Byzantine cross. Three Bar Cross. St. Andrew’s Cross. Greek cross. Eastern Cross. What do these names mean? What is the difference? With so many names for the Eastern crosses – many of them similar in style – it is easy to get confused about these different crosses. Here is a guide to help you understand the crosses found in the Eastern Christian (both Catholic and Orthodox) tradition:
This cross is defined by Webster’s Dictionary as "a cross, the shaft of which is intersected by two transverse beams, the upper one being the smaller." In this form, the cross is the same shape as a Latin cross, except rather than an attached scroll, the extra beam at the top would be the plaque where the inscription “INRI" which stands for "Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews” was placed. The word is sometimes used synonymously with ‘Byzantine Cross’ or ‘Three Bar Cross,’ though these terms are not completely accurate; a true patriarchal cross does not have a third cross bar. The Patriarchal Cross was also used as a political symbol in the 9th century in the Byzantine Empire, likely leading to the confusion between it and the three bar cross.
Three Bar Cross
This term describes a cross, similar to the Patriarchal Cross but with, as the name suggests, a third bar. It is also sometimes called a ‘Tri-Bar Cross’ or simply ‘Byzantine Cross’ or ‘Eastern Cross.’ The term may accurately describe other Eastern crosses that have other distinguishing features but still use the three bar design. Typically the third bar is lower, where the feet of the crucified would be. Crucifixion had been used as a form of execution prior to the incarnation and continued for some time after the crucifixion of Christ; different methods and styles of crosses had been used in different places. It is believed that the Three Bar Cross may have been the type of cross that Jesus was crucified on. This is largely based on a point in time during the Passion when the soldiers go to break Jesus’s legs and find that He has already died.
Three-bar Crosses have a third small board the crucified would rest their feet on to support their body weight. This served two purposes. First of all, it prolonged the suffering of the person being killed. Execution by crucifixion was intended to be humiliating as well as painful. It also may have served a somewhat practical purpose, from the point of view of the executioners. Since the body weight was supported, the chances of the body pulling free and slipping from the ropes, or nails from tearing through the hands completely were much less likely. Later, when the crucified were near death, the soldiers would break their legs; the positioning of the person being unable to support their body caused a pressure that would result in eventual asphyxiation, and death. The fact that soldiers went back to break the legs of Jesus indicates to many that Jesus would have been crucified on a three bar cross where he initially would have had a foot rest.
Of course, when they reach Jesus, they find that He is already dead. This detail is the foundation for the depiction of the Three Bar Cross with the bottom bar slanted. Tradition holds that at some point the bar slipped from its original positioning, which is what caused Jesus to die before the soldiers came to break His legs. Further, it is believed that the direction the bar slanted in holds significance; the side of the repentant criminal angles upward to indicate his salvation, the side of the bitter thief who mocked Jesus, angles downward and indicates that he was not saved. In art, the Three Bar Cross may be depicted with all three bars straight, as it would have been built, or with the bottom bar angled.
St. Andrew’s Cross and St. Olga’s Cross
The Cross of St. Andrew the Apostle is sometimes used to describe a Three Bar Cross. This stems from his work spreading the teachings of Christ; many believed he would have used a replica of the cross in his ministry. However, the term more accurately refers to the cross upon which he himself was executed. Tradition holds that St. Andrew was not martyred on the Three Bar Cross, but on a crux decussate, which is an X-shaped cross.
St. Olga, the first Christian queen of Ukraine/Rus is commonly depicted holding a Three Bar Cross. Since it is believed that St. Andrew traveled to Ukraine/Rus in his work spreading the gospel, and Olga later had a habit of carrying a Three Bar Cross as she attempted to convert her people, this connection may be part of the reason St. Andrew is associated with the particular cross. St. Olga’s Cross however is often more ornate; the cross connected to St. Olga is usually the Three Bar Cross affixed to or engraved on a more ornate Latin cross. The Latin cross has the letters IC (the first and last letters of ‘Jesus’) and XC (the first and last letters of ‘Christ’), and the word Nika, which means to conquer or be Victorious.
The Greek cross is shaped like a plus sign, with each bar of the same length. It can be plain or richly decorated, as in the various styles similar to Latin cross. Many Greek crosses are also illuminated or iconographic in style.
Eastern or Byzantine Cross
The term Eastern Cross seems to be less definite. It is used to denote any cross from Eastern Christianity, regardless of further distinctions. The term Byzantine Cross typically refers to the Three Bar Cross but is also used to describe crosses with only one crossbar (resembling a plus sign as in the Greek cross or a Latin cross) that are engraved or painted with specifically Byzantine symbols.