Early and medieval church cross forms and their meanings
Many stylized cross forms arose during the Middle Ages in Europe. These beautiful crosses have strong symbolic values in addition to representing the crucifixion of Jesus.
First, the four arms of the cross are said to represent:
- the four gospels, and
- the four directions in which the Good News spread, unto
- the four corners of the world
The Greek cross is one of the oldest known crosses, a simple square cross characterized by four arms of the same length and form. The emblem of the Red Cross is an example of a Greek cross. Greek cross forms have been found in catacombs and on early Christian tombs.
The Jerusalem cross consists of a large Greek cross with four smaller crosses, one in each quadrant. The earliest depiction of what looks like a Jerusalem cross is found on the Bayeux Tapestry, a famous pictorial embroidery showing the Norman Conquest of England in 1066.
A pattée cross, popular in medieval heraldry, is defined as a cross whose arms are narrow at the center, and broader at the perimeter. The splayed ends of each arm of the cross was thought to resemble a paw, which is pattée in French.
A patonce cross is a variant of the pattée cross, but with each arm terminating in a three points or petals. The three petals represent the Trinity; the cross’s twelve petals represent the twelve Apostles. ‘Patonce’ is derived from French patte d’once, or paw of an ounce (snow leopard).
The Maltese cross is a particular type of Pattée cross (its arms are narrow at the center, broader at the perimeter); the defining feature of the Maltese Cross is that it has eight points, two on each arm of the cross. The order of the Knights Hospitaller, later the Knights of St. John, used this cross as their emblem. After they were given the island of Malta in the twelfth century their cross became known as the Maltese cross.
The eight points of the cross are said to represent:
- the Eight Beatitudes of Matthew 5:3-10
- the Eight Points of Courage: Loyalty, piety, generosity, bravery, glory and honor, contempt of death, helpfulness towards the poor and the sick, and respect for the church.
- spiritual rebirth and baptism (Christ rose from grave eight days after entering Jerusalem)
These crosses are a beautiful way to declare and celebrate your faith and its heritage.
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