Forked cross

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Forked cross Gaffelkors.svg
Forked cross
Forked cross in St. Mary's in the Capitol, Cologne St maria im kapitol gabelkreuz.jpg
Forked cross in St. Mary's in the Capitol, Cologne

A forked cross, is a Gothic cross in the form of the letter Y that is also known as a crucifixus dolorosus, furca, ypsilon cross, Y-cross, robber's cross or thief's cross. [1]


According to recent research, the forked cross emerged under the influence of the mystics in the late 13th or early 14th century and is especially common in the German Rhineland, where it is also called a Gabelkreuz ("fork cross"), Mystikerkruzifix ("mystic's cross"), Gabelkruzifix ("fork crucifix"), Schächerkreuz ("robber's cross"), or Pestkreuz ("plague cross").

Mysticism Practice of religious experiences during alternate states of consciousness

Mysticism is the practice of religious ecstasies, together with whatever ideologies, ethics, rites, myths, legends, and magic may be related to them. It may also refer to the attainment of insight in ultimate or hidden truths, and to human transformation supported by various practices and experiences.

Rhineland historic region of Germany

The Rhineland is the name used for a loosely defined area of Western Germany along the Rhine, chiefly its middle section.


It is believed that the forked cross represents a tree, or more precisely, the Tree of Knowledge, which brought sin into the world. However sin was defeated by the suffering of Jesus on the cross at Calvary.

Tree of the knowledge of good and evil tree mentioned in Genesis

The tree of the knowledge of good and evil is one of two specific trees in the story of the Garden of Eden in Genesis 2–3, along with the tree of life.

Calvary Geographic location

Calvary, or Golgotha, was, according to the Gospels, a site immediately outside Jerusalem's walls where Jesus was crucified.

Typical of the mystic crucifixes is the body of Christ hanging on a Y-shaped tree fork with his head falling low over his chest, his mouth contorted with pain and his eyes full of tears. His narrow, sinewy arms stretch more upward than sideways, his thin body is strongly bent and deeply sunken below the breastbone, with prominently protruding ribs and a gaping wound in his side. Fingers and toes are spread apart and spasmodically bent. The overall impression of the painted figure was intended to be so horrific that believers would be in fear and terror. It is recorded that in 1306 the Bishop of London removed a mystic crucifix for this reason.

London Capital of the United Kingdom

London is the capital and largest city of both England and the United Kingdom. Standing on the River Thames in the south-east of England, at the head of its 50-mile (80 km) estuary leading to the North Sea, London has been a major settlement for two millennia. Londinium was founded by the Romans. The City of London, London's ancient core − an area of just 1.12 square miles (2.9 km2) and colloquially known as the Square Mile − retains boundaries that follow closely its medieval limits. The City of Westminster is also an Inner London borough holding city status. Greater London is governed by the Mayor of London and the London Assembly.


The Coesfeld Cross Coesfelder Kreuz (2).jpg
The Coesfeld Cross

Religious currents of the 13-14th century developed, under the influence of mysticism, a piety centred on Christ's Passion, which expressed itself in this image form that portrayed Jesus' suffering in a particularly graphic way. In art history, the technical term crucifixus dolorosus has come to be used, a term introduced by Geza de Francovich. Gothic passion crucifixes often use forked crosses, but not in all cases. Quite a few hang on Latin crosses. But they are almost always in the form of branches that recall the Tree of Life. The aforementioned term "plague cross" (Pestkreuz) is misleading, since crucifixi dolorosi appeared soon after 1300, i.e. before the outbreak of the great plague in Western Europe. Little is known about their original function. What is certain is that the Coesfeld Cross had already been carried through the town during processions from the beginning. Many fork crosses are found in places run by the Dominican and Franciscan orders, especially in Italy.

Not until the Counter-Reformation did people begin to honour the crosses in many places with a special procession. Often the two thieves will appear on a forked cross, while Jesus is depicted hanging on a straight beam. Hence the alternative name of "robber's cross" or "thief's cross" (Schächerkreuz).


The Counter-Reformation, also called the Catholic Reformation or the Catholic Revival, was the period of Catholic resurgence that was initiated in response to the Protestant Reformation. It began with the Council of Trent (1545–1563) and largely ended with the 1781 Patent of Toleration, although smaller expulsions of Protestants continued into the 19th century. Initiated to preserve the power, influence and material wealth enjoyed by the Catholic Church and to present a theological and material challenge to Reformation, the Counter-Reformation was a comprehensive effort composed of apologetic and polemical documents, ecclesiastical reconfiguration as decreed by the Council of Trent, a series of wars, political maneuvering including the efforts of Imperial Diets of the Holy Roman Empire, exiling of Protestant populations, confiscation of Protestant children for Catholic institutionalized upbringing, heresy trials and the Inquisition, anti-corruption efforts, spiritual movements, and the founding of new religious orders.


The forked cross in the church of St. Mary's in the Capitol in Cologne was thought for a long time to be the oldest forked crucifix. Restoration work revealed, however, that it was not the original prototype for all forked crosses, but that this crucifix may have been the catalyst for the popularization of this type of cross in the Rhineland.

The cross at St. Mary's in the Capitol was carved in the 14th century (before 1312). Restoration work in recent years revealed much of the late medieval, second painting (Zweitfassung). Small sections of the exposed, first painting revealed astonishing similarities with the original coat of paint of the Bocholt Cross, once again visible since 1967, which used the Cologne Cross as a prototype, even though different sculptors were employed.

The crucifixus dolorosus from St. Mary's in the Capitol bears very little similarity with the style of the Rhenish and Cologne sculptors of its time; it appears to be a singular work of outstanding quality. It is therefore questionable whether this forked cross was created by a Cologne wood carver. Even the other sculptures of this type in Germany appear to be by "foreign" craftsmen when compared with the local art of their particular region. They only had a limited, local following. On the other hand, artistic links to crosses in other countries can be recognised. Especially clear is an Italian influence. Thus it is possible that the original forked crosses were imported order that they were carved by itinerant craftsmen, which is why, in the case of the crucifix in St. Mary's in the Capitol local walnut wood may have been used.

Another early example of these mystic crucifixes, besides the one in St. Mary's in the Capitol, is that in St. Severin's Church in Cologne. Other, later crosses exist in Haltern, Bocholt, Borken and in St. Lambert's, Coesfeld. The crucifixes in St. Simon and St. Jude's in Thorr (Bergheim county), St. John's in Lage/Rieste (Lower Saxony), the cross in St. Peter's Church, Merzig and the crucifix in the Roman Catholic parish church of St. John the Baptist in Kendenich (Hürth) also belong to this group.

These sorts of crucifix are also found, albeit in much smaller numbers, in other European countries, not just in Italy, but also in Switzerland and in Upper Austria and in Spain.


The "pall" Pall demo.svg
The "pall"

In heraldry the forked cross is used as a charge whose arms extend, in the shape of a fork, towards the upper edge of the shield. If the cross touches the edges of the shield it is called a pall. Otherwise it is known as a shakefork.

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  1. Dictionary of Architecture and Building Construction by Nikolas Davies and Erkki Jokiniemi, 2008. Retrieved 6 Jan 2014.