Three Bar Cross
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).
Dr. Alexander Roman email@example.com
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.
Your reaction to this response which will be posted here immediately:
|Reactions previously posted:|
|By: zienmike |
Well said, Dr. Alexander Roman - you allude to the 'cultural suicide' that Ukrainians would take if their attitude would be to reject our long held historical traditions and symbols just because others who are not sympathetic to us also use them. Thank you for the detailed description of Metropolitan Ilarion's (God rest his soul) research and discussion about the three bared cross. The more enlightened Ukrainian Orthodox and Catholics are about the riches of our faith, the better we will be to defend and carry on these traditions.
|By: TS |
Isn't this justification for the slanted bar too pietist and history-based (things about which we usually find Roman Catholics at fault) compared to the Patristic spirit of the Orthodox Church? As for the 'wrong' side that is mentioned in the second paragraph, this is a ludicrous observation, since the earliest examples of the slanted footstool (in Jerusalem) are pointing upwards, unlike the Muscovite cross, because they symbolized the saving power of the Cross of Christ, rather the resignation of death. The downward-pointing bar came much later, and so it is not correct to speak of a 'wrong' upward bar.
|By: Alex Roman |
Thank you for your comment! Certainly, it could very well be as you've said. Metropolitan Ilarion had researched the "staurology" of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church extensively but also based his work on the canonical principles of the three-bar Cross beginning with the prayer in the Ninth Hour of the Great Fast. Other Orthodox Churches accept the same principles and refer to the three-bar Cross as the "Canonical Cross." Every Christian nation appears to favour one particular kind of Cross that reflects its own spiritual-cultural and, yes, even national identity, including the Armenians, the Georgians, the Copts, the Celts etc. The Ukrainians were not about to be left out of that picture. Of course, the Russian Orthodox Church and the Russian Old Believers use that same Cross and this is why the Ukrainian Orthodox scholar Prof. Vadim Scherbakivsky presented his view that the three bar Cross with the parallel foot-rest is the true "Ukrainian Cross." Metropolitan Ilarion disputed that and the fact that the three bar Cross with the slanted footrest is so widely represented in Ukrainian Church symbology would favour his position.
In the canonical form, the side of the slanted foot-rest that is pointing upwards is always on the right side of Christ on the Cross which would be our left side. That would have been the side of Christ on which the Good Thief was crucified. Roman Catholic baroque-style Crosses also depict Christ inclining to His right (and our left) toward the Good Thief. To have the slant on Christ's left side (and our right side) would most definitely upset the theological import of the symbolism - hardly "ludicrous."
There are also depictions of Crosses with the slanted foot-rest pointing upward and on the right side of Christ on ancient Roman (and even anti-Christian) caricatures carved on walls in the city of Rome during the times of the Christian persecutions. I've seen them myself. So this Cross is indeed quite history-based. And there are several hundred versions of the Cross which Christians over the centuries have developed and favoured based on their piety. "Pietistic" is perhaps too strong a term which Metropolitan Ilarion rejects and bases his researches on a comprehensive set of considerations.
The Muscovites took the same three bar Cross from the Church of Kyivan-Rus' Ukraine and in the Stoglav Sobor, as we know, declared it to be the "only valid Cross" (of Calvary). The Ukrainian tradition never went so far and Metropolitan Ilarion underlined this in his work (the Saints and teachers of the Ukrainian Baroque era actually favoured the single bar Cross e.g. St Petro Mohyla).
|By: Kelly Gaumont |
This is a wonderful resource! My girlfriend and I stopped a Ukrainian Catholic graveyard after visiting a nearby Polish Catholic graveyard, and were curious about the three-bar crosses (all with the diagonal bar, if I recall) and I was wondering what I could learn about it. Is there anything else useful or interesting I could know about burial traditions? Specifically, we were wondering why there were so many plain white crosses--with no names or dates--amongst the more ornate tombstones.
Reply by Alex Roman
The diagonal foot-rest on the three-bar Crosses you saw have a very deeply spiritual meaning within the Ukrainian tradition in particular. This Cross is considered to be the national Cross of the Ukraine, although it is also used by the Russian Orthodox, the Old Believers and others.
The foot-rest is slanted going up on the left and then down on the right. As we know, this refers to the tradition that our Lord leaned to His right towards St Dismas, the Good thief, by way of embracing him into eternal life for his confession of Him with the words, "Remember me, Lord, when You come into Your Kingdom!" In our Divine Liturgy/Mass, we recite this very same prayer three times before receiving Holy Communion when we too are united to Christ and the Kingdom of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.
The diagonal foot-rest also represents the Cross of St Andrew, the Apostle who brought Christianity to Scythia while blessing the hills of Kyiv when he reached them with his Scythian disciples, Sts Inna, Pimma and Rimma. He saw, within his soul, the great number of Churches that would one day arise on the site of the city of Kyiv and had a Cross erected (that Cross is today kept as a precious relic in the Church of St Andrew on the very same hill that tradition affirms the Apostle stood).
Forms of the three-bar Cross can also be found in Roman Catholic countries and the famous Byzantine Cross of San Damiano from which St Francis of Assisi heard the words, "Rebuild my Church, Francis!" is likewise a three-bar Cross.
The three-bar Cross has 8 "points" as we go around it and the number 8 refers to the Name of Jesus which has the numerical value of 8 (or one more than the perfect number of 7 in the Hebrew Scriptures). When we are baptized and chrismated, we are anointed on our bodies on eight points as well to symbolize the Cross of Christ.
The three-bar Cross is also a symbolic way to represent the Three Divine Persons in the One Divine Nature. The diagonal foot-rest is honoured in accordance with the Psalmic verses "let us come and worship at the place where the Feet of the Lord stood." It also reflects the fulfillment of the prophecy of Isaiah concerning the Cross combining within itself the wood of the pine, cedar and cypress trees (on the feast of the Holy Cross in our tradition, the Church prays, "Today we see You, Lord, in the pine, the cedar and the cypress").
The title above the Head of Christ where the words of Pilate were written, "This is Jesus, the King of the Jews" indicates the fulfillment of the Messianic promises, as the Messiah is the King of His chosen people. The main arm of the Cross where the Hands of the Saviour were nailed also reflects the words, "The Lord held out His Hands all day to a people who would not accept Him . . ." and there are others.
This Cross and other forms of it became very popular especially in western Ukraine among both Ukrainian Orthodox and Eastern Catholics under Roman Catholic regimes that attempted to Latinize and "de-Ukrainianize" them. This is indicated by the large numbers of three-bar Crosses in cemeteries and on/in Ukrainian Churches. The great Ukrainian Orthodox Metropolitan of Canada, blessed Ilarion Ohienko (whose local canonization process is underway in Ukraine) wrote that the Ukrainian Church never established the three-bar Cross as a Cross to be placed on church cupolas (as was the case in Russia as per the Stoglav Council). But Ukrainians themselves in the west came to see this Cross as "our Cross" as it differentiated them from the Roman Catholics and so tended to use it very widely, including on cupolas.
And when we make the Sign of the Cross, when we bring our hand down to our stomach, we proclaim the Incarnation of our Lord, God and Saviour in the sacred Womb of His Most Holy Mother and also symbolically place our hand on the diagonal foot-rest of the Cross (as noted by spiritual authors through the centuries and particularly affirmed by the Old Believer tradition).
The Baptismal Cross that is traditionally worn by Ukrainians is the three-bar Cross which is a way of reflecting St Paul's words when he wrote that he was "bearing on my body the Marks of the Lord Jesus." These very words are embroidered on the garments of Eastern monastics and traditionally whenever someone asks us what is it that we wear around our necks, we are to reply, first and foremost, "I bear on my body the Marks of the Lord Jesus."
The wooden three-bar Crosses that serve as grave-markers should, traditionally, NOT have anyone's name on it. The only lettering that should be on such is the Name of our Lord i.e. "IC XC NI KA" or "Jesus Christ the Conqueror." This goes back to the early centuries of the universal Church that decreed that all Crosses should have this lettering on it to indicate Whose Cross it is and also because the Cross is an icon representing Christ Himself. This tradition has, of course, changed. I once visited a monastic cemetery where there were many Crosses, but one had to refer to a plan of the cemetery if one wished to know whose was buried where since none of the Crosses had any names of the reposed monks on them.
And Ukrainians and many Orthodox Christians wear their neck Crosses always, even when they shower. Morning and night, we take our neck Cross into our hands and make the Sign of the Cross over ourselves with it (much like Roman Catholics do with the Crosses on their rosaries before praying). One may do this whenever one begins one's prayer and this is why the cord or chain on which the neck Cross is placed should be long enough to allow us to Cross ourselves with it without taking it off to do so.
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Ukrainian Orthodoxy - Українське Православ'я