The most frequent use of a cross is among Christians, to whom it recalls the crucifixion of Jesus and humanity's redemption thereby. The Christian form of blessing by tracing a cross over oneself or another person or thing originated before A.D. 200. The oldest Christian remains contain drawings of crosses and cruciform artifacts, and the fact that the cross was the Christian emblem before the toleration of Christianity is shown by the vision of Constantine I. His mother, St. Helena, is supposed to have found the True Cross at Calvary in 327, and the event is commemorated on May 3 as the Finding of the Cross. Splinters of the relic are widely distributed and honored by Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox. In 614, to the scandal of Christendom, Khosru II of Persia took the largest piece of the relic from Jerusalem. It was restored by Heraclius I in 627; the anniversary of this event is Sept. 14, the Exaltation of the Cross. The relic was lost in the Muslim occupation of Jerusalem. Use of the cross was one of the popular practices attacked by Byzantine iconoclasm and vindicated (787) by the Second Council of Nicaea.
The crucifix—the cross with the figure of Jesus upon it—had already been established in use; at first, the figure was painted or in bas-relief, a style surviving in the Christian East. Older Western crucifixes often presented the Savior reigning, in robe and crown. The realistic dying figure, dating from the Renaissance, is now universal in Roman Catholicism.
Devotion to the cross as a symbol of the Passion is an outstanding development (from the 11th cent.) in the history of Christian piety; it has ever since been an essential part of the public and private religious life of Roman Catholics. Protestants have been generally sparing in using the cross and do not use the crucifix, but the symbolism has been retained in their literature (e.g., in the hymn, When I Survey the Wondrous Cross ). The cross was the badge of the Crusades and was adopted as the emblem of the Templars, of the Knights Hospitalers (Knights of Malta), and of the Teutonic Knights. It became important in heraldry, flag designs, and decorations.
Examples of artistic effort spent on crosses are seen in the monumental crosses of market, town, and wayside in Europe (e.g., at Cheddar, Malmesbury, and Winchester, England) and in the wayside calvaries of Austria and Brittany. Some of the finest art products of the Celts were stone crosses. (For the later Eleanor Crosses, see Eleanor of Castile.) Processional crosses (on poles) lend themselves to elaboration. Crosses are also worn for personal adornment. Pectoral crosses and necklace crosses have given scope for fine enameling.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.