Iconography 101: The Colors of the Cross

With Good Friday, our focus turns to the cross, the Roman instrument of Jesus Christ’s execution. As I’ve thought about “the cross” prior to writing this post, I realize that it is hard to imagine a more prevalent symbol of the Christian faith. The cross is embedded in the structure of the medieval Gothic cathedrals in Europe and many sacred structures in the United States and elsewhere (photos #1 and 2, below). Ministers and priests of many Christian denominations wear a cross as a matter of course during worship services. People wear them as jewelry on necklaces and earrings.

1. Crruciform Roof Line, Chartres Cathedral, France

1. Cruciform Roof Line, Chartres Cathedral, France

Floor Plan, Washington National Cathedral, Washington, DC

2. Floor Plan, Washington National Cathedral, Washington, DC

But the cross in our culture goes even deeper in ways we may overlook. A cathedral in Boston (photo #3, below) and at least two colleges in the U.S. are named for the “Holy Cross.”  Hundreds of churches of many Christian denominations—Assembly of God, Baptist, Episcopal, Lutheran, Methodist, Presbyterian, and Roman Catholic—bear the name Calvary, the Latinized name for Golgotha where the crucifixion took place. Towns and cities in nine states are named Calvary!  The cross, specifically the tee-shaped Latin cross or references to it, seem to be everywhere.

North Transept, Holy Cross Cathedral, Boston

3. North Transept, Holy Cross Cathedral, Boston, MA

Over the past two millennia, the cross has held different meanings for Christians. To the persecuted faithful of the second and third centuries, it was perhaps more a sign of the times than a symbol. Historians report that early Christians shied away from the cross as subject matter for art and inscriptions. The cross eventually entered circulation as an oft-used symbol in the fourth century. That’s when the Emperor Constantine embraced Christianity after he reportedly saw a cross in the sky inscribed with the words, “By this sign, you shall conquer.”

In the Middle Ages, theologians and artists used representations of the cross symbolically to express certain beliefs.  One was the idea that Christ’s bloody sacrifice renewed a fallen world and came with the promise of eternal life. The stained glass crucifixion scene (photo #4, below) in the Passion Lancet at Chartres Cathedral uses color as an iconographic device to communicate this view of scripture. We see Mary and John standing on either side of the cross looking sad as Jesus “gives up the ghost.” On close inspection, you’ll see that the cross is colored green with a red border. Green signifies new life and red indicates sacrifice. Together, the red and green on this and other medieval crosses comprise the colors we associate with Christmas. So even at the “most wonderful time of the year,” green and red serve as reminders of the cross.

Crucifixion, Chartres Cathedral, France

4.Crucifixion Scene in Passion Lancet, Chartres Cathedral, France

Next, we’ll turn our attention to a unique, enameled, twelfth century reliquary cross (photo #5, click to enlarge) with origins in eastern Belgium. It’s not clear who originally possessed this fascinating cross, but it belongs now to the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore (which has an outstanding medieval art collection). It was made it to hold a small piece of the “True Cross,” on which Jesus was crucified, in a small cavity at its base. Look for the + opening.

Belgian Reliquary Cross, Walters Art Gallery, Baltimore

5. Belgian (Mosan Style) Reliquary Cross, Walters Art Museum, Baltimore

This cross also symbolically expresses medieval thinking about Christ. As with the window at Chartres, the cross is green and red. Note, however, that the artist added blue circles with small white crosses to the red border. These may symbolize the cross as “the way” to heaven since blue often marks the spiritual realm in medieval art. You’ll also see a half moon and red sun with eight points to the left and right of Jesus’ head. The sun and moon have multiple meanings in Christian iconography and it’s not clear what the designer intended here. The celestial bodies might refer to the notion that God is with us throughout the day and time, or since the sun and moon also represent the start and end of the day they could allude to the verse in the Book of Revelation that says, “I am the Alpha and Omega.” The two Greek letters sometimes show up on medieval crosses to convey the belief that God is with us at the beginning and end. A round loaf of bread and a chalice placed under Christ’s feet recall the Eucharist.

Next, observe the four female figures with Latin captions at the ends of the cross’ beams. They represent Hope (Spes), Faith (Fides), Obedience (Obedientia), and Innocence (Inocentia), four virtues associated with Christ. Virtue was a common theme for artists in the Gothic age. Sculpted figures representing the virtues often appear on medieval cathedrals (photo #6).

Fortitude, from St. Anselm's 10 Virtues, Chartres Cathedral, France

6. Fortitude, One of the Ten Virtues according to St. Anselm, Chartres Cathedral, France

It is significant in at least two symbolic senses that the reliquary cross connects Christ with “virtue.” The Greek philosopher, Plato, had a profound influence on medieval thinking about the purpose of life, and he wrote extensively about virtue in the Republic. Medieval theologians, wrote Emile Male in The Gothic Image, regarded virtue as “man’s goal.” Thus, the presence of the four virtues on the reliquary cross may imply that Jesus attained his purpose in life as a human being, along with completing his cosmic mission as the Son of God. Secondly, the four virtues may suggest that Jesus prevailed in his own inner struggle with virtue and vice that Prudentius wrote about in his fifth century allegorical poem, Psychomachia. Then again, the artist’s intent might simply have been to say that Jesus exhibited these four virtues in the final days of his life as an example for others.

Apse & Altar, Trinity Episcopal Cathedral, Davenport, IA

7. Apse & Altar, Trinity Episcopal Cathedral, Davenport, IA

Let’s take a quick look now at two other images of the cross that appear in cathedrals in Boston and Davenport, Iowa. At first glance, a nineteenth century window (photo #8, below) at the Holy Cross Cathedral appears to show Jesus carrying a cross up a set of stairs into a church. But the presence of a bishop wearing a mitered hat, a man holding a processional crucifix, and children in the foreground indicates that this is probably a scene from a “mystery play.” Mystery plays with reenactments of Christ’s story were popular during Holy Week in the medieval period. A cross-bearing procession led to the local cathedral.

Mystery Play, Holy Cross Cathedral, Boston

8. Mystery Play, Holy Cross Cathedral, Boston

Last, a window at Trinity Episcopal Cathedral in Davenport, Iowa (photo #9) shows the cross with other symbols that refer to events on Good Friday. A shield holds a wooden Latin cross along with the spikes that pierced Jesus’ hands and feet, the hammer used to pound in the spikes, the sponge on a hyssop stick that lifted vinegar (or wine) to Jesus’ lips, the spear that pierced his side, and the pliers that his friends used to remove the spikes before placing his body in the tomb.

Crucifixion Instruments, Trinity Episcopal Cathedral, Davenport, IA

9. Crucifixion Instruments, Trinity Episcopal Cathedral, Davenport, IA

Mike Klug, mikejklug@aol.com, 4/18/14