most temples) are commonly used to symbolize the LDS faith.
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The cross is often shown in different shapes and sizes, in many different styles. It may be used in personal jewelry, or used on top of church buildings. It is shown both empty and in crucifix form, that is, with a figure of Christ, often referred to as the corpus (Latin for "body"), affixed to it. Roman Catholic, Anglican and Lutheran depictions of the cross are often crucifixes, in order to emphasize that it is Jesus that is important, rather than the cross in isolation. Large crucifixes are a prominent feature of some Lutheran churches, as illustrated in the article Rood. However, some other Protestant traditions depict the cross without the corpus, interpreting this form as an indication of belief in the resurrection rather than as representing the interval between the death and the resurrection of Jesus.
Crosses are a prominent feature of Christian cemeteries, either carved on gravestones or as sculpted stelas. Because of this, planting small crosses is sometimes used in countries of Christian culture to mark the site of fatal accidents, or to protest alleged deaths.
Forms of the Christian cross include:
|Altar cross||A cross on a flat base to rest upon the altar of a church. The earliest known representation of an altar cross appears in a miniature in a 9th-century manuscript. By the 10th century such crosses were in common use, but the earliest extant altar cross is a 12th-century one in the Great Lavra on Mt. Athos. Mass in the Roman Rite requires the presence of a cross (more exactly, a crucifix) "on or close to" the altar. Accordingly, the required cross may rest on the reredos rather than on the altar, or it may be on the wall behind the altar or be suspended above the altar.|
|Bolnisi cross||Ancient Georgian cross and national symbol from the 5th century AD.|
|Blessing cross||Used by priests of the Eastern Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox Churches to bestow blessings upon the faithful.|
|Processional cross||Used to lead religious processions; sometimes, after the procession it is placed behind the altar to serve as an altar cross.|
|Rood||Large crucifix high in a church; most medieval Western churches had one, often with figures of the Virgin Mary and John the Evangelist alongside, and often mounted on a rood screen|
|Andrew cross||See, below, Saltire.|
|Coptic ankh||Shaped like the letter T surmounted by an oval or circle. Originally the Egyptian symbol for "life", it was adopted by the Copts (Egyptian Christians). Also called a crux ansata, meaning "cross with a handle".|
|Anthony's cross||See, below, Tau cross.|
|Archiepiscopal cross||A double-barred cross carried by an archbishop.|
|Armenian cross-stone (Khachkar)||A khachkar (cross-stone) is a popular symbol of Armenians.|
|Calvary cross||Either a stepped cross (see below), or a Gothic-style cross mounted on a base shaped to resemble Calvary (the place where Christ was crucified, pictured as a hill), with the Virgin Mary and Saint John on either the base or crossarms.|
|Canterbury cross||A cross with four arms of equal length which widen to a hammer shape at the outside ends. Each arm has a triangular panel inscribed in a triquetra (three-cornered knot) pattern. There is a small square panel in the center of the cross. A symbol of the Anglican and Episcopal Churches.|
|Celtic Cross||Essentially a Latin cross, with a circle enclosing the intersection of the upright and crossbar, as in the standing High crosses.|
|Consecration cross||One of 12 crosses painted on the walls of a church to mark where it had been anointed during its consecration.|
|Coptic cross||The original Coptic cross has its origin in the Coptic ankh.|
|New Coptic Cross||This new Coptic Cross is the cross currently used by the Coptic Catholic Church and the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria. It evolved from the older Coptic Crosses depicted above. A gallery of Coptic Crosses can be found here.|
|Cross crosslet||A Cross crosslet is composed of four Latin Crosses standing at right angles to each other, with the tops facing each of the cardinal directions.|
|Crucifix||A cross with a representation of Jesus' body hanging from it. It is primarily used in Catholic, Anglican, Lutheran, and Eastern Orthodox churches (where the figure is painted), and it emphasizes Christ's sacrifice— his death by crucifixion.|
|Crux fourchette||A cross with flared or forked ends (see illustration at Crosses in Heraldry).|
|Crux gemmata||A cross inlaid with gems. Denotes a glorification of the cross, this form was inspired by the cult of the cross that arose after Saint Helena's discovery of the True Cross in Jerusalem in 327.|
|Crux hasta||A cross with a long descending arm; a cross-staff.|
|Crux pattée||A Greek cross with flared ends.|
|Double cross.||A cross with two crossbars. See Patriarchal cross.|
|Globus cruciger||Globe cross. An orb surmounted by a cross; used in royal regalia.|
|Grapevine cross||Also known as the cross of Saint Nino of Cappadocia, who Christianised Georgia.|
|Greek cross||With arms of equal length. One of the most common Christian forms, in common use by the 4th century.|
|Gnostic cross||Cross used by the early Gnostic sects.|
|Jerusalem Cross||Also known as the Crusader's Cross. A large cross with a smaller cross in each of its angles. It was used as a symbol of the Crusaders who fought against the Islamic forces.|
|Latin cross||Cross with a longer descending arm. Along with the Greek cross, it is the most common form. It represents the cross of Jesus' crucifixion.|
|Living cross||One of two possibilities: Either a natural cross made of living vines and branches. Or, a man-made cross with vines or plants planted at its base. In the all-natural version, it refers to the legend that Jesus' cross was made from the Tree of life. In the man-made cross with plants planted at the base, it contrasts the "new" Tree of Life (the cross) with the Book of Genesis Tree of Life. In both cases it shows Jesus' death (the cross) as a redemption for original sin (Tree of Life).|
|Lorraine cross||Once with crossbars of equal length near the top and the bottom, now practically identical with the patriarchal cross|
|Maltese cross||A Greek cross with arms that taper into the center. The outer ends may be forked.|
|Marian Cross||A term invented to refer to Pope John Paul II's combination of a Latin cross and the letter M, representing the Mary present on Calvary.|
|Occitan cross||Based on the counts of Toulouse's traditional coat of arms, it soon became the symbol of Occitania as a whole.|
|Off Center Cross of Christian Universalism.||The off-center cross was invented in late April, 1946, in a hotel room in Akron, Ohio, during the Universalist General Assembly, where a number of Universalist ministers pooled their ideas.|
|Papal cross||A cross with three bars near the top. The bar are of unequal length, each one shorter than the one below.|
|Patriarchal cross||Also called an archiepiscopal cross or a crux gemina. A double cross, with the two crossbars near the top. The upper one is shorter, representing the plaque nailed to Jesus' cross. Similar to the Cross of Lorraine, though in the original version of the latter, the bottom arm is lower. The Eastern Orthodox cross adds a slanted bar near the foot.|
|Pectoral cross||A large cross worn in front of the chest (in Latin, pectus) by some clergy.|
|Peter cross||A cross with the crossbeam placed near the foot, that is associated with Saint Peter because of the tradition that he was crucified head down.|
|Rose Cross||A cross with a rose blooming at the center. The central symbol to all groups embracing the Esoteric Christian philosophy of the Rosicrucians.|
|Russian Orthodox cross||(See Suppedaneum cross, below).|
|Saltire or crux decussata||An X-shaped cross associated with St. Andrew, patron of Scotland, and so a national symbol of that country. The shape is that of the cross on which Saint Andrew is said to have been martyred. Also known as St. Andrew's Cross or Andrew Cross.|
|Scandinavian cross||A cross with the shorter vertical part is shifted to left from the center of the longer horizontal bar, similar to a Latin cross rotated 90 degrees to the left. The cross is used in the Nordic Cross flags. According to legend, the flag came into Danish possession during the Battle of Lyndanisse in 1219. The Danes were on a failing crusade in Estonia, but after praying to God a flag fell from the sky.|
|Stepped cross||A cross resting on a base with three steps, also called a graded or a Calvary cross.|
|Suppedaneum cross||Also known as Russian cross, Slavic or Slavonic cross. A three-barred cross in which the short top bar represents the inscription over Jesus' head, and the lowest (usually slanting) short bar, placed near the foot, represents his footrest (in Latin, suppedaneum). This cross existed in a slightly different form (with the bottom crossbeam pointing upwards) in Byzantium, and it was changed and adopted by the Russian Orthodox Church and especially popularized in the North Slavic countries.|
|Saint Thomas Cross||The ancient cross used by Saint Thomas Christians (also known as Syrian Christians or Nasrani) in Kerala, India.|
|Tau cross||A T-shaped cross. Also called the Saint Anthony's cross and crux commissa.|
|Macedonian cross, also known as Veljusa Cross (Вељушки крст).||Macedonian Christian symbol, symbol of the Macedonian Orthodox Church.|
|Monogrammatic Cross, or Staurogram or Tau-Rho Cross||The earlier visual image of the cross, already present in New Testament manuscripts as P66, P45 and P75.|
The cross is encoded at U+271D ✝ latin cross. Unicode includes a number of cross symbols.
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Crosses.|
|Wikisource has the text of the 1913 Catholic Encyclopedia article Archæology of the Cross and Crucifix.|
|Wikisource has the text of the 1913 Catholic Encyclopedia article The Cross and Crucifix in Liturgy.|