Russian Orthodox cross

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Russian Orthodox cross
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Russian Orthodox cross or Orthodox cross, is a variation of the Christian cross known from the 6th century in the Byzantine Empire. The cross has three horizontal crossbeams and the lower one is slanted. Nowadays it is a symbol of the Russian Orthodox Church [1] [2] [3] and a distinctive feature of the cultural landscape of Russia. [4] Other names: Byzantine, Russian, Slavonic or Suppedaneum cross.

The Christian cross, seen as a representation of the instrument of the crucifixion of Jesus, is the best-known symbol of Christianity. It is related to the crucifix and to the more general family of cross symbols, the term cross itself being detached from the original specifically Christian meaning in modern English.

Byzantine Empire Roman Empire during Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages

The Byzantine Empire, also referred to as the Eastern Roman Empire or Byzantium, was the continuation of the Roman Empire in its eastern provinces during Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages, when its capital city was Constantinople. It survived the fragmentation and fall of the Western Roman Empire in the 5th century AD and continued to exist for an additional thousand years until it fell to the Ottoman Turks in 1453. During most of its existence, the empire was the most powerful economic, cultural and military force in Europe. "Byzantine Empire" is a term created after the end of the realm; its citizens continued to refer to their empire simply as the Roman Empire, or Romania (Ῥωμανία), and to themselves as "Romans".

Russian Orthodox Church autocephalous Orthodox Christian church, headquartered in Moscow, Russia

The Russian Orthodox Church, alternatively legally known as the Moscow Patriarchate, is one of the autocephalous Eastern Orthodox Christian churches. The primate of the ROC is the Patriarch of Moscow and all Rus'. The ROC, as well as its primate, officially ranks fifth in the Orthodox order of precedence, immediately below the four ancient patriarchates of the Greek Orthodox Church; the Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem. Since 15 October 2018, the ROC is not in communion with the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, having unilaterally severed ties in reaction to the establishment of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine, which was finalised by the Ecumenical Patriarchate on 5 January 2019.

It was introduced in the 6th century before the break between Catholic and Orthodox churches. It was used in Byzantine frescoes, arts and crafts. In 1551 during the canonical isolation of the Russian Orthodox Church the Grand Prince of Moscow Ivan the Terrible for the first time in history started to use this cross on the domes of churches. [5] In addition from this time it started to be depicted on Russian state coat of arms and military banners. In the second half of 19th century this cross was promoted by the government of Russian Empire in the former Grand Duchy of Lithuania as a part of Russification politics. [6]

The East–West Schism, also called the Great Schism and the Schism of 1054, was the break of communion between what are now the Catholic Church and Eastern Orthodox Churches, which had lasted until the 11th century. The Schism was the culmination of theological and political differences between the Christian East and West which had developed over the preceding centuries.

Ivan the Terrible Grand Prince of Moscow and 1st Tsar of Russia

Ivan IV Vasilyevich, commonly known as Ivan the Terrible, was the Grand Prince of Moscow from 1533 to 1547 and the first Tsar of Russia from 1547 to 1584.

Coat of arms of Russia coat of arms

The coat of arms of the Russian Federation derives from the earlier coat of arms of the Russian Empire which was abolished with the Russian Revolution in 1917. Though modified more than once since the reign of Ivan III (1462–1505), the current coat of arms is directly derived from its mediaeval original, with the double-headed eagle having Byzantine and earlier antecedents from long before the emergence of any Russian state. The general tincture corresponds to the early fifteenth-century standard. The shape of the eagle can be traced back to the reign of Peter the Great (1682–1725), although the eagle charge on the present coat of arms is golden rather than the traditional, imperial black.

The Russian Orthodox cross of the Russian origin has only two horizontal crossbeams and the lower one is slanted. [7] Some Russian sources distinguish the Russian Orthodox cross and the Orthodox cross. [8] In Unicode the symbol (☦) is denoted as Orthodox cross. [9] The same USVA headstone emblem is called Russian Orthodox cross. [10]

Unicode Character encoding standard

Unicode is a computing industry standard for the consistent encoding, representation, and handling of text expressed in most of the world's writing systems. The standard is maintained by the Unicode Consortium, and as of May 2019 the most recent version, Unicode 12.1, contains a repertoire of 137,994 characters covering 150 modern and historic scripts, as well as multiple symbol sets and emoji. The character repertoire of the Unicode Standard is synchronized with ISO/IEC 10646, and both are code-for-code identical.


USVA Headstone Emblem 5 "Russian Orthodox cross" USVA headstone emb-05.svg
USVA Headstone Emblem 5 "Russian Orthodox cross"

According to many sources [1] [11] [12] [13] [14] [15] [16] [17] [18] [19] [20] [21] the name of the three beam slanted cross is Russian (Orthodox) cross (Russian : русский православный крест [2] [22] [23] [24] [25] [26] [27] ).

Russian language East Slavic language

Russian is an East Slavic language, which is official in the Russian Federation, Belarus, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, as well as being widely used throughout Eastern Europe, the Baltic states, the Caucasus and Central Asia. It was the de facto language of the Soviet Union until its dissolution on 25 December 1991. Although nearly three decades have passed since the breakup of the Soviet Union, Russian is used in official capacity or in public life in all the post-Soviet nation-states, as well as in Israel and Mongolia.

Sometimes it is also called Byzantine cross. [17] At the same time the Byzantine cross is also the name for a Latin cross with outwardly spreading ends. It was the most common cruciform in the Byzantine Empire. Other crosses (patriarchal cross, Russian Orthodox cross, etc.) are sometimes misunderstood as "Byzantine cross" when they are from the Byzantine culture.

A Latin cross or Crux immissa is a type of cross in which the vertical beam sticks above the crossbeam. This is the main representation of the cross by which Jesus Christ was crucified. The Latin cross began as a Roman Catholic emblem but later became a universal symbol of Christianity. If displayed upside down it is called St. Peter's Cross because he was reputedly executed on this type of cross. When displayed sideways it is called St. Philip's cross for the same reason.

Patriarchal cross

The Patriarchal cross (☨) is a variant of the Christian cross, the religious symbol of Christianity. Similar to the familiar Latin cross, the patriarchal cross possesses a smaller crossbar placed above the main one so that both crossbars are near the top. Sometimes the patriarchal cross has a short, slanted crosspiece near its foot. This slanted, lower crosspiece often appears in Byzantine Greek and Eastern European iconography, as well as in other Eastern Orthodox churches.

Sometimes it is also called just Orthodox cross. [18] At the same time the Orthodox churches use different crosses and any of them is called "Orthodox cross". [8] Moreover, there are no such crosses like just "Orthodox" or "Catholic", each type of cross is a feature of local tradition. [4]


Calvary variant of Russian Orthodox Cross Russian Golgotha cross.png
Calvary variant of Russian Orthodox Cross

The cross has three horizontal crossbeams — the top one represents the plate which in the older Greek tradition is inscribed with a phrase based on John's Gospel "The King of Glory", but in later images it represents INRI , and the bottom one, a footrest. In many depictions, the side to Christ's right is higher. This is because the footrest slants upward toward the penitent thief St. Dismas, who was (according to Russian tradition [3] [28] ) crucified on Jesus' right, and downward toward impenitent thief Gestas. It is also a common perception that the foot-rest points up, toward Heaven, on Christ’s right hand-side, and downward, to Hades, on Christ’s left.

In Russia, the top crossbeam can be absent; however, in the Russian North it can be attached on top of the vertical beam. [29]

A variation is a monastic "Calvary Cross", in which the cross is situated atop the hill of Calvary, its slopes symbolized by steps. To the viewer's left is the Holy Lance, with which Jesus was wounded in his side, and to the right, a pole topped by a vinegared hyssop sponge. Under Calvary are Adam's skull and bones; [30] the right-arm bone is usually above the left one, and believers fold their arms across their chests in this way during Orthodox communion. Around the cross are abbreviations in Church Slavonic. This type of cross is usually embroidered on a schema-monk's robe.

Current usage

The Russian (Orthodox) cross (☦) is traditionally widely used by Russian Orthodox Church. Now it's also widely used by Polish Orthodox Church and Czech and Slovak Orthodox Church, which received their autocephaly from Patriarch of Moscow in 1948 and 1951 respectively. Sometimes this cross is used by the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople (e.g. in American Carpatho-Russian Orthodox Diocese).

Though commonly associated with the Russian Orthodox Church, this version is found also in the Byzantine frescos of churches, which now belong to Greek and Serbian Orthodox churches. [31]


According to documentary evidence, the slanted cross with three horizontal crossbeams existed already in the 6th century, long before the Great Schism. However, it was used only in church paintings, arts and crafts, and never on the church domes. There are old frescoes depicting this type of cross on the territory of modern Greece and Serbia.

At the end of the 15th century this cross started to widely used in Muscovy when its authorities have declared themselves "Third Rome" and defenders of the purity of Orthodoxy. [32] In 1551 at the council of canonically isolated Russian Orthodox Church the Grand Prince of Moscow Ivan the Terrible decided to unify the shape of a cross on the Russian church domes to protect Muscovy from the "Lithuanian, Polack cross". [33] From this time the Russian Orthodox Cross for the first time in history started to be used on the domes of churches. Between 1577–1625, the Russian Orthodox cross was depicted between the heads of a double-headed eagle in the coat of arms of Russia. It was drawn on military banners until the end of the 17th century. [34]

In 1654, the Moscow council removed from the liturgical practice of the Russian Orthodox Church the divergence from other Orthodox churches, which were formed during the time of its canonical isolation (1448-1589) [35] as the Russian national features. [36] At this council Patriarch Nikon ordered to use Greek cross instead of Russian Orthodox cross, which, combined with other changes caused Raskol. [37] Replacement of Russian Orthodox cross by Greek cross was caused by disrespectful attitude in Russia to the second one. [26] Soon, however, Russian Orthodox Church began to use the Russian Orthodox cross again. Thus, according to the Metropolitan of Ryazan and Murom Stefan the Russian Orthodox cross was wearing by Peter I [32] (1672-1725), who transformed the Moscow Patriarchate in the Most Holy Synod.

In the 19th and 20th centuries the Russian Orthodox cross was promoted by the government of Russian Empire and USSR on the territory of modern Belarus, Poland and Ukraine as a part of Russification politics. [28] [38] [39] In the end of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st century Russian Orthodox Church replaced many traditional Greek Orthodox crosses in Belarus by the Russian Orthodox crosses. [4]

The Russian Orthodox cross is depicted on emblems of several Russian ultra-nationalist organizations such as Brotherhood of Russian Truth and Russian National Unity.

See also

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