Saint Volodymyr le Grand b
Ukrainian Orthodoxy
Orthodoxie ukrainienne

Three Bar Cross

Question:

Could you please explain the differences between the three bar cross with a diagonal slant and the three bar cross with all parallel bars?  Is one more “correct” or “Ukrainian” then the other?  (I do realize all crosses are God’s crosses).

Response:

Dr. Alexander Roman alex.roman@unicorne.org

The issue of the three-bar Cross with either the parallel or diagonal foot-rest is an interesting one that actually has a long history in the Ukrainian tradition.  It was the Ukrainian Orthodox Professor Vadim Scherbakivsky in his “History of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church” who proposed that the Cross with the parallel foot-rest is the “Ukrainian Cross” while the one with the diagonal foot-rest is the “Muscovite Cross.”

In response, the Ukrainian Orthodox Metropolitan Ilarion Ohienko wrote a book entitled, “The Three-Bar Cross with the Slanted Foot-rest - the National Cross of Ukraine.”  Ohienko went to great lengths in the book to not only show how popular the Cross with the diagonal foot-rest was and is in Ukraine, but also that even when church iconographers depicted the parallel foot-rest – they did so by way of mistake e.g. not knowing the theology behind it.  Other iconographers depicted the diagonal foot-rest on the wrong side i.e. on our right as we face the Cross rather than on Christ’s right (which would be our left).

Ohienko also presents copies of ancient manuscripts where Crosses of St Andrew are depicted alongside the Cross with the diagonal foot-rest where the latter also symbolizes the Cross of the Apostle of Scythia and of the Kyivan Church.  As such, the Cross is a Patriarchal Cross with the Cross of St Andrew at its base to indicate the Apostolic foundation for the Kyivan Church’s claim to patriarchal status.

The diagonal Cross is depicted in this fashion mainly, however, as a result of our liturgy seeing it as a “weigh-scale” where Grace triumphed over sin.  In the Troparia of the Lenten service of the Ninth Hour, overt mention is made of this and how the Good Thief, through his confession of faith in Christ and his repentance, was brought up to heaven, while the other thief was brought down.  So too we will be on Christ’s Right if we imitate the Good Thief.  There is also the tradition in our Church to kiss the Cross on the upward pointing edge of the diagonal foot-rest. 

Ohienko also discusses our people’s common understanding of the diagonal foot-rest in these terms:  After the Good Thief’s confession of faith and our Lord’s exclamation that “This day you will be with Me in Paradise,” He inclined towards the thief by putting pressure on His left Foot and releasing His right.  This brought the foot-rest up into its diagonal position.

The Cross with the diagonal foot-rest was mainly popular in western Ukraine and among Greek Catholics, especially in areas where they experienced religious-cultural repression by their Roman Catholic neighbours.  It was a sign of identity among both Ukrainian Orthodox and Ukrainian Catholics (e.g. the Cross on the grave of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic priest and writer, Fr. Markian Shashkevych).  Metropolitan Ilarion Ohienko even shows a copy of a depiction of an Eastern Catholic priest wearing the three bar Cross with the diagonal foot-rest.

It was really only in the twentieth century that the three-bar Cross with the diagonal foot-rest came to be an issue in the Russian-Ukrainian struggle.  The Ukrainian Catholic Church accepted Professor Scherbakivsky’s arguments in favour of the parallel foot-rest.  However, many priests and laity in the UGCC love and honour the traditional three-bar Cross with the diagonal foot-rest.  I would add that if we, Ukrainian Orthodox or Catholics, use the argument that if a certain religious or cultural symbol that was always in use among us should be now rejected on the grounds that the Russians or others have adopted it – then we would have very little left of our heritage indeed!  Ohienko calls such an attitude “cultural suicide.”  The Ukrainian Cross-Trident is also used by the Russians – and I hope no one suggests that we should divest ourselves of that symbol as a result!

The parallel foot-rest, in fact, has no theological context as deeply rich as the diagonal foot-rest.  And if Ukrainian Catholics take seriously their vocation to be true to their Eastern Christian traditions, then we shouldn’t be in the business of recreating such symbols to suit contemporary attitudes and fads. 
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