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Wednesday, September 12, 2001

Origins of the Slavic Cross

by Linda DeLaine
Origins of the Slavic Cross

It is common knowledge that the Cross is the primarily symbol of Christianity. It represents Christ's execution for the sins of humanity. The use of the Cross to identify Christianity and Christians was started by the Emperor Constantine. When he made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire, he replaced the eagles, which symbolized the god Caesar, with the Cross of Christ. Different Christian traditions have developed a variety of Cross designs over the two millennium since Christ's death. One such Cross is the Slavic Cross used by the Russian Orthodox Church.

The Slavic Cross is unique in that it has three, not one, crossbars. In the early 800s AD, the Byzantines added the bottom crossbar to represent the location where Christ's feet were nailed to the Cross. This lower crossbar was placed in a horizontal position. Sometime between the 10th and 11th centuries (900s to 1000s), the Slavic Cross was designed with the lower crossbar placed at a sharp angle to the main vertical post of the Cross. As you look at the Slavic Cross, the left side of this crossbar is elevated. Why?

There are several possible explanations. Many believe that this was done as a visual condemnation to nonbelievers. By having an angled crossbar for Christ's feet, one foot would have been attached much higher, on the Cross, than the other, further intensifying His suffering.

Other explanations are more spiritual in nature. The right side of the crossbar (as you look out from the Cross) is higher to symbolize the second coming of Christ and life for believers/death for nonbelievers. Another popular belief is that the slanted crossbar speaks to the two thieves who were crucified to either side of Christ. In Scripture, the thief to Christ's right begged forgiveness and was promised, by Christ, eternal life (Lk 23:39-43). Thus, the raised side of the crossbar to the Cross' right. Likewise, to the Cross' left, was the thief who taunted Christ.

This explanation is probably the most widely accepted. In the prayers of the 9th hour, we read, Between the two thieves Thy Cross did prove to be a balance of righteousness: wherefore one of them was dragged down to Hades by the weight of his blasphemy; whereas the other was lightened of his transgressions unto the comprehension of theology. O Christ God, glory to Thee.

Most Western crosses include only one crossbar which represents Christ's outstretched arms. Some will add a small sign at the top of the Cross to represent that which was nailed to Christ's Cross by the Roman soldiers. Likewise, the Slavic cross adds a third crossbar not as wide as the primary crossbar. The inscription on this sign reads This is Jesus, the King of the Jews (Mt 27:37; Lk 23:28; Jn 19:19) It is, typically, inscribed in Aramaic.

Many believe that the Slavic Cross is the same as that of the Apostle Andrew, the first called of the apostles, who planted a cross in the Caucasus and predicted that a great church would arise there. Today, St. Andrew's Cross is in the shape of a large X, the shape of the cross upon which the Apostle was crucified.

Meanings of the four pieces of the Cross

TOP CROSSBAR
This is where the plaque, which Pilate had nailed to the Cross, was placed. Here IC XC is inscribed. This is the Greek shorthand for Jesus Christ. Situated above this crossbar is the icon Not Painted by Hands, the face of Christ. On either side of the crossbar are adoring Angels. Beneath the Angels, instead of Pilate's inscription, it reads King of Glory.

SECOND CROSSBAR
This bar, which appears on all crosses, represents Christ's outstretched arms and the location where his hands were nailed to the Cross. Son of God is inscribed on either side of Christ's head. His halo bears the words, The Being and there is no crown of thorns. In the top corners of each end of the crossbar, there is the sun and moon. This refers to the prophecy of Joel; The sun hid its light and the moon turned to blood. Beneath Christ's arms, we read, Before Thy Cross we bow down, O Master, and Thy holy Resurrection we glorify.

BOTTOM CROSSBAR
The most unique feature of the Slavic Cross. As described above, this crossbar represents the location where Christ's feet were nailed to the Cross. The reasons for the angle are described above. Often, the image of Jerusalem is seen in the background of this bar, speaking to the fact that Christ was crucified outside of the Holy City.

UPRIGHT POST
This is the primary piece of the actual cross. In the icon Cross, we find the blood and water that flowed from the wound in Christ's pierced side. Often, the poll and gall soaked sponge offered to Christ by the Roman soldier in included here. Towards the bottom of the upright section, Slavic letters appear which indicate Mount Galgotha or the place of the skull; noting the location of the Crucifixion. At the very bottom of the post is a picture of a cave with a human skull in it. This is the skull of Adam, with whom humanity lost paradise (Eden). It serves as a reminder that, with Christ's sacrifice, humanity has regained paradise and salvation by way of the Cross.

Images courtesy of Eastern Orthodox Holy Icons

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