The altar of the New Covenant is the Lord's Cross, from which the sacraments of the Paschal mystery flow. On the altar, which is the center of the church, the sacrifice of the Cross is made present under sacramental signs. The altar is also the table of the Lord, to which the People of God are invited. In certain Eastern liturgies, the altar is also the symbol of the tomb (Christ truly died and is truly risen).
– Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1182
It has long been a tradition of Catholic families to hang crucifixes throughout their homes, or to even have a crucifix embedded into the foundation of the house. Some merely hang the crucifix on the walls of their home as a reminder of Christ’s redemptive sacrifice, but beyond this it is also a sacramental, used in devotion to Our Lord and as a guard against evil.
The tradition is hard to date exactly; the earliest Christians did not openly display the crucifix partly to not scandalize the weak, and partly to avoid subjecting it to the ridicule of Pagans. Instead they carried and used veiled symbols in art, for example an anchor, to refer to the Cross of Jesus. However, by the 5th century, the open depiction of the crucifix had become widespread; by the 6th century veneration to the Cross was firmly established. The Christian Faithful not only used it in art and to hang on walls but also on household utensils and plates, medals, lamps, toys, combs, the seals of wine-jars, and even on water-pipes.
The two traditions that have lasted and remain prevalent in the lives of Catholics today are to wear a crucifix and to place them throughout the home.
They are often hung on the wall, but standing crucifixes which stand on a table are also popular. The Vatican’s exorcist, Gabriele Amorth, encourages the faithful to keep a crucifix in every room.
Prayer in front of a crucifix is encouraged as a means of focusing contemplation on Christ. Many of the saints practiced this, both in everyday prayer and also when they were suffering. Catherine of Siena was known to look upon a Crucifix for hours each day and when Joan of Arc was martyred, she asked a member of the clergy present to hold a crucifix before her.
Types and Uses of Crucifixes and Crosses
Latin Cross – The Latin cross is the most familiar crucifix to Catholics in the Latin Rite. It has one cross-section, a little higher than the middle, resembling a lowercase ‘t’ rather than a plus sign (+) as the Greek cross does. The Latin cross is only a proper crucifix when it has the body of Christ (Corpus) on it. The Latin crucifix can be hung or placed as a standing cross anywhere in the home.
St. Benedict’s Crucifix – This crucifix is associated with St. Benedict. It is a standard Latin style crucifix, but behind the head of Jesus, where the two bars that make up the cross intersect, a St. Benedict medal is embedded. (To read about the St. Benedict medal, click here). It can be hung anywhere in the home but is considered to be particularly suited to be hung above doors; it can even be sealed into the foundation of a house. This is because the medal is intended to be a constant, silent prayer asking for Christ’s guidance and aversion from the devil.
Icon Crucifixes and Plaque Crosses – The most popular icon cross today is the San Damiano Crucifix. Icon Crosses, like other icons, are more than intricate art, they are intended to teach the viewer about the subject matter presented, and indeed they are meant to transport viewers into a transfigured world. The San Damiano crucifix depicts certain people and imagery behind and around Jesus on the cross, to represent their roles in Christ’s passion. (To read more about the San Damiano Cross, click here.)
There are also crosses that are not true icon crosses but do have some sort of imagery. They are sometimes called picture crosses or cross plaques and are typically flat with some sort of image painted or varnished on. Aside from the San Damiano style, they are usually crosses, not crucifixes, and do not have the crucified Christ on them. Some typical imagery on these crosses are: military emblems, saints, trinity images, and children praying. They are largely used to hang in the home as a reminder of one’s relationship with God, and, with certain cross designs, how it is integrated with worldly occupations (such as being in the military).
Patron Saint Cross – Many people like to have a patron saint cross somewhere in their home. This is a cross that bears an image of a saint, as well as some other symbols, such as symbols of the Holy Trinity, and symbols associated with the saint. A person may choose a cross with the saint who is their namesake or another saint they have a particular and special devotion to. It can be used as a devotional and also serves as a reminder of the saint’s devotion to Christ.
Crib Crosses – Crib crosses, like other crib medals are meant to be tied to the child’s crib or hung above as a form of protection. Typically they are crosses, not crucifixes, and depict a child or angel. Of course, it is also perfectly acceptable to hang standard crucifixes in a child’s room.
Event/Sacrament Cross – Crosses commemorating reception of the sacraments have become popular decorations in the home. They may be crucifixes or they may be crosses with images or symbols of the sacraments. For example, a wedding cross may have two interlinked rings, or a First Communion cross may be engraved with a host and chalice. These crosses might not be used in prayer and devotion but rather placed around the home as a reminder and symbol of the sacrament received and one’s growth in faith. Aquinas and more carries a large variety of sacramental crosses: