Sacred Objects

Cross and Crucifix in the Christian Assembly - Part I (The Early Christian Period: Crux Invicta, Crux Gemmata)

October 30, 2007

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There were no crucifixes or other depictions of the crucifixion in the early Christian period; even the use of the cross was limited. As late as the sixth century, the twenty-six mosaic panels that tell the story of Christ’s life in the church of San Apollinare Nuovo in Ravenna (thirteen of which are devoted to the story of the passion) do not include a depiction of the crucifixion. What we find in this period, however, are two types of crosses: the crux invicta (triumphant cross) and the crux gemmata (jeweled cross).

Crux Invicta

SarcophagusA fourth-century sarcophagus, probably from the Catacombs of Domitilla, with sculpted scenes representing the passion, illustrates the way the early Christians told the story of the passion. In the central panel there is a cross surmounted by the Chi-Rho (the first letters of “Christ” in Greek) encircled with a victor’s laurel crown. This is a symbol that encompasses Christ’s death and resurrection. The cross inherently symbolized suffering and death, but here the cross is depicted as a victorious trophy of Christ’s conquest of sin and death. The kneeling soldiers were typically shown at the empty tomb.

The two panels on the right show Jesus before Pilate. The two panels on the left show, first, a Roman soldier crowning Jesus, not with thorns, but with laurel; the other, Simon carrying the cross. In early Christian art, the cross, sometimes with the Chi-Rho monogram, sometimes with a bust of Christ, expressed the death and resurrection of Jesus. In scripture and the preaching of the Fathers of the Church, the cross, which is the sign of Jesus’ death, is also the sign of his victory over death.

Apse of San Apollinare in ClasseThe crux invicta also expressed the second coming of Christ. The cross, set against a starry sky and placed at the eastern end of the church, stood as a sign of the expectation of his return. We see this in the Church of San Apollinare in Classe in Ravenna. At the heart of the cross is a bust of Christ and on either side are the Greek letters Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end. At the foot of the cross is the inscription: salus mundi, the salvation of the world.

Crux Gemmata

Apse of Santa PudenzianaThe jeweled cross is a form of the Crux invicta with a specific historical reference. After the Edict of Toleration in 313, the Emperor Constantine built a series of churches in Rome and the Holy Land. In Jerusalem, he built the Basilica of the Holy Sepulcher, incorporating the hill of Calvary and the tomb. On Calvary he erected a gigantic cross of gold encrusted with jewels. The cross of Constantine can be seen in the fifth-century church of Santa Pudenziana in Rome.

The scene in the apse represents Jesus and the Apostles in the heavenly Jerusalem. Above their heads is the skyline of Jerusalem as it appeared in the fifth century, representing the heavenly Jerusalem. At the center is the cross of Constantine standing on the hill of Calvary. The symbols of the four evangelists hover in the sky around the cross.

Processional Cross of the Cathedral of OviediThe distinctive form of the crux gemmata with arms that widen as they extend out and with elliptical adornments at the corners is seen again and again. It appears in illuminated manuscripts and processional crosses.


Book of LindesfarneWhy were the early Christians so reserved? First, the early Church had yet to find the language to express the relationship between the humanity and divinity of Christ. But, it also seems to me that the images presented here suggest a deep sensitivity to the profound mystery of the Lord’s dying and rising. Second, these images evolved in the same climate that created the Christian scriptures and the liturgy. They did not want a simple narration of events; but, rather, a proclamation of the meaning of the events. I have often felt that what some people today expect from a crucifix is a snapshot of the historical event. But is that what we want in the liturgical setting?

Contemporary processional crossMost churches have a large wall cross and a processional cross; both do not need to be crucifixes. If there is a crucifix on the wall, the processional cross might be a form of the crux gemmata or crux invicta. Throughout the centuries, artists have been intrigued with the geometry of the cross. Carolingian and Celtic artists, in particular, explored the inherent beauty of the cross itself.  Contemporary artists can do the same.

Ronald John Zawilla, Ph.D. is a liturgical design consultant in Chicago, IL.


Cross and Crucifix in the Christian Assembly

+ Introduction
+ Part II: The Early Christian Period: Christus Victor
+ Part III: The Medieval Period: Christus Mortuus
+ Part IV: The Medieval Period: Painted Crosses and Altarpieces
+ Part V: The Renaissance and Baroque Periods: Drama and Emotions
+ Part VI: The Resurrection in Christian Art

The Labyrinth and the Paschal Mystery

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