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Christian Symbolism: The Absent Cross

Christian Symbolism: The Absent Cross

Christianity is, among other things, as religion of signs: in many ways—through parables and sacraments, art and song—we point imperfectly towards God, the great mystery of love. It is fitting then, that our churches are full of symbolism. The School of Theology is devoting some time to reflecting on Christian symbolism, particularly symbols founds in churches. To start off our new monthly series, Fr Martin Henig writes about a few early Christian motifs.


Some time ago, at a local synod, a speaker suggested that we needed another symbol—apart from the cross—a symbol that suggested a more dynamic approach to Christian faith. I was interested, indeed amused, that this scandalised some members of the audience, because it was clear that they were unaware of the sensitivities of those Christians who lived in the centuries immediately following the crucifixion and death of Christ. The speaker suggested an arrow as a dynamic symbol, adopting an image from a much later period—the 14th century—in which the anonymous author of the Cloud of Unknowing uses the image of the arrow of divine love.

Here the early Church would have to dissented, because bows (and surely arrows were included) were considered unsuitable, and rejected by a Church which was essentially pacifist: Clement of Alexandria (d. 215 CE) wrote that Christians should avoid a sword or a bow as a device being people of peace. In the account which follows I will attempt to explore some of the rich symbolism of the early Church and its meaning, citing where appropriate some examples from Roman Britain.

Tracing of the Alexamenos graffiti in Rome.  ca. 200 CE. Image from Rodolfo Lanciani (1898),  Ancient Rome in the Light of Recent Discoveries .

Tracing of the Alexamenos graffiti in Rome. ca. 200 CE. Image from Rodolfo Lanciani (1898), Ancient Rome in the Light of Recent Discoveries.

There is only one early depiction of the crucifixion (ca. 200 CE), from the Palatine Hill in Rome, but it is a hostile lampoon: it portrays a human figure with the head of a donkey being crucified with a worshipper in front of the cross accompanied by the legend “Alexamenos sebetai theon”: “Alexamenos worships [his] God.” Apart from that, and one or two amulets of later Roman date with probable magical significance, there are only a few other significant objects depicting the cruficixion. There is, for example, a tiny 5th century ivory casket in the British Museum carved with New Testament narrative scenes, one of them the crucifixion; similarly, one of the panels of the 6th century wooden doors of the Basilica of St Sabina in Rome depicts the crucifixion as part of a narrative series. There was clearly no appetite in antiquity to venerate Christ crucified or indeed to display the instruments of torture and execution.

It is not very hard to find the reason for this, as indeed St Paul wrote in his letter to the Corinthians (1:22-24):

Jews demand signs and Greeks search for  wisdom, but we preach  Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.

Indeed, the crucifixion would have been distasteful to Jews who were at the very least selective in portraying the human image: venerating a crucified human would have been unwholesome to say the very least. Greeks were used to dying and resurrected deities, for example Dionysus torn to pieces and reborn generally portrayed as reborn from a calyx of leaves and to Osiris/Serapis reborn in his avatar Harpocrates. Even in this case, it is images of the resurrected god who is most often worn as an amulet. Although the vegetation deities such as Attis and Persephone may be depicted dying (Attis) and being carried by Hades to the underworld (Persephone) the stress in their cults was not on divine suffering but always on rebirth, on regeneration and perhaps on individual salvation, which is why Attis in particular appears on tombs. To a degree they are the closest parallel to the Christian narrative, in that such cults centre on a spring festival like Easter does. In short, to achieve success in a world of multifarious deities, Christianity needed to—and did—adapt to the visual language of classical antiquity.

Although I have called this essay the “Absent Cross” that is not because there are no depictions of crosses of various kinds in early Christian art, but because they are essentially portrayed not as agents of execution but as victory-standards. For this reason they are often studded with jewels; moreover in late antiquity, the ancient Egyptian life symbol, the ankh—a cross with a loop at the top—was adapted as the crux ansata in the Coptic church. It is possible that the simple equal-armed cross was also derived from the ankh, rather than from a crucifix.  

Mosaic from Hinton St Mary, now at the British Museum.  4th century.

Mosaic from Hinton St Mary, now at the British Museum. 4th century.

The commonest early Christian symbol comes from the early 4th century: it is the monogram of Christ's name the Greek letter Chi (Χ) and the Rho (Ρ), although one variety—the monogrammatic cross or staurogram—has a horizontal cross-bar, rendering the device both more cruciform and, indeed, because of the upper loop more ankh-like. The Chi-Rho was Constantine’s emblem and the standard under which he triumphed at the Battle of the Milvian Bridge in 312. It is familiar from numerous subsequent artefacts and works of art, including, signet rings, brooches, belt fittings, silver plate, frescoes, and mosaics. Shown above is a 4th century mosaic at Hinton St Mary in Dorset: the Chi-Rho is depicted behind the head of Christ Pantocrator (Christ as ruler of the cosmos), who is flanked by two pomegranates, symbolic of burgeoning life because of their many seeds. Elsewhere, the Chi-Rho—both the normal form and the staurogramis also often flanked by the Alpha and Omega, the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet and hence symbols of eternity. The Chi-Rho is also figured on sarcophagi from throughout the Empire; one of my favourite sarcophagi dates from about 350 CE, and depicts scenes from Christ’s Passion. Jesus is shown carrying the cross, but the centre panel features the Chi-Rho surrounded by a wreath proclaiming Christ’s victory over death, flanked by doves, while below the soldiers sleep by the empty tomb.

Sarcophagus with scenes from the Passion of Christ  at the  Vatican Museum . ca. 350 CE.

Sarcophagus with scenes from the Passion of Christ at the Vatican Museum. ca. 350 CE.

While the Chi-Rho is probably the most common symbol, it is certainly not the earliest. We have scantier archaeological evidence before the 4th century: for the early to mid 3rd century, we mainly have the Catacombs in Rome and the house church at Dura-Europos (not to be confused for the synagogue nearby) in Syria. Textually, we have already alluded to Clement’s advice in the Paedagogus (III 59.2-III.60.1) on signet ring devices to be worn by Christians: 

 let our seals be either a dove, or a fish, or a ship scudding before the wind, or a musical lyre, which Polycrates used, or a ship’s anchor, which Seleucus had engraved as a device; and if there be one fishing, he will remember the apostle, and the children drawn out of the water. For we are not to delineate the faces of idols, we who are prohibited to cleave to them; nor a sword, nor a bow, following as we do, peace; nor drinking-cups, being temperate.

The dove, as a symbol of the Holy Spirit and of Christ's baptism, comes directly from the Gospels (Matthew 3:13–17, Mark 1:9–11; Luke 3:21–23). It appears, for example, in a baptism scene on a sarcophagus at S. Maria Antiqua in Rome (ca. 275 CE). The dove also appears—often holding an olive branch, taken from the story of Noah’s Ark and thus linked to salvation—in carvings and paintings in Roman Catacombs of this period. It was also very common on signet rings, either by itself or accompanying other symbols such as the Chi-Rho.

Sarcophagus at Santa Maria Antiqua, Rome.  ca. 275 CE.

Sarcophagus at Santa Maria Antiqua, Rome. ca. 275 CE.

The fish was a common early symbol for various reasons. The word for fish in Greek, ἰχθύς, quickly became an acronym for “Iesous Christos Theou Hious Soter” (Jesus Christ, Son of God, Saviour); fish appear in the famous miracles of the loaves and fish; Christ calls his followers to become fishers of men. Fish therefore appear in various forms in catacombs; as Clement suggests, it is also common in other artefacts including signet rings and belt-fittings.

Fish and loaves.  Fresco in the Catacombs of St Callixtus, Rome. 3rd century.

Fish and loaves. Fresco in the Catacombs of St Callixtus, Rome. 3rd century.

Another set of devices Clement recommends is the ship and anchor, and also fishermen. The ship is a symbol of the Church, and is associated with Noah’s Ark (also 1 Peter 3:20-21), just as the dove is: in this way, it is also a symbol of God’s faithfulness in protecting the Church. It also alludes to Christ calming the sea (Mark 4:35-41). The anchor is perhaps a more explicit symbol of security and hope (Hebrews 6:19): its biblical bases are thinner, but the anchor appears very often in catacombs (e.g., Priscilla).

As for the children drawn from the water, it is possible that here is an allusion to Jonah being spewed up on land after having been swallowed by a big fish or a whale, generally represented in art as a ketos, a sea-creature with a long neck. This is also frequently depicted on catacomb wall-paintings and on a famous floor mosaic in the Basilica of Bishop Theodore, Aquileia. Other popular images of salvation in Christian art were biblical scenes: the sacrifice of Isaac, Daniel in the lions' den, the three Hebrews in the fiery furnace, Moses striking the rock and bringing out living water, and the Raising of Lazarus.

Christ the Good Shepherd . Fresco in the Catacomb’s of St Callisto. 3rd century.

Christ the Good Shepherd. Fresco in the Catacomb’s of St Callisto. 3rd century.

Most popular of these complex images however was the Good Shepherd, a pastoral scene, most frequently a standing youth, a sheep over his shoulders and two others, one at each side, looking up at him. It appears in catacombs and in the house church at Dura-Europos, but also on silver plate, in sculpture, on lamps, and so forth. Sometimes the scene is more expansive as is the case of one of the lunettes in the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia at Ravenna, in which Christ appears as shepherd sitting in a verdant landscape; he is shown in gold raiment and holding a gold cross in the midst of his flock.

Christ the Good Shepherd.  Mausoleum of Galla Placidia, Ravenna. 5th century.

Christ the Good Shepherd. Mausoleum of Galla Placidia, Ravenna. 5th century.

The image of the Good Shepherd is biblical, of course (John 10:1-21), but the early depictions we find—of a man holding a sheep around his neck—is clearly based on the kriophoros: the ram-bearer associated with Hermes centuries before Christianity emerged. This phenomenon of Christians adopting earlier non-Christian imagery is not limited to the Good Shepherd. Even some of the themes described above—fish in particular—may have been inspired partly by other religious traditions. Early Christians also adopted other elements like the peacock, dolphins, cupids, and the cantharus, a two-handled chalice. These elements were adopted for various symbolics reasons. The peacock, for example, became a symbol of the resurrection, perhaps because ancient Greeks believed that the flesh of peafowl did not decay; there is an amusing anecdote about this in Augustine’s City of God in a 5th century. In pagan myth and classical art, dolphins provide safe passage to gods and mortals, and was also a symbol of the soul’s journey after death: this idea was easily adopted by Christians, which is why they sometimes appear with anchors in the Catacombs, as signs of safe and secure passage to eternal life. Cupids are still now recognisable as “cherubs”, despite biblical descriptions of the cherubim that bear no resemblance to putti so familiar to us. The two-handled chalice comes from the rites of Bacchus, but comes to take on eucharistic significance.

Woman holding hands in  orans  position, flanked with doves holding olive branches, and with peacock above. Fresco in the Catacombs of St Priscilla. 3rd century.

Woman holding hands in orans position, flanked with doves holding olive branches, and with peacock above. Fresco in the Catacombs of St Priscilla. 3rd century.

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Often, sites are found with combinations of pagan and more overtly and uniquely Christian art. The mosaics of the Frampton villa in Dorset present a good example. The mosaics themselves are now lost to us—buried, perhaps destroyed—but we still have 19th century drawings by Samuel Lysons. In the image above, we see the face of the god Neptune, flanked by dolphins: so far, so pagan. Directly opposite however, we have the Chi-Rho: distinctively Christian. This then allows us to interpret the chalice beyond it—an ambiguous symbol—as Christian too. This mixing of images can make it difficult to identify homes and graves as Christian or pagan.

The relative scarcity of depictions of the cross might appear to be at variance with the insistence in the Pauline epistles of a faith in Christ crucified and with the primacy of Passion narratives in the Gospels. But it must be remembered that even the Gospels were for an inner circle. Luke, especially in the Acts of the Apostles, reflects a pagan world where Christians had to contend with sophisticated Greek religion and philosophy in Athens, the fervour of the great pagan sanctuaries such as that of Ephesian Artemis and as at Lystra, the ease with which people might attest any wonder worker as divine. This is the world in which Alexander of Abonoteichos created the Glycon cult, and the environment in which Hadrian's deceased favourite was venerated both as divine hero and even as a god. A cult encompassing resurrection and rebirth was one thing; but a god nailed on a cross between two thieves was both disrespectful to religion and laughable. At a popular level the “new god” Jesus could only work for his devotees as a healer and saviour, and in time the martyrs were also allowed to take on the  functions previously assumed by deities; for intellectuals the problem was relating the Jewish god and his Son to the concept of a supreme deity which had long been present in pagan philosophical thought.

Even in the late 4th century Synesius of Cyrene, pupil of the great pagan Neo-Platonic philosopher (and pagan martyr) Hypatia, who became a bishop of Cyrene and a writer of hymns saw Christ primarily in Platonic terms. The cult of Dionysus—the wine god, the saviour god—in his various forms provided a model for such Christians. Dionysus, like Jesus, had died and been resurrected: he was fully alive in the wine and wine-grape and his followers shared in his life. Christians found themselves absorbing such influences so the cult as it developed took on a life that was more consonant with other cults than we, at a much later age, can appreciate. 

Apse of St Apollinare, Classe.  6th century.

Apse of St Apollinare, Classe. 6th century.

So it is that the cross—at least as instrument of torture—is absent from early Christian art; instead we find more comforting images, and even triumphant ones. The biblical scenes we find in frescoes are of God’s protection or rescue; the symbols we find are of security and safety. And when the cross is to be seen, it is as a standard no less than was Constantine’s labarum. It is often a literally bejewelled emblem, as in the 6th-century gold and jewelled reliquary cross of Justin II in the Treasury of St Peter’s, Rome; or it is depicted as bejewelled, as in the mosaic in the vault of the apse of the church of St Apollinare in Classe near Ravenna. Here, it stands above the figure of the saint, whose arms are raised in the orans gesture of prayer; he stands in a verdant landscape in which sheep graze. Many symbols come together here.

Even as late as 8th century Anglo-Saxon England, the visionary poem, The Dream of the Rood is essentially about a jewelled cross of this sort:

It seemed that I saw a most wondrous tree
born aloft, wound round by light,
brightest of beams. All was that beacon
sprinkled with gold. Gems stood
fair at earth’s corners; there likewise five
shone on the shoulder-span

and Christ ascends the cross here as the triumphant hero rather than as a victim. Indeed lines relating to this great poem are inscribed on the stone Ruthwell Cross (8th century), one of the masterpieces of Northumbrian art. Moreover jewelled crosses were carried into battle as exemplified in the Staffordshire hoard (7th and 8th centuries CE); and jewelled pendant crosses were widely worn, which might remind some readers of large diamond-studded crosses sometimes worn by hiphop musicians.

The richness of early Christian symbolism, with its ecstatic stress on liberation from sin and death, had little need to dwell on the sadness and horror of the suffering of Christ, a suffering that would have been all too real to Christians during times of persecution. There was no need to dwell on the death of Christ when the faith proclaimed his resurrection, and life at every turn; no need to dwell on the pains of hell when the Church proclaimed in no uncertain measure the unchanging Easter message.

The iconography and literature of the Western Church in particular took a very different direction in the late Middle Ages and in the Counter Reformation to dwell—some might say unrelentingly—on the suffering of our Lord. This focus—together with ancient liturgical practices, such as the reading of St John’s gospel during Holy Week—may have led on occasion to the stirring up of dark passions and antisemitic outrages. As important as it is to allow ourselves to experience the emotional breadth of the Church’s year, I confess that I feel much more at home in the grace and beauty, the overflowing optimism and joy seen in early Christian art, which invariably leads us on to the New Jerusalem and the miracle of Easter.


Further reading

  1. P. C. Finney. (1994). The Invisible God. The Earliest Christians on Art. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

  2. J. Spier. (2007a). Picturing the Bible. The Earliest Christian Art. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

  3. J. Spier (2007b). Late Antique and Early Christian Gems. Wiesbaden, DE: Reichert Verlag.

  4. C. F. Mawer (1995). Evidence for Christianity in Roman Britain,. The small-finds. Oxford, UK: BAR.

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