At an early time in the ancient world, the two intersecting lines that form a cross became a symbol of the sun, of fire and of life. The most common crosses in pre-Christian cultures were the crux gammata (or swastika), a symbol of good fortune, the crux commissa (the Tau cross) and the crux ansata (the Ankh).
By the first-century A.D., however, the cross was recognized across the whole of the Roman Empire not as a symbol of life but as an instrument of death, used by the Romans as one of the cruelest forms of execution for criminals, slaves and enemies of the state — crucifixion.
For the Christians, the cross served as a precious sign of Christ’s redemptive suffering. St. Paul, for example, wrote, “I have been crucified with Christ; yet I live, no longer I, but Christ lives in me” (Gal 2:19-20). The open veneration of Christ’s cross by the early Christians, of course, was dangerous during the persecutions, which explains the absence of surviving monuments and decorations. Where the cross was used, it was often disguised, sometimes in the form of an anchor, or early Christians adopted other symbols, including the Good Shepherd.
Still, Tertullian in the third century referred to the Christian community as “followers of the Cross” and famously wrote, “In all our travels and movements, in all our comings and goings, in putting on our shoes, at the bath, at the table, in lighting our candles, in lying down, in sitting down … we mark our foreheads with the sign of the cross” (De Corona militis, Chapter 3).
Embracing the cross
The wider use of the cross in art began in the fourth century when Emperor Constantine the Great brought an end to the persecutions and placed the Chi-rho, the crucifixion monogram, upon the standards, shields and coins of the empire. The discovery of the True Cross in 326 in Jerusalem by his mother, St. Helena, also spurred the artistic embrace of the cross across the imperial world.
One of the earliest known surviving representations of the cross in Christian art is found in the fifth-century church of Santa Pudenziana in Rome in an apse mosaic. The crucifix, meanwhile, was not used in early Christian art until the late fourth century. Two of the oldest surviving crucifixes both date to the early fifth century: a crucifix carved onto an ivory casket and preserved in the British Museum; and a striking relief carved onto the wooden doors of the Basilica of Santa Sabina in Rome.
The basic truth of the cross remains for Christians, regardless of the century. As Pope Benedict XVI taught during World Youth Day in Madrid last August, “The Cross was not a sign of failure, but an expression of self-giving in love that extends even to the supreme sacrifice of one’s life. … The Cross, by its shape and its meaning, represents this love of both the Father and the Son for men. Here we recognize the icon of supreme love, which teaches us to love what God loves and in the way that he loves: this is the Good News that gives hope to the world.”
Matthew Bunson is editor of The Catholic Answer magazine and general editor of the Catholic Almanac (OSV, $32.95).