We all know what a cross looks like, and yet when asked to describe one, the only valid answer is, "Which one?"
This page outlines a little bit about the most common cross used in Christendom today, with its heraldic name, the Crux Immissa, also known as the Crux Capitata.
In a religious context, this style is called a Latin Cross and often depicted as the type used to crucify Jesus, although we don't know for certain what the True Cross looked like. In any case, the style doesn't matter as much as the meaning of the Cross.
The Crux Immissa has a Patibulum (horizontal beam) inserted at right-angles to the upright post. Immissa means 'inserted', and this is the most common form of the Christian cross. Another name for this cross is Crux Capitata, which means 'with a head'.
Why is the Crux Immissa style so common in Christianity?
This style may be one of the oldest religious symbols, pre-dating Christianity by thousands of years.
Imagine, if you can, the scene when some primitive people worked out a way to make a fire. They must have had a pretty wild party when they realised they now had control over something that could cook food, keep them warm, provide light, keep predators at bay, etc.
The fire bow was one of the apparatus used and it would be natural to adopt the cross symbol to represent fire.
When religions developed, one of the main gods was the sun, and since the sun looks fiery and gives heat, the cross was an obvious choice to symbolise the sun god.
And the rest is history.
That is all conjecture, of course, but it does make sense and is the commonly-accepted origin of the cross which has, for a long time, been associated with Pagan deities. Distancing themselves from Paganism was one reason why Early Christians didn't use the cross as a symbol for their faith, and of course, it was a reminder of the torture used to crucify Jesus.
Attitudes changed around the 3rd century, when it was agreed that the suffering of Jesus was very much part of his passion, making this a most suitable symbol for Christians to use.
There are two variations:
|crux humilis - a Low Cross, where the victim's feet were close to the ground. This was the most common form of cross; cheaper, easier to use, and also give the mob opportunity to torture the victim further.
Because of their extensive use during the Crusades, crosses have played a major role in heraldry. To suit the shape and size of escutcheons (shields), heraldic crosses are often crux humilis. See Greek Cross.
|crux sublimis - a Tall Cross, where the victim was high off the ground.
This would not mean that the victim had commanded a high rank in society; the elite were rarely subject to capital or even corporal punishment. Instead, in the not-so-often cases where the rich and powerful were convicted of crime, the normal chastisement was exile or a fine - pretty much like today.
Crucifixion was normally reserved for slaves and others of a low social status. The 1st century Jewish historian Flavius Josephus mentions high ranking Jews who had their status removed by their crucifixion. This was one reason that crucifixion was the chosen method for putting Jesus to death.
There are no universally prescribed dimensions for a cross. Some are copied from national flags and retain the ratio (1:1.5, 1:1.6, 1:1.667, etc.). Other designers prefer the aesthetically pleasing Golden Ratio of 1:1.618. In these pages, we have chosen a ratio of 1:1 for crux humilis and a rather stunted ratio of 1:1.429 for crux sublimis.
About 1,500 years before Christ, the Prophet Zoroaster (or Zarathustra) founded a religion that became the most powerful in the world. Zoroastrianism was the official religion of Persia (Iran) from 600 BCE to 650 CE.
One of their symbols was fire but they were not, and are not, fire-worshippers. Zoroastrians believe that fire is a pure element and therefore a suitable representation of God's light or wisdom. Similarly in Christianity, fire is used to represent the Holy Spirit.