Cleansing Fire

Defending Truth and Tradition in the Roman Catholic Church


Basic Christian Iconography: The Cross (Part 2)

January 1st, 2016, Promulgated by Bernie

Previously: Part 1

Disguised or Ambiguous Crosses

The reluctance to graphically represent the crucifixion (see Part 1) and yet still refer to the sacrificial nature of Christ’s passion and death may have been ameliorated by the use of what some historians refer to as disguised crosses. Some of these “cross markings” include the anchor, the T-shaped tau cross, the Egyptian looped cross (the ankh, a symbol of life), and also the mast of Jonah’s ship. Most historians would agree, however, that it is very difficult to determine if any of these refer specifically to the crucifixion. Identifying the intended meaning of any of these symbols is now understood as a fruitless quest.


Christian Roman epitaph of Atimetus from the catacombs of St. Sebastian on the Via Appia, Rome. Inscription flanked by Christian symbols, an anchor and a fish. When closing the loculi, the relatives of the deceased often inscribed messages on the slabs. The anchor could stand for faith or hope, or the role of Christ in one’s life.

The anchor symbol is one of the earliest and most popular of markings. There is general agreement that the anchor itself is a symbol of hope as it refers to an anchored ship at rest in a secure harbor which is what every sailor hopes for at the end of the day. That it is a symbol for Christ is also generally accepted as Christ is the secure hope of all Christians. Some see in the vertical shaft and crossing arm of the anchor a reference to the cross which, of course, strengthens the identification of the anchor with Christ. Some writers at the time did make clear parallel associations between such things as anchors and masts with the cross. Given the funerary context of the use of the anchor image in the catacombs, however, the more appropriate interpretation is probably that of simple hope or faith in God.

The Hebrew letter “taw”.

The Hebrew letter “taw”.

The tau cross was derived from the last letter of the Hebrew alphabet, the taw, and eventually became identified with the cross of crucifixion through a trans formative process. The “sign of the cross” as well as the graphic symbol of the cross probably grew out of the mark of the taw written on the foreheads of the righteous, referred to in Ezekial 9:4—6 (the tau spared them God’s wrath that was about to befall Jerusalem.)

Chi Rho, Catacomb of San Callisto

Chi Rho, Catacomb of San Callisto

The chi rho is one of the earliest cruciform symbols used by Christians. Formed by superimposing the first two letters of the word “Christ” in Greek, it is not technically a cross but did invoke the status of Jesus as the Christ. Reminiscent of the taw it did have associations with the cross. There is early evidence of the chi rho symbol on Christian rings of the third century (200’s).

Constantine had a vision of the chi rho and was inspired to attach the symbol to the top of the vexillium, a military cross frame standard from which hung a flag, so that his troops could rally under the patronage of the “One God” rather than many different gods. In place of a flag was suspended a banner bearing portraits of Constantine flanked by his two sons. The Romans referred to the new design as the labarum.



Derived from the labarum was the an image consisting of the cross form of the vexillium surmounted by a wreathed chi rho.

Victory Cross, Rome, Vatican. Sarcophagus of Domatilla (from Catacomb of Domatilla), mid-4th century On top of the cross form is the wreathed chi rho or Christogram.

Victory Cross, Rome, Vatican. Sarcophagus of Domatilla (from Catacomb of Domatilla), mid-4th century
On top of the cross form is the wreathed chi rho or Christogram.

The wreathed chi rho is called a Christogram and together with the cross form suggested triumph over enemies and death through faith in Christ. As the Christian church began to enjoy the patronage of Constantine the victory crosses -as they are called- and the Christogram eventually appeared on every conceivable object from mosaics in basilicas to glass goblets.

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