History of the Cross as a Christian Symbol
The exhibit at the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas, November 18, 2007 - March 30, 2008, had a huge impact on me. After an afternoon of immersion in Early Christian Art in the exhibit halls of the Kimbell, I bought the book, Picturing the Bible, The Earliest Christian Art, by Jeffrey Spier, which contained the information from the exhibit and more, with pictures of the treasure that I had enjoyed in the exhibit. One of the articles in the book related information on the beginning uses of the cross as a Christian symbol. I thought it was fascinating and offer the information on page 233 from Mr. Spier's book to you.

"Despite the centrality of the cross to Christian belief, there are only a few scraps of evidence to suggest that it was used pictorially at an early date. As early as the second century, however, Tertullian (De corona 325-30) noted that Christians ritualistically traced the cross on their forehead for protection, and Origen (Selecta in Ezechielem 9), suggest that this practice was in accord with the "mark set upon the foreheads" in Ezekiel 9:4, which he equated with the cross-shaped archaic Hebrew letter tav, itself viewed as a prefiguring of the Christian cross. The earliest attempt at a pictorial reference to the cross was the staurogram, a literary monogram used by Christian scribes around the year 200 as a sacred image for the word stauros, "cross". Similarly, a third century graffito found in the so-called Piazzuola area beneath the catacomb of San Sebastiano in Rome read ΙΤΧθYС, inserting the T-shaped cross into the popular acrostic ichthys, which signified Christ.

Depictions of the cross did not become wide-spread until the time of Constantine. Following the supposed discovery of the True Cross by his mother, Helena, the liturgical veneration of the cross was actively promoted; it was probably only beginning in the fourth century that actual crosses were made for churches or for personal use, although nothing of this date survives. Literary sources relate that a large cross of silver or gold was erected on the hill of Golgotha and that Constantine and Helena dedicated an inscribed gold cross weighing 150 lbs. in Saint Peter's in Rome, which was placed over the apostle's tomb (Liber Pontificalis 34.17). Slightly later, at the end of the fourth century, the jeweled cross (crux gemmata) became a familiar image, originating most likely in monumental church decoration, such as the mosaic apse of the church of Santa Pudenziana in Rome. Imperial appropriation of the symbol followed in the early fifth century, when the cross appears on coins and in the hands of the emperor in the form of a scepter, signifying his divinely appointed authority.

Crosses worn as personal jewelry may have been introduced around the mid-fourth century. Saint Macrina (c.330-379), the sister of Gregory of Nyssa and Basil the Great, was found at her death to be wearing an iron cross around her neck, but the earliest extant examples of crosses worn as jewelry (usually in silver or gold) date only to the beginning of the sixth century. Despite the importance of the cross as a symbol, actual crosses placed in churches or worn by individuals are rarely mentioned in literary sources before the mid-fourth century, and few, if any, examples datable before the late fifth century survive."

References: Dinkler and Dinkler-von Schubert 1970.

Jan Hetherly February 27, 2008