Above painting: Louis Jean Francois - Mars and Venus an Allegory of Peace


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Friday, September 24, 2010

Guest Author: Mary McCall, Medieval Christian Symbolism Part I

Once again, I would like to welcome the fabulous Mary McCall to History Undressed.  Today, Mary is with us to discuss the first part in a series she will be writing for our reading pleasure, Medieval Christian Symbolism.

Medieval Christian Symbolism: Part 1
I’ll begin with one that plays a major role in one of my wips.
From the time of the cavemen, symbolism has provided a means of communication among people. While it is impossible to cover every symbol used in Christianity, I will attempt to reveal the origin and meaning of some of the more prominent symbols. In this post, I’ll begin with the most widely recognized Christian symbol, the cross, and cover the most commonly seen historic forms, though this is by no means an exhaustive list. As a matter or reference, the difference between a cross and a crucifix is the presence of the corpus of Jesus on the crucifix.

"Chi-Rho" or "sigla" or “Laborum”: the letters "X" and "P," representing the first letters of the title "Christos," were put together to form this symbol for Christ ("Chi" is pronounced "Kie"). It is this form of the Cross that Emperor Constantine I saw in his vision along with the Greek words, TOUTO NIKA, which are rendered in Latin as "In hoc signo vinces" and which mean "in this sign thou shalt conquer. The Chi-Rho is the form of the cross that Constantine ordered to replace the eagle throughout the Roman Empire. My hero is the Chi and my heroine is the Rho, and they bear the marks on their arms. Thus when they become one in heart and mind, the symbols merge and they are marked as warriors for God.

"Crux commissa" or "thau" or "tau": the T-shaped cross is mentioned in the Old Testament and is seen as a foreshadowing of the Cross of Christ. Ezechiel 9:4: And the Lord said to him: Go through the midst of the city, through the midst of Jerusalem: and mark Thau upon the foreheads of the men that sigh, and mourn for all the abominations that are committed in the midst thereof.

The Thau of Ezechiel was itself presaged by the image of Moses's brazen serpent that he held up on a pole in Numbers 21: And the Lord said to him: Make brazen serpent, and set it up for a sign: whosoever being struck [by the "fiery serpents"] shall look on it, shall live. Moses therefore made a brazen serpent, and set it up for a sign: which when they that were bitten looked upon, they were healed.

Because of these verses, at least one of the ancients believed the Thau to be the form of the Cross of Jesus. Tertullian wrote, "The Greek letter and our Latin letter T are the true form of the cross, which, according to the Prophet, will be imprinted on our foreheads in the true Jerusalem." (Contra Marc., III, xxii)

If "Thau" was the true form of the Cross, the existence of the titulus crucis (the plaque that bore the inscription "Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews") would have made the Cross at least appear to be a "crux immissa" (see above beside the Thau), and there would have had to have been enough of the upright post over the arms on which to affix it. Nonetheless, whether the "immissa" or commissa" was the true form of the Cross, at the very least the Thau depicts the Cross of Christ symbolically, and St. Francis of Assisi took the Thau as the symbol of his Franciscan Order

"Crux immissa" or "Latin Cross": the most common form of the Cross and believed to be of the style on which Jesus died.
Byzantine Cross: used mostly by the Eastern Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches. The second cross-bar at top is for the INRI inscription; the bottom cross-bar is His footrest.

Slavonic Cross: used most often by Eastern Catholics and Russian Orthodox, this Cross is the Byzantine Cross with the footrest at a diagonal. This slant is said to represent one of a few things:

• the footrest wrenched loose from the Christ's writhing in intense physical suffering; lower side representing "down," the fate of sinners, while the elevated side represents Heaven;

• the lower side represents the bad thief (known to us as Gestas through the apocryphal "Acts of Pilate" ("Gospel of Nicodemus") while the elevated side to Christ's right represents the thief who would be with Him in Paradise (St. Dismas);

• the "X" shape of the slanted "footrest" against the post symbolizes the cross on which St. Andrew was crucified
Greek Cross: a very common artistic representation of the Cross. Crosses such as this one and the Tau were also popular because they were easily disguised, an important feature for persecuted Christians. (light and life)

Jerusalem Cross: also called the "Crusaders' Cross," it is made up of 5 Greek Crosses which are said to symbolize a) the 5 Wounds of Christ; and/or b) the 4 Gospels and the 4 corners of the earth (the 4 smaller crosses) and Christ Himself (the large Cross). This Cross was a common symbol used during the wars against Islamic aggression.

Maltese Cross: associated with the Knights of St. John (also known as the "Hospitallers of St. John of Jerusalem" or simply "Knights of Malta"), this Cross's 8 points are said to symbolize the 8 Beatitudes and the Beatitudes' associated obligations. The Order of St. John ran hostels and hospitals for Christian pilgrims to Jerusalem, but eventually had to fight during the wars of Islamic aggression. It is said that the Maltese Cross is a symbol within a symbol in that it is made of the initial letters of the Greek words for, "Jesus Christ, God, Son, Savior" ("Iesous Christos Theou Huios Soter"), which forms the acrostic for the word "fish." When these letters -- -- (Iota, Chi, Theta, Upsilon, Sigma) are stacked on top of each other and their "ends" closed, they form a Maltese Cross.

Baptismal Cross: consisting of the Greek Cross with the Greek letter "X", the first initial of the title "Christ," this Cross is a symbol of regeneration, hence, its association with Baptism.
Graded Cross: this Cross, also known as the "Calvary Cross," has 3 steps which represent the three Theological Virtues: Faith, Hope and Charity.
There are two examples of the Evangelists’ Cross. On the one to the left, the 4 steps at the bottom of the Cross stand for Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Also common: The four Evangelists (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) are depicted on this symbol as a winged man, an eagle, a winged lion and a winged ox (or calf). They are derived from the priest Ezekiel's prophecy after seeing a vision of four living creatures.. Putting aside the claims by UFOlogists that Ezekiel witnessed flying saucers, we can imagine the prophet believed he was seeing a vision of God being served by Cherubim - winged creatures ready to fly out swiftly at God's command to do His work. In particular, this involved spreading the news of salvation, also known as 'Gospel'. This cross can therefore also be called the Gospel Cross.
These four winged creatures have been associated with the four Evangelists and depicted in Christian art since the 2nd century. They have also been likened to Jesus' journey on Earth where he was born as a man, was sacrificed as a calf, was reborn as a lion in his resurrection, and soared like an eagle in his Ascension.
"Crux decussata" ("decussated cross") or "St. Andrew's Cross": called "decussated" because it looks like the Roman Numeral "10" (decussis), it is also called St. Andrew's Cross because St. Andrew was supposed to have been crucified on a cross of this shape.
Celtic Cross ("the Cross of Iona"): stone crosses in this form dot the landscapes of Ireland and Scotland and are associated with the evangelization of these lands. The circles common to these crosses represent the eternity of God.
St. Brigid's Cross: St. Brigid fashioned a Cross out of rushes as she sat near a dying chieftan's bed. He asked her about what she was doing and in explaining, she recounted the story of Christ, whereupon the chieftan converted. Catholics -- especially Irish Catholics -- fashion Crosses like these on The Feast of Saint Brigid (1 February).
Peter's Cross: because when Peter was to be martyred he chose to be crucified upside-down out of respect for Christ, the upside-down Latin Cross has become his symbol and, thereby, a symbol of the papacy. Sadly, this cross has been co-opted by Satanists whose purpose of "inverting" Christianity (e.g. as in their Black 'Masses') is expressed by taking the Latin Cross of Christ and inverting it. At various anti-Christian websites, there are pictures of the Holy Father standing in front of Peter's Cross with captions such as "The Pope worships Satan!!!!!!!" It'd be funny if it weren't so sad and ignorant.
Papal Cross: the three cross-bars represent the Latin Pope's triple role as Bishop of Rome, Patriarch of West, and successor of Peter, Chief of the Apostles.
Lorraine Cross: used by archbishops and patriarchs. Also known as a "Caravaca Cross" because of a miracle, involving a Patriarch's Cross, that took place in Caravaca, Spain.

Next time, we can look at fish, anchors, stars and other symbols. Then later we’ll take a gander at the meaning of numbers.

Until then, happy reading and writing!


Mary McCall is a Golden Heart finalist author of historical romance.  She puts the fun back in historical romance!  Visit Mary at http://www.marymccall.net/, or her blog at http://marymccall.wordpress.com/
Highland Treasure, available now in print of e-book format. 
Can the Highlands survive a gifted soul with a tendency toward mischief?

Leonce MacPherson became chieftain after a Norman slaughtered his father and clansmen. For two years he raided Northumbria seeking vengeance while a dream woman promises the return of his great sword, stolen in the massacre.
After escaping an abusive father, Lady Hope Nevilles, unknowingly the Gifted MacKay of her generation, lived with animals for friends in wild Northumbria. She longs to flee to her mother’s native Highlands and find a place away from capture and torture.

Her father steals Leonce’s son, Hope takes that as a sign to journey to the Highlands. She returns the boy and the great sword to Leonce, who recognizes her as his dream siren. Can he trick her into marriage? She vowed to kill herself rather than submit to any man. Can she learn to trust? Will her father's sin haunt her future? Will distrust and jealousy doom their fragile union?


Caroline Starr Rose said...

This was absolutely fascinating. Thanks so much!

Lotus said...

Excellent information! I second Caroline!

Allison Knight said...

Wow. I've seen most of them and knew about some, but not all. Thank you for filling in the blanks.

Unknown said...

Terrific information. I have seen some of these symbols of the cross, but not all. Very enlightning. Thanks for posting.

Anonymous said...

Thanks so much for inviting me, Eliza!

Thanks for your comments, Caroline and Lotus. I played with whether I should do this many crosses at once or if I should intersperse them between other symbols. Then I remembered, the cross is the bases for so many other symbols right down to the construction of churches that it would be well to address them, since they'll come up later anyway.
It's nice to be able to links specific symboles with what is occuring in our stories. My Chi-Rho couple is having to decipher clues and symbols all the way through. Picking the right symbol to use at the right time has become a puzzle/game for me.
Thanks for stopping by.

Anonymous said...

Hi Allison and Lorri:
So glad to see you here. If you saw my files of just crosses, you'd be amazed. They have apparently unearthed some "Tau" type crosses that have petrified in Egypt.
Hitler originally tried to convince the Nazies that the swasitka was a form of a cross, but that didn't last long. It is generally held to be a pagan symbol and it's design can still be seen in some floor tiles of Roman and Greek ruins today.

Anonymous said...

I briefly read through this post and am going to have to come back when I'm not falling asleep at the keyboard and read it again. It is excellent and I am looking forward to Part II.

Have read the blurb for HIGHLAND TREASURE before and it sounds good.

Rosemary Gemmell said...

Really interesting information, thanks for posting it.

Jacquie Rogers said...

Mary, I knew I was in for a treat and you delivered. Can't wait for your next installment!

Caroline Clemmons said...

Mary, this was a fascinating article. I love religious symbols and icons and collect crosses, angels, nativity sets, and things from other religions as well as Christianity. I can't wait for your next installment!

Anonymous said...

Hi Librapat: I think the biggest problem with this series will be deciding when to stop, because there are so many early Christian symbols out there. I think one of the reasons I'm having so much fun with the 3rd book of my Sister's series is that I've put the Roman descendant of Thaddeus Arturius with the Highland descendant of Luturius Draco Arturius (luther Pendradog) and they have to go through a lot of clues and symbols to solve a mystery and placate God for the sins of Luther and Arthur.
So glad you enjoyed the blurb for Highland Treasure. Who knows who will win the book tomorrow night from among the commenters. But I'll say good luck to all on that!

Anonymous said...

Hi Rosemary and Jacquie:
So glad you could make it over. I love this topic and find the symbols facinating in some cases. It's also great info for anyone who writes historicals, time travels, inspirationals, or some paranormals, because in many cultures, the meaning of the symbols crosses over.
Take care!

Anonymous said...

Hi Caroline:
Ilove collecting different kinds of symbols and religious artifact. They're often reminders of who's watching over me and give me hope,
Have a blessed day,

Judy said...

Goodness, did not know there were so many crosses in so many styles! A very intersting post in this segment.


Julie Eberhart Painter said...

This is great! I printed this out for my husband who's not good with the computer, but would love to win one of your books. He's a Shaw, one of the Chattans.

Julie Eberhart Painter

Jude Johnson said...

Fascinating information, Mary. Growing up in the Pittsburgh area with lots of Orthodox churches, I always wondered why the Slavonic Cross had the bottom at a slant and had no idea what it meant. Thanks for sharing such a font of information - and I don't think you need to worry about when to stop as it was en absorbing read.


mjmuse said...

Great post. :) I enjoyed it-and like the others I'm looking forward to #2.

Sandra Leesmith said...

Very interesting. I look forward to the follow up posts.

Anonymous said...

Hi Judy:
I know it seems like a lot of crosses, but if you saw my entire file, you be surprised at how many more there actually are.
I only just realized I didn't mention that the use of crucifixion as a means of criminal death by the state didn't take place until the time Emperor Constantine I and not until after his mother Saint Helen returned from the Holy Land after finding the true cross of JC. It was her influence that caused Constantine to convert.
Thanks for stopping by,

Anonymous said...

Hi Julie:
You're the first person to read my blurb and mention the Chattan in response! I love the stories of the Chattan and actually did a contest on another site that made people visit Clan MacPherson and tell me the motto. I think too many people think of house cats when they read those mottos... if they knew the truth, they'd know why those mottos invoked fear. I actually have an in progress outline for a Shaw story when I finish my wips.
Thanks for coming. Hope you enjoyed it.

Anonymous said...

Hi Jude:
So glad you mentioned this. I did a paper on Christian symbolism for one of my degrees years ago. I had more questions over the Slavonic cross because of the footrest than I can recall. Most people, even friends of mine from who members of the Slavoinc rite, don't know that. The second most questions seemed to be about the name of the bad thief. Everyone had heard of Dismus, but few had heard of Gestus.
Glad you dropped by,

Anonymous said...

Hi mjmuse & Sandra:
So glad you both enjoyed it. Finding the origins and meanings behind some symbols we find so common can be interesting. I was worried about mentioning the Cross of Jersulem, though it's place in history is so important. I accidentally knocked over a book I was reading about the first Crusade, and I noticed the book, written in 1882, rarely mentioned the word Crusade. It constantly spoke of the wars of Islamic aggression, so I used that terminology instead. What's interesting, the mere showing of that cross during a Crusade could rally armies, while the term Crusade is now so politically incorrect. I sometimes think that people who write historicals have never learned how to think in historical terms of the people they study. It's like they learn the facts, but don't really understand the life. It's rather like speaking another language. They say if you want to speak French, you must learn to think in French. I must be a two language gal, because after Latin, everything else was Greek to me.... okay, bad pun.
Have a wonderful week!

Eliza Knight said...

As always Mary, you are such a wealth of information and you present it in a way that is fascinating! Thanks for visiting with us and I look forward to your next post :)

Kelley Heckart said...

Thanks for sharing this. I love crosses. I am more familiar with pre-Christian crosses that symbolized the earth's four directions and the divine center.

Have you heard of a fiery cross in the Scottish Highlands? I don't remember where I saw this info, but it was dipped in goat's blood and set on fire. It was used to warn of danger.

Julie Robinson said...

Thank you Mary for this lesson. I've added it to your first lesson in December. BTW, don't worry about whether or not you should or shouldn't mention something---if it's history, then that's just the way it is.