Symbolism Confessing Christ Crucified for Us
Q: What do all the styles of Orthodox crosses mean? Where do they come from? Aren't they unnecessarily complicated?
A: The "IC-XC NIKA" Cross is most often seen on the prosphora bread used in the preparation for use on the altar, as well as for blessed holy bread (andidoron) distributed after the Liturgy. The symbol dates from the mystical appearance of the Holy Cross in the sky to St. Constantine, while the saint was still a pagan. Facing certain defeat in an approaching battle, Constantine saw the sign of the Cross in the sky, and heard the angelic words, "In this Sign, Conquer." St. Constantine instructed his pagan troops to paint the cross on their shields; to their surprise, the battle went in their favour, and St. Constantine was converted to the Christian faith, making it legal in the Empire in 313 A.D. The "IC-XC" stands for the first and letters of the names, "Jesus Christ" in Greek, while "Nika" means "Conqueror".
The Three-barred Cross is common to most Slavic Orthodox lands. The three bars distinguish the Holy Cross as the Cross of Christ, as opposed to other crosses used by the Romans. The smaller upper bar represents the sign placed above the Lord's head, which read, "Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews". The slanted lower bar reflects either the fate of the thieves crucified on either side of the Lord: one side pointing up to Paradise, the other downward to Hades. On either side of the Cross are often pictures the spear used to pierce the Lord's side, and the pole with the sponge used to give Him sour wine to drink. The Holy Napkin (Mandylion) icon, bearing the Lord's face, is sometimes pictured above the Body of the Lord. The bottom of the cross bears the skull of Adam. Holy Tradition tells us that Adam's skull was buried at the site of the Lord's crucifixion - Golgotha, the "place of a skull" - and that it is here that the New Adam brings life where the first Adam met death. In a few cases, the Three-barred Cross is seen sitting atop an inverted crescent, a sign of Christian victory over centuries of slavery to Islamic invaders.
The Celtic Cross was adapted by early Celtic missionaries like Sts. Patrick and Columba from a similar sun-disk used by pagans. Since the Orthodox Faith recognizes that even paganism foreshadows the fullness of Truth in Jesus Christ, the Celtic Orthodox missionaries to Ireland, Scotland, England and Wales recognized this in the pagan sun disk, as well as the pagan Egyptian "ankh" cross. The circle on both represents eternal life. Both the Celtic and the Egyptian missions took place long before the Great Schism when Rome left the Orthodox Church around 1054. While these crosses are not commonly used by Orthodox Christians today, the Celtic and Egyptian crosses are unquestionably Orthodox, used by Orthodox Christians for centuries before the falling away of the West from the Church.