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Home > Catholic Encyclopedia > C > The Cross and Crucifix in Liturgy

The Cross and Crucifix in Liturgy

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(1) Material Objects in Liturgical Use; (2) Liturgical Forms connected with Them; (3) Festivals Commemorative of the Holy Cross; (4) Rite of the "Adoration"; (5) The Cross as a Manual Sign of Blessing; (6) Dedications of Churches, etc. to the Holy Cross; (7) The Cross in Religious Orders and in the Crusades; (8) The Cross outside of the Catholic Church.

Material objects in liturgical use

The altar cross

As a permanent adjunct to the altar, the cross or crucifix can hardly be traced farther back than the thirteenth century. The third canon of the Second Council of Tours (567), "ut corpus Domini in altario non in imaginario ordine sed sub crucis titulo componatur", which has sometimes been appealed to prove the early existence of an altar-cross, almost certainly refers to the arrangement of the particles of the Host upon the corporal. They were to be arranged in the form of a cross and not according to any fanciful idea, of the celebrant (see Hefele, Conciliengeschichte). On the other hand, Innocent III at the beginning of the thirteenth century in his treatise on thee Mass says plainly, "a cross is set upon the altar, in the middle between two candlesticks", but even this probably refers only to the actual duration of the Holy Sacrifice. From the ninth to the eleventh century the rule is several times repeated: "Let nothing be placed on the altar except a chest with relics of saints or perhaps the four gospels or a pyx with the Lord's Body for the viaticum of the sick (cf. Thiers, Sur les principaux autels des églises, 129 sqq.). This no doubt was understood to exclude even the crucifix from the altar, and it is certain that in various liturgical ivory carvings of the eighth, ninth, and tenth centuries no cross is shown. At the same time it should be noted that the ciborium, or canopy over the altar, was often surmounted by a plain cross, and also that the coronæ, or ornamental circular frames which were suspended from the inner side of the ciborium, frequently had a cross hanging down in their midst. Some auch coronæ are explicitly referred to in the "Liber Pontificalis" during the ninth century. The best-known existing example is the corona of

Recesvinthus now at the Musée de Cluny, Paris, in which the pendent cross is set with large gems. The papal chronicle just referred to also mentions a silver cross which was erected not over, but close beside, the high altar of St. Peter's in the time of Leo III (795-816): "'There also he made the cross of purest silver, gilded, which stands beside the high altar, and which weighs 22 pounds" (Lib. Pont., Leo III, c. lxxxvii). It is probable that when the cross was first introduced as an ornament for the altar it was most commonly plain and without any figure of Our Saviour. Such is the cross which a well-known Anglo-Saxon manuscript represents King Cnut as presenting to Hyde Abbey, Winchester. But the association of the figure of Christ with the cross was familiar in England as early as 678, when Benedict Biscop brought a painting of the Crucifixion from Rome (Bede, Hist. Abb., §99), and we can hardly doubt that a people capable of producing such sculptural work as the stone crosses at Ruthwell and Bewcastle, or the Franks' casket, would soon have attempted the same subject in the solid. We know at any rate that a gold crucifix was found in the tomb of St. Edward the Confessor, and a crucifix is mentioned in one of the later Lives of St. Dunstan. That such objects were sometimes used for the altar seems highly probable.

Still, Innocent III speaks only of a cross, and it is certain that for several centuries later neither cross nor crucifix were left upon the altar except at Mass time. Even so late as the beginning of the sixteenth century an engraving in the Guinta "Corpus Juris" shows the altar-crucifix being carried in at High Mass by the celebrant, while in many French dioceses this or some similar custom lasted down to the time of Claude de Vert (Explication, IV, 31). At present the Cæremoniale Episcoporum assumes the permanency of the crucifix on the altar, with its attendant candlesticks [see ALTAR-CRUCIFIX, under ALTAR (IN LITURGY)].

The processional cross

When Bede tells us that St. Augustine of England and his companions came before Ethelbert "carrying a silver cross for a standard" (veniebant crucem pro vexillo ferentes argenteam) while they said the litanies, he probably touched upon the fundamental idea of the processional cross. Its use seems to have been general in early times and it is so mentioned in the Roman "Ordines" as to suggest that one belonged to each church. An interesting specimen of the twelfth century still survives in the Cross of Cong, preserved in the museum of the Royal Irish Academy, Dublin. This is made of oak covered with copper plates, but much decoration is added in the form of gold filigreework. It lacks most of the shaft, but is two feet six inches high, and one foot six inches across the arms. In the centre is a boss of rock crystal, which formerly enshrined a relic of the True Cross, and an inscription tells us that it was made for Turloch O'Conor, King of Ireland (1123). It seems never to have had any figure of Christ, but other processional crosses of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries are for the most part true crucifixes. In a great number of cases the shaft was removable, and the upper portion could be set in a stand to be used as an altar-cross. Indeed it seems not impossible that this was the actual origin of the altar-cross employed during Mass (Rohault de Fleury, La Meese, V, 123-140). Just as the seven candlesticks carried before the pope in Rome were deposited before or behind the altar, and probably developed into the six altar-candlesticks (seven, it will be remembered, when a bishop celebrates) with which we are now familiar, so the processional cross seems also to have first been left in a stand near the altar and ultimately to have taken its place upon the altar itself. To this day the ritual books of the Church seem to assume that the handle of the processional cross is detachable, for in the funeral of infants it is laid down that the cross is to be carried without its handle. All Christians are supposed to be the followers of Christ, hence in procession the crucifix is carried first, with the figure turned in the direction in which the procession is moving.

Archiepiscopal and papal cross

It is not easy to determine with certainty at what period the archiepiscopal cross came into separate use. It was probably at first only an ordinary processional cross. In the tenth "Ordo Romanus" we read of a subdeacon who is set aside to carry the crux papalis. If this specially papal cross had been in existence for some time it is likely that it was imitated by patriarchs and metropolitans as a mark of dignity which went with the pallium. In the twelfth century the archbishop's cross was generally recognized, and in the dispute regarding the primacy between the Archbishops of Canterbury and York the right to carry their cross before them played a prominent part. In 1125 Pope Honorius II admonished the Southern bishops of England that they should allow Archbishop Thurstan of York crucem ante se deferre juxta antiquam consuetudiem. In all ecclesiastical functions an archbishop in his own province has a right to be preceded by his cross-bearer with cross displayed. Hence an archbishop when solemnly giving his blessing gives it with head uncovered out of reverence for the cross which is held before him. An ordinary bishop, who is not privileged to have such a cross, blesses the people with his mitre on. As regards form, both the papal and the archiepiscopal cross consists in practice of a simple crucifix mounted upon a staff, the material being silver or silver gilt. The crosses with double and triple bars, which are sometimes termed distinctively archiepiscopal, patriarchal, or papal crosses, have for the most part only a heraldic existence (see Barbier de Montault, La croix à deux croisillons, 1883). An archiepiscopal cross is borne with the figure turned towards the archbishop.

Pectoral crosses

These objects seem originally to have been little more than costly ornaments upon which much artistic skill was lavished and which usually contained relics. A jewel of this kind which belonged to Queen Theodelinda at the end of the sixth century is still preserved in the treasury of Monza. .Another of much later date, but wrought with wonderful enamels, was found in the tomb of Queen Dagmar and is at Copenhagen. When the present Queen Alexandra came to England in 1863 to marry the then Prince of Wales, she was presented with a facsimile of this jewel containing, among other relics, a fragment of the True Cross. Such encolpia were probably at first worn by bishops not as insignia of rank, but as objects of devotion. For example, a famous and beautiful jewel of this kind was found in the tomb of St. Cuthbert and is now at Durham. When they contained relics they often came later on to be enclosed in processional crosses. This no doubt was the case with the Cross of Cong, mentioned above, upon which we read in Irish characters the Latin verse: Hac cruce crux tegitur qua passus conditor orbis.- See Journ. Soc. Antiq. Ireland, vol. XXXI (1901). As a liturgical cross, and part of the ordinary episcopal insignia, the pectoral cross is of quite modern date. No word is said regarding it in the first edition of the "Cæremoniale Episcoporum" of 1600, but later editions speak of it, and its liturgical character is fully recognized by all modern rubricians. It is worn bishops at Mass and solemn functions, and also forms part of their ordinary walking-dress. It is usually a plain Latin cross of gold suspended round the neck by a gold chain or a cord of silk and gold. Its use seems gradually to have been introduced during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries in imitation of the pectoral cross which we know to have been regularly worn by the popes from a much earlier date. Certain metropolitans (e.g. the Patriarch of Lisbon and the Archbishop of Armagh) are accustomed to wear a cross with two bars or transoms (Anal. Jur. Pont., 1896, 344). The privilege of wearing a pectoral cross has also been conceded to certain canons.

Consecration crosses

These are the twelve crosses, usually merely painted on the wall, which mark the places where the church walls have been anointed with chrism in a properly consecrated church. A candle-bracket should be inserted immediately below. Some of these consecration crosses are even yet distinguishable on the walls of old churches which go back to the Romanesque period. The Carlovingian oratory in Nimeguen preserves, perhaps, the most ancient known example. In other cases e.g. at Fürstenfeld, some of the old Romanesque candle- brackets also remain. Owing to the number of unctions, it was not infrequently the custom to place these consecration crosses on shields, each borne by one of the twelve Apostles. In the Sainte Chapelle at Paris, built by St. Louis in the thirteenth century, we find twelve statues of the Apostles carrying discs cases, used for this purpose. In England it was the custom to mark twelve consecration crosses on the outside walls of the church as well as twelve on the inside. The Roman Pontifical only prescribes the latter. (See CONSECRATION.) Salisbury cathedral still preserves some remarkable examples of consecration crosses. At Ottery St. Mary, Devon, the old crosses are carved in high relief on shields borne by angels within moulded panels, a quatrefoil in a square. Those inside have marks of the remains of iron brackets for candles or a lamp. (See, on English examples, Middleton in "Archæologia", XLVIII, 1885.)

Churchyard or monumental crosses

In the contemporary life of St. Willibald (born c. 700) we have a significant mention of the Anglo-Saxon custom of erecting a cross instead of a church as a rendezvous for prayer. Many ancient stone crosses still surviving in England are probably witnesses to the practice, and the conjecture of Prof. Baldwin Browne (Arts in Anglo-Saxon England), that the cross and graveyard often preceded the church in date, has much to recommend it. Certain it is that the earliest known forms for blessing a cemetery contain five blessings pronounced at the four points of the compass one in the centre, thus forming a cross, while crosses were later on planted in the ground at each of these places. Throughout the Middle Ages, both in England and on the Continent, there seems always to have been one principal churchyard cross. This was commonly an object of great importance in the Palm Sunday procession when it was saluted with prostrations or genuflexions by the whole assembly. There was also a scattering of boughs and flowers, and the cross was often decorated with garlands or box. For this reason it was often called crux buxata (cf. Gasquet, Parish Life, 1906, pp. 171-4). Many beautiful churchyard crosses are still preserved in England, France, and Germany; the most remarkable English examples being perhaps those of Ampney Crucis, near Cirencester, and Bag Enderby, Lincolnshire. The famous ancient Northumbrian crosses at Bewcastle and Ruthwell (which English scholars still assign to the seventh and eighth centuries, despite the plea for a much later date put forward by Prof. A. S. Cook of Yale) may possibly have been principal churchyard crosses. The fact that they were probably memorial crosses as well does not exclude this.

When St. Aldhelm died in 709, his body had to be transported fifty miles to Malmesbury, and at each stage of seven miles, where the body rested for the night, a cross was afterwards erected. These crosses were still standing in the twelfth century (William of Malmesbury, Gesta Pont., 383). An even more famous example of such memorial crosses, but of much later date, is supplied by the removal of the body of Eleanor, Queen of Edward I, from Lincoln to London. Several of these crosses in a more or less mutilated form exist at the present day. The most famous of the series, however, Charing (? Chère Reine) Cross in London, is a modern reconstruction. The route followed by the body of St. Louis of France on its way to St. Denis was similarly honoured, and it seems probable that a large number of wayside crosses originated in this manner. No stronger testimony of the early connection of the cross with the cemetery could be desired than the directions given by St. Cuthbert for his own burial: "Cum autem Deus susceperit animam meam, sepelite me in hâc mansione juxta oratorium meum ad meridiem, contra orientalem plagam sanctæ crucis quam ibidem erexi" (Bede, Vita S. Cuthberti).

Rood, rood-screen, and rood-loft

From very early times it seems to have been not unusual to introduce a plain cross in such a way into the mosaics of the apse or of the main arch (Truimphbogen) as to dominate the church. Notable examples may be found at S. Apollinare in Classe at Ravenna, at S. Pudenziana in Rome, and at the Lateran basilica. There are also, as already noticed, incontestable examples both of crosses surmounting the ciborium over the altar, and of the large crosses suspended, with or without a corona, from the under side of the ciborium. It must, however, be pronounced very doubtful whether the rood, which in so many churches of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries occupied the great arch, can be regarded as a development of this idea. This point will be more fully treated under ROOD-SCREEN. It will be sufficient to notice here that in the thirteenth century a practice grew up of screening off the choir from the nave of the greater churches by a structure broad enough to admit a narrow bridge or gallery spanning the chancel arch and most commonly adorned by a great crucifix with the figures of Our Lady and St. John. The rood-loft of the cathedral of Sens, as described by J. B. Thiers (Traité sur les jubés) affords a valuable hint of how this process was effected. It consisted, he tells us, of two stone pulpits quite separate from each other, supported by columns, and with a crucifix between them, each having an entrance on the choir side and an exit down into the nave, on either side of the principal door of the choir. From this it seems probable that the two ambos from which the Gospel and Epistle were sung in earlier times became gradually connected by a continuous gallery upon which was erected a great crucifix, and that in this way we may trace the development of the rood-loft, or jubé, which was so conspicuous a feature in later medieval architecture. There can at least be no doubt that this loft was used on certain occasions of ceremony for reading the Epistle and Gospel and for making announcements to the people. The great rood above the rood-screen was saluted by the whole procession, as they re-entered the church on Palm Sunday, with the words: Ave Rex noster.

Absolution crosses

These have already been spoken of in the article CHRISTIAN BURIAL. They seem for the most part to have been rude crosses of lead laid upon the breast of the corpse. It is only in some few examples, of which the most important is that of Bishop Godfrey of Chichester (1088), that a formula of absolution is found inscribed upon them entire. We may infer that the practice in the West was always in some measure irregular, and it is only the absolution paper which is uniformly placed in the hand or on the breast of the corpse in the Eastern Church, which explains them and gives them a certain importance as a liturgical development.

Crosses on vestments, etc.

Rubrical law now requires that most of the vestments, as well as some other objects more immediately devoted to the service of the altar, should be marked with cross. Speaking generally this is a comparatively modern development. For example, the great majority of stoles and maniples of the Middle Ages do not exhibit this feature. At the same time Dr. Wickham Legg goes much too far when he says without qualification that such crosses were not used in pre-Reformation times. For example the stole of St. Thomas of Canterbury preserved at Sens has three crosses, one in the middle end one at each extremity, just as a modern stole would have. That the archiepiscopal pallium, like the Greek omophorion (see RITE OF CONSTANTINOPLE) was always marked with crosses, is not disputed. The large cross conspicuous upon most modern chasubles, which appears behind in the French type and in front in the Roman, does not seem to have been originally adopted with any symbolic purpose. It probably came into existence accidentally for sartorial reasons, the orphreys having been so arranged in a sort of Y-cross to conceal the seams. But the idea, once suggested to the eye, was retained, and various symbolical reasons were found for it. In somewhat of the same way a cross was marked in the Missal before the Canon. and this the priest was directed to kiss when beginning this portion of the Mass; probably this cross first arose from an illumination of the initial T, in the words: Te igitur clementissime Pater. As Innocent III writes, "Et forte divinâ factum est providentiâ ut ab eâ literâ T [tau] canon inciperet quæ sui formâ signum crucis ostendit et exprimit in figurâ"; and Beleth further comments, "Unde profecto est, quod istic crucis imago adpingi debeat" (See Ebner, Quellen und Forschungen, 445 sqq.). The tradition is perpetuated in the picture of the Crucifixion which precedes the Canon in every modern Missal. The five crosses commonly marked on altar-atones depend closely on the rite of the consecration of an altar.

Crosses for private devotion

These may all be held to wear a liturgical aspect in so far as the Church, in the "Rituale," provides a form for their blessing, and presupposes that such a cross should be placed in the hands of the dying. The crosses which surmount the Stations of the Cross, and to which the Indulgences are directly attached may also be noticed. In the Greek Church a little wooden cross is used for the blessing of holy water, and is dipped into it in the course of the ceremony.

Liturgical forms connected with the material objects

Blessing of consecration crosses

The "Pontificale Romanum" directs that towards the close of the dedication ceremony the twelve consecration crosses previously marked upon the walls of the church, three upon each wall, are to be each anointed by the bishop with chrism, the following form of words being spoken over each: "May this Temple be hallowed + and consecrated + in the name of the Father + and of the Son + and of the Holy Ghost + in honour of God and the glorious Virgin Mary and of all the Saints, to the name and memory of Saint N. Peace be to thee." This is prescribed in practically identical terms in English pontificals of the tenth century; and the Pontifical of Egbert (? 768) describes the anointing of the walls, though it does not give the words or the form. What is more, an analogous ceremony must have existed in the Celtic Church from a very early date, for a liturgical fragment in the Leabar Breac describes how the bishop with two priests is to go round the outside of the church marking crosses upon the "tel-columns" with his knife, while the three other priests do the same within (see Olden in "Trans. St. Paul's Eccles. Soc.", IV, 103). In this case, however, the use of chrism is not mentioned. From this Celtic practice the Anglo-Saxon and Sarum uses seem to have derived the custom of affixing consecration crosses outside the church as well as within.

Consecration of the altar

In the consecration of an altar, also, crosses are to be marked in chrism upon the altar-slab with almost the same form of words as that used for the walls. This practice may equally claim Celtic analogues, whose antiquity is shown by the fact that the altar to be consecrated must have been of wood. The Tract in the "Leabar Breac" says: "The bishop marks four crosses with his knife on the four corners of the altar, and he marks three crosses over the middle of the altar, a cross over the middle on the east to the edge, and a cross over the middle on the west to the edge, and a cross exactly over the middle." This makes seven crosses, but the Roman usage for many centuries has provided five only.

Pontifical blessings of crosses

The consecration crosses on the walls of churches and on altars are clearly not substantive and independent objects of cultus; the blessing they receive is only a detail in a longer ceremony. But the "Pontificale Romanum" supplies a solemn form of episcopal blessing for a cross, under the title, Benedictio novæ Crucis, which, besides containing several prayers of considerable length, includes a consecratory preface and is accompanied with the use of incense. At the conclusion of the ceremony we find the rubric: "Tum Pontifex, flexis ante crucem genibus, ipsam devote adorat et osculatur." This rite is of great antiquity, and many of the prayers occur in identical terms in pontificals of the tenth century or earlier, e.g. in the Benedictional of Archbishop Robert (Henry Bradshaw Soc.). But in the ancient ceremony the cross was first washed with holy water and then anointed with chrism precisely as in the form for the blessing of bells. For crosses in this connection, see CEMETERY.

Blessings of crosses in the Ritual

The "Rituale Romanum" (tit. VIII, cap. xxiv) supplies an ordinary blessing for a cross which may be used by any priest. It consists only of a short prayer, with a second prayer whose use is optional, and only holy water is used; but the same rubric directing the priest to kneel and "devoutly adore and kiss the cross" is added, which we have just noticed in the solemn episcopal benediction. Furthermore, the Ritual, in an appendix, reprints the longer form from the Pontifical under the heading: "Benedictiones reservatæ, ab episcopo vel sacerdotibus facultatem habentibus faciendæ". It may be noted that St. Louis, King of France, regarded it as unseemly that crosses and statues should be set up for veneration without being previously blessed. He accordingly ordered search to be made for a form of blessing in the ancient episcopal ceremonials. The form was found and duly used first of all in St. Louis' own private chapel; but the incident seems to suggest that the practice of blessing such objects had partly fallen into desuetude. (See Galfridus, De Bello Loco, cap. xxxvi.)

Blessings of crosses for indulgences etc.

The indulgences most commonly attached to crosses, crucifixes, etc., are: first, the so-called "Apostolic Indulgences", which are the same as those attached to objects blessed by the Holy Father in person. These are numerous and, amongst other things, entitle the possessor who has habitually worn or used such a cross to a plenary indulgence at the hour of death; secondly, the indulgences of the Stations of the Cross, which under certain conditions may be gained by the sick and others unable to visit a church upon the recitation of twenty Paters, Aves, and Glorias before the indulgenced cross which they must hold in their hand; thirdly, the so-called "Bona Mors" indulgence for the use of priests, enabling the priest by the use of this cross to communicate a plenary indulgence to any dying person who is in the requisite dispositions to receive it; Special faculties are needed to communicate such indulgences to crosses, etc., though in the case of the "Apostolic Indulgences" these faculties are easily obtained. The only blessing required is the making of a simple sign of the cross over the crucifix or other object with the intention of imparting the indulgence. For further details, the reader must be referred to the article INDULGENCES and to such treatises upon indulgences as those of Beringer, "Les Indulgences" or of Mocchegiani, "Collectio Indulgentiarum" (Quaracchi, 1897). (See also BLESSINGS.)

Festivals of the Holy Cross

The Invention of the Holy Cross

This is now kept by the Western Church upon 3 May, but so far as our somewhat uncertain data allow us to judge, the real date of St. Helena's discovery was 14 September, 326. Upon this same day, 14 September, took place the dedication of Constantine's two churches, that of the Anastasis and that of Golgotha Ad Crucem, both upon Calvary, within the precincts of the present church of the Holy Sepulchre. The portion of the Holy Cross preserved in Jerusalem afterwards fell into the hands of the Persians, but was recovered by the Emperor Heraclius, and, if we may trust our authorities, was solemnly brought back to Jerusalem on 3 May, 629. This day, strangely enough, seems to have attracted special attention among Celtic liturgists in the West and, though disregarded in the East, has passed through Celtic channels (we meet it first in the Lectionary of Silos and in the Bobbio Missal) into general recognition under the mistaken title of "Invention of the Cross". Curiously enough the Greek Church keeps a feast of the apparition of the Cross to St. Cyril of Jerusalem on 7 May, though that of 3 May is unknown in the East.

The Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross

The Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross, 14 September, though apparently introduced into the West somewhat later than the so-called "Invention" on 3 May, seems to preserve the true date of the discovery of the Cross by St. Helena. This festival has always been kept in the East, and especially at Jerusalem, on that day, under the name of, i.e. "elevation" which probably meant originally the "bringing to light".

Other feasts of the cross

We might in some sense regard such a festival as that of the Holy Lance and Nails as a festival of the Cross, but it should perhaps rather be grouped with feasts of the Passion. In the East, however, we find other celebrations strictly connected with the Cross. For example, on 1 August the Greeks commemorate the taking of the relic of the Holy Cross from the palace in Constantinople to the church of St. Sophia, and on 7 May, as we have seen, they recall an apparition of the Cross to St. Cyril of Jerusalem. The Armenians, on the other hand, observe one principal feast of the Cross, under the name Chatz, which occurs in autumn almost immediately after the feast of the Assumption. It is counted as one of the seven principal feasts of the year, is preceded by a week's fast, and followed by an octave or its Armenian equivalent. See also ARCHAEOLOGY OF THE CROSS AND CRUCIFIX.

The "adoration"

From a theological standpoint this is treated above under ARCHAEOLOGY OF THE CROSS AND CRUCIFIX. (See also LATRIA.) As a liturgical function the veneration of the Cross on Good Friday must no doubt be traced back, as Amalarius already in the ninth century correctly divined, to the practice of honouring the relic of the True Cross at Jerusalem which is described in detail in the "Pilgrimage of Etheria", c. 380 (see TRUE CROSS.) The ceremony came to prevail everywhere where relics of the True Cross existed, and by a very natural development, where relics failed any ordinary cross supplied their place as an object of cultus. As Amalarius again sensibly remarks, "although every church cannot have such a relic, still the virtue of the Holy True Cross is not wanting in those crosses which are made in imitation of it." Neither was this veneration, in the case at any rate, of relics of the True Cross, confined to Good Friday. St. Gregory of Tours uses language which may possibly imply that in Jerusalem the True Cross was honoured every Wednesday and Friday. It is certain that at Constantinople a Sunday in Mid-Lent, the first of August, and the 14th of September were similarly privileged. Even from early times there was no hesitation about using the word adoratio. Thus, St. Paulinus of Nola, writing of the great Jerusalem relic (c. 410), declares that the bishop offered it to the people for worship (crucem quotannis adorandam populo promit), and first adored it himself. (See P.L., LXI, 325.) A curious practice was also introduced of anointing the cross, or, on occasion, any image or picture, with balm (balsamo) before presenting it for the veneration of the faithful. This custom was transferred to Rome, and we hear much of it in connection with the very ancient reliquary of the True Cross and also the supposed miraculous portrait of Our Saviour (acheiropoieta, i.e. not made by the hand of man) preserved in the Sancta Sanctorum of the Lateran, both of which recently, together with a multitude of other objects, have been examined and reported on by papal permission (see Grisar Die römische Kapelle Sancta Sanctorum und ihr Schatz, Freíburg, 1908, 91, 92). The objects mentioned were completely covered in part with solidified balm. Pope Adrian I, in vindicating the veneration of images to Charlemagne, mentions this use of balm and defends it (Mansi, Concilia, XIII, 778). The ceremony of the adoration of the Cross on Good Friday must have spread through the West in the seventh and eighth centuries, for it appears in the Gelasian Sacramentary and is presupposed in the Gregorian Antiphonarium. Both in Anglo-Saxon England and in the England of the later Middle Ages the "Creeping to the Cross" was a ceremony which made a deep impression on the popular mind. St. Louis of France: and other pious princes dressed themselves in haircloth and crept to the cross barefoot. At present, instead of creeping to the cross on hands and knees, three profound double genuflexions are made before kissing the feet of the crucifix, and the sacred ministers remove their shoes when performing the ceremony. The collection now commonly made on this occasion for the support of the Holy Places seems also to date from medieval times.

Manual sign of the cross

For the Figure of the Cross as a Manual Sign of Blessing the reader must be referred to the article SIGN OF THE CROSS, also subtitles (4) of ARCHAEOLOGY OF THE CROSS and (1) of TRUE CROSS.

Dedications of churches, etc. to the Holy Cross

Possibly one of the earliest dedications to the Cross, if we put aside Constantine's church upon Calvary known in Etheria's time as Ad Crucem and also the Sessorian basilica which was its Roman counterpart, was the monastery erected at Poitiers by St. Rhadegund in the sixth century. In behalf of this foundation the saint begged and obtained a relic of the True Cross from the Emperor Justin II at Constantinople.

The bringing of the relic to Poitiers was the occasion of the composition of the two famous hymns by Venantius Fortunatus, "Vexilla regis" and "Pange, lingua, gloriosi prælium certaminis". In England perhaps the most famous monastery bearing this dedication was the Holy Cross Abbey at Waltham, founded by King Harold. At present about sixty ancient English churches are dedicated to the Holy Cross, while twenty more bear the same dedication in the distinctively-English form of "Holy Rood". The famous Holyrood Palace in Edinburgh, once occupied by Mary Queen of Scots, derives its name from a monastery of the Holy Rood upon the site of which it was erected, and its church, now in ruins, was originally the church of the monks.

The Cross in religious orders and in the Crusades

Although the older orders were earnest in conforming to the general usage of the Church as regards the veneration of the Cross, no distinctive cultus seems to be attributable to the monasteries. The practice of carrying a crucifix as part of the ordinary religious habit seems to be of comparatively modern date. It is significant that, although in most modern congregations of nuns the bestowal of the crucifix is a prominent feature of the ceremony of profession, the service in the Roman Pontifical, "De Benedictione et Consecratione Virginum", knows nothing of it. It provides for the giving of rings and crosses but not of crucifixes. Probably much of the stimulus given to devotion to the crucifix may be traced ultimately to Franciscan influences, and it is not mere coincidence that the development in art of the agonized and thorn-crowned type of figure upon the Cross coincides more or less exactly with the great Franciscan revival of the thirteenth century. Somewhat earlier than the time of Francis an Italian Order of crociferi (cross-bearers), distinguished by carrying as part of their costume a plain cross of wood or metal, was founded in the neighbourhood of Bologna to tend the sick, and several other orders, particularly one established shortly afterwards in the Netherlands and still surviving, have since borne the same or a similar name. In the case of the Military Orders, for example, that of St. John of Jerusalem or Knights Hospitallers, the cross impressed upon their habit has gradually become distinctive of the order. It seems to have been originally only the badge of the crusaders, who wore a red cross upon their right shoulders as a token of the obligation they had taken upon themselves. The Roman Pontifical still contains the ceremonial for the blessing and imposition of the cross upon those who set out for the aid and defence of the Christian Faith or for the recovery of the Holy Land. After the cross has been blessed the bishop imposes it upon the candidate with the words: "Receive the sign of the cross, in the Name of the Father + and of the Son + and of the Holy Ghost + in token of the Cross, Passion, and Death of Christ, for the defence of thy body and thy soul, that by the favour of the Divine Goodness when thy journey is accomplished thou mayest return to thy family safe and amended [salvus et emendatus]. Through Christ Our Lord, Amen." The crosses conferred by sovereigns in connection with various orders of knighthood may probably be traced to the same idea.

The various types of cross have rather to do with heraldry or art than with the history of Christianity. The names and shapes of the more common varieties can best be gathered from the annexed table. For the vast majority the form is purely conventional and artificial. Their divergence from the normal type is a mere freak of fancy and corresponds to no attempt to reproduce the shape of the gibbet on which Our Saviour died, or to convey any symbolical meaning. The crux ansata, or cross with a handle, and the crux gammata, or "fylfot", are much more ancient than Christianity. (See in ARCHAEOLOGY OF THE CROSS, (1) Primitive Cruciform Signs.) The chrismon, or chi-rho, has already been mentioned as the earliest forms in which the cross appear in Christian art [Section I (4)]. The forms which it took varied considerably and it is difficult to classify them chronologically. -With regard to the great Celtic stone crosses, particularly in Ireland, we may note the tendency conspicuous in so many specimens to surround the cross within a circle. It is just conceivable that there is foundation for regarding this circle as derived from the loop of the Egyptian crux ansata.

The cross outside of the Catholic Church

In the Russian Church the conventional form in which the cross is usually shown is in fact a three-barred cross, of which the upper bar represents the title of the cross, the second the arms, and the lowest, which is always inclined at an angle, the suppedaneum or foot-rest. In England it may be said that in the early years of Elizabeth's reign a clean sweep was made of the crosses so long venerated by the people. All the roods were ordered to be pulled down, and the crosses were removed from the altars, or rather the communion-tables which replaced the altars. The only check in this movement was the fact that the queen herself, for some rather obscure reason, insisted at first on retaining the crucifix in her own private chapel. The presence of a crucifix or even a plain cross upon the altar was long held to be illegal in virtue of the "Ornaments Rubrics". In recent years, however, there has been a notable reaction, and crosses, or even crucifixes, are quite commonly seen upon the altar of Anglican churches. Again, in the reredos recently erected in St. Paul's Cathedral in London a large crucifix, with the figures of St. Mary and St. John, forms the most conspicuous feature. In Lutheran churches there has always been much tolerance for the crucifix either upon or behind the altar.


It would not be easy to provide an adequate bibliography for the very wide field covered by this article. A few works may be mentioned of a more general kind.--BÄUMER in Kirchenlex., VII, 1054-1088; QUILLIET in Dict. da théol. cath., III, 2339-2363; HOPPENOT, Le crucifix dans l'histoire (Lille, 1900); SEYMOUR, The Cross in Tradition, History and Art (New York, 1898).-Both these last works are very comprehensive in scope, but unfortunately quite uncritical.--STEVENS, The Cross in the Life and Literature of the Anglo-Saxons (New York, 1904). ROHAULT DE FLEURY, La Messe (Paris, 1885), specially valuable tor its illustrations of liturgical crosses; KRAUS, Geschichte der christlichen Kunst (Freiburg, 1895-1908); COX AND HARVEY, English Church Furniture (London, 1907); BINTERIM, Denkwürdigkeiten, IV, Part I, 496 sqq.; MARTÈNE, De Antiquis Ecclesiæ Ritibus; THEIRS, Dissertation sur les principaux autels et sur les jubés (Paris, 1688).

About this page

APA citation. Thurston, H. (1908). The Cross and Crucifix in Liturgy. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company.

MLA citation. Thurston, Herbert. "The Cross and Crucifix in Liturgy." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 4. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1908. <>.

Transcription. This article was transcribed for New Advent by Wm Stuart French, Jr.

Ecclesiastical approbation. Nihil Obstat. Remy Lafort, Censor. Imprimatur. +John M. Farley, Archbishop of New York.

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