Cross Symbols - What Do They Mean?

The cross is one of the earliest and most widely used Christian symbols. In the broadest sense, a cross symbolizes the religion of Christianity. More specifically, it represents and memorializes Christ's death. There are a variety of crosses, some with specific symbolic meaning and others that have simply become culturally associated with certain groups.

Of course, the cross—two bars which intersect one another at right angles—is an ancient symbol found in many cultures predating the Christian religion, and in Christianity, there are several forms which each have a variety of meanings. Here are some of the crosses used in Christianity and their meanings. 

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Christian Cross Symbols

San Francisco, California scenics
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The simplest and most common Christian cross is the Latin cross, also known as the Crux immissa, consisting of a long staff crossed near the top with a shorter bar. At its base, it is a visual symbol of Christ, signifying the type of execution that the leader suffered: crucifixion.  

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The Empty Cross and the Crucifix

Santa Fe, New Mexico
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The Empty Cross, a type of Latin cross usually favored by Protestants, reminds Christians of the resurrection, while the crucifix, with variously carved or elaborated depiction of the body of Jesus on it and favored by Catholic and Orthodox churches, is a reminder of Christ's sacrifice.

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The Greek Cross

Plus Symbol
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The Greek Cross, with arms of equal length, is the most ancient cross, predating the Latin cross. In Christian mythology, the four equal arms point in the four direction of the earth, representing the spread of the gospel or the four platonic elements (earth, air, water, and fire). Its origins are not Christian, but much older, found in many cities in Mesopotamia. 

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Cross of Calvary

Retz: Calvary. About 1910. Photograph By Bruno Reiffenstein (No. 4624)
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The Cross of Calvary, also known as the Stepped or Graded Cross has three steps leading up to it, which are said to represent the Hill of Calvary--where the Christian leader Jesus Christ was said to have been crucified--or faith, hope, and love.

Calvaries are Christian monuments, built during the Middle Ages in Europe, which feature the Cross of Calvary. 

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Papal Cross

the Papal Cross
 Madboy74/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 3.0

The Papal Cross is the official symbol of the Catholic pope in Rome and may be used only by the Pope. The cross has a long central staff and then three horizontal bars cross it near the top, in diminishing order of length. 

The three bars of the cross most likely represent the three realms of the Pope's authority: the church, the world, and heaven. It is analogous to the archiepiscopal or patriarchal cross, which has only two bars on it. 

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Double Cross

double cross
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The Double Cross has eight equal legs, and it symbolizes regeneration or revival. It is formed by combining the Greek cross with the Greek letter chi (X), the first letter of "Christ" in Greek.

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Budded Cross

Budded Cross
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The Budded Cross is a common form of the cross, with multiple versions. The shape builds on a plain cross, but the ends of each of its arms are decorated with three little bumps called trefoils. Some of the crosses have more than three bumps, or only one. Its trefoils are said to represent the Trinity.

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Globe or Triumphal Cross

Globe Cross
 University of Pisa/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 2.5

The Globe Cross or Triumphal Cross is an orb surmounted with a cross. Its orb represents Christs' reign over the world, and it is often shown atop Christ's scepter in Christian art. This cross is also quite elaborate and it is used in royal regalia. 

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Cross of St. Peter

Cross of St. Peter
Fibonacci/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

An inverted cross, an upside-down Latin cross, is known as the Cross of St. Peter, who, according to tradition, was crucified upside down because he felt unworthy to die the same way Christ did. It also symbolizes humility because of the story of Peter.

The inverted cross has more recently been used by Satanists as a symbol meant to oppose or invert Christianity. 

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The Celtic Cross

Thy will be done on celtic cross
mammuth / Getty Images

The Celtic Cross is a form of the plain Latin cross with a circle or nimbus around the intersection of the staff and the cross piece. The form emerged in Ireland and Britain in the middle ages, beginning in the 9th century CE. It is said to represent Self, Nature, Wisdom, and  God. 

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Jerusalem Cross

Church of Holy Sepulchre
Eddie Gerald / Getty Images

The Jerusalem Cross or Crusader's Cross is a large Greek cross surrounded by four smaller versions of the Greek cross. Some versions have the Greek crosses with crosslets--short lines decorating the ends of the cross bars. 

The symbol of a five-fold cross is thought to represent the four quarters of the world, Christ and his four main disciples, or the five wounds of Christ. The cross originated in the 11th century and was used in coats of arms of crusader's, and the seals of the crusader rulers of Jerusalem. 

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The Patriarchal Cross

Cross of Lorraine
bisla / Getty Images

The Patriarchal Cross, also known as the archiepiscopal cross or Cross of Lorraine, is similar to the Papal cross, consisting of a central staff and two plain crossbars in descending lengths at the top. In some versions, a third crossbar crosses the staff lower down, at a 45-degree angle. These are used in processions, and likely date to the Byzantine period. 

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Allan, Dixie. "Cross Symbols - What Do They Mean?" Learn Religions, Sep. 16, 2020, Allan, Dixie. (2020, September 16). Cross Symbols - What Do They Mean? Retrieved from Allan, Dixie. "Cross Symbols - What Do They Mean?" Learn Religions. (accessed August 3, 2021).