What does the cross symbol mean

Cross as a universal symbol - meaning as a sign of blessing

The cross drawn from horizontal and vertical lines is in its originality a universal positive symbol: Horizontal and vertical lines intersect and result in an intersection point. In this form it is a simple ornament that can also be assigned a spiritual background. The vertical line is the heavenly-divine, also seen as spiritual and active-masculine, while the horizontal is the earthbound and passive-feminine. In this sense, the cross is a symbol of union - of heaven and earth, male and female, or other dualistic pairs of opposites.

The archetypes

The meaning of the cross has certainly undergone several changes in the course of human culture. The symbol is already known from scratch drawings by Stone Age people, for example on bones, where it embodies primitive digits in connection with simple notches. Simple notches stand for one and the cross notch was probably already an abstract representation of the number four.

Latin cross in good proportions of the bars (see explanation below)

In terms of cultural history, the cross and the 4 were soon associated with groups of four, such as the 4 seasons or the 4 cardinal points. In fact, by evaluating Stone Age rock drawings, one could distinguish between two "traditions": The first group drew animals of the air (birds), the land (land animals) and the "underworld" (fish, snakes) mostly in groups of 3 or multiples of three. The other tradition was based on the 4 and was limited to drawing land animals on the plain. One can now assume that we are dealing here with two different worldviews. One tradition sees a vertical 3-part worldview: heaven - earth - underworld (birds - land animals - snakes) and the other group emphasizes a horizontal worldview: animals of the plane - and number 4. This made the four and their symbolic Representation as a cross similar to the square of a world symbol.

Clay seals partly ornamental, 6th and early 4th millennium BC Middle East [3]

But the cross offers more possibilities of interpretation than the square, because on the one hand the cross is a world symbol (the four ends of the world) - on the other hand it is an "intersection" - a center: unity of the infinite expansion of the cardinal directions. The number symbolism of 4 points in this direction, which represents the unfolding of the divine unity (point of intersection), in that from the disembodied 1, the 4 unfolds as a visible entity.

Wheel cross

With the occupation with the 4 cardinal points, i.e. with the course and position of the sun, there was subsequently a connection between the isosceles cross and the solar disk: that is, with the circle. The circle in connection with the two crossed bars overcomes the static four ends of the world and thus becomes the world circle. With the Indians of North America we find the wheel cross as a sacred medicine wheel.

Wheel cross and paw cross (below) as rock painting of North American Indians [3]

But the aspect of the circle also has another side. Due to the connection with the cross, it has lost its horizontal reference to the wide plains of the unsteady pastoral peoples and has become a symbol of the sun in many settled cultures. The circle / semicircle, which is formed by the rising and setting of the sun, now adds the vertical aspect to the horizontal world view. This can symbolize the world beyond and the spiritual principle behind matter. The "sun wheel" was created from the cross and circle and the various forms of swastika (swastikas) were created through the further abstraction of the wheel. These and also the wheel and consecration crosses of the church buildings are known to be symbols of good luck and signs of blessing and we will learn more about this topic in the following chapter.


Today the Latin cross is one of the main symbols of Christianity, but it has not always been that way. The cross as the execution stake of the Romans was only depicted in connection with Jesus as a crucifixion scene in the 4th century. From the third century AD, only a carved Roman mockery is known. More information can be found on the topic "Christian symbols". However, in the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church (Coptic Christians) a decorative cross shape has been established, which comes in diverse stylistic forms from the tradition of the world symbolism described above and is initially a symbol of the four regions of the world or the four ends of the earth . This cross shape is regarded as a sign of blessing and perhaps even has an archetypal connection to the Tau cross as a symbol of blessing, which shows a tendency that the symbolism discussed here (including the swastika) expressed salvation and blessings. It is interesting that in Romanesque and Gothic church buildings we often find the wheel cross (circle and paw cross) as a sign of consecration on the walls. However, there is usually a small difference between these and real wheel crosses, as can be seen, for example, in the Indian rock art above. With the consecration mark of the churches, the bars are not connected to the paw cross with the wheel. Nevertheless, we can say that this old symbolism of blessing and consecration has been reproduced over hundreds of generations of people. These symbols consecrating a place are not to be understood in the sense that they are supposed to ward off evil and evil spirits like the pentagram - the wheel and consecration crosses are supposed to attract the good and the divine.

Regarding the Christian (Latin) cross [1], with or without a depiction of Christ (then a crucifix), it should be noted that the depiction of the ancient Roman martyrwood symbolizes the theological doctrine that Jesus of Nazareth, who died of such a wood, was on the third day after his execution resurrected from the dead and transformed his body into his divine nature, doing so as a sacrifice for the people. This symbolism has only an indirect connection with the universal cross symbolism, namely that this sacrifice promises people salvation and blessings. It is definitely worth mentioning that the oldest Christian symbol, the Christ monogram (X and P in ligature) is essentially an old, reinterpreted sign of salvation and only remotely suggests a stake. In some designs it even resembles an ancient Egyptian cross with the handle (ankh symbol, Nile key), which symbolizes the continued life of humans in the world of the dead. All these signs are therefore positive symbols and in this sense they may have found their way to this day as grave signs:

Grave symbol and grave cross

Christian crosses as well as the old universal symbolism can be found and are suitable for the design of individual tombs. The background and meaning of this old imagery given in the text above allows a tomb to appear in a completely new light. From this perspective, it is both a memorial and a positive sign of blessing. It is again a curiosity and a fact at the same time that the oldest gravestones in Europe are the Irish or Celtic crosses and they have certainly been such signs of blessing. With these the circle stands in the cross as a sign for sun, light and spirit sparks in the human heart. In fact, such a Nordic cemetery, filled with these Celtic crosses, never has this gloomy character as one with the Latin cross representations that are common in our country. We should definitely consider such optical aspects when choosing a grave monument.

Note the proportions!

Since the optics were sketched out at the end of this article, the author is allowed to write something about the proportions of this sign. A mistake in the proportions of the representations is made again and again, in that the three upper cross bars are shown in the same length. However, this is a mistake from an artistic point of view. Horizontal lines and vertical lines each have a different visual weighting, which must also be taken into account in garden design. Horizontal lines appear longer than vertical lines of the same size. With regard to a three-dimensional or illustrated cross, if it is incorrectly implemented, one has the impression that the upper cross bar is slightly longer, like the two ends of the cross bar. For this reason, the old artists always shortened the upper section of the beam slightly for purely visual reasons. This is easy to see in the picture of the Art Nouveau altar with crucifix. The ingenious artist was able to visually represent the crucifix with the decoration of golden spiral motifs made of mosaic stones in such a way that its gloom for the eye becomes a sign of hope for the heart.

Notes / Sources:

  • [1] The Greek cross is in the form of a cross with isosceles bars, next to it is the well-known Latin cross in the Christian tradition. In this case, the crossbar is in the golden section of the vertical bar.
  • [2] Image source: Brentjes, Buchard; Ancient sealing art of the Near East; Leipzig 1983 - first graphic clay stamp from Çatalhöyük 6th year. B.C. (Neolithic); second to fourth stamp illustration from Susa, stamp made of copper / stone at the beginning of the 4th century. v. Chr.
  • [3] Image source: Tokarew, S.A .; Religion in the History of Nations; Berlin 1987 - Rock carvings of the indigenous tribes in Southern California.