The History of the Cross as a Symbol

“The cross is a symbol more universal in its use and more important in its significance than any other in the world” (Benson, 1934).

According to Mass Communications Theory, “Symbols must be created, and people must be gradually taught to associate specific emotions such as love or hate with these symbols. If these cultivation strategies are successful, they create what Lasswell referred to as master (or collective) symbols” (Baran & Davis, 2012).

The cross is the ultimate symbol being used from the very beginning of time. It has been worshiped, feared, hated, and loved. The cross has turned the hearts and emotions of millions of people over time. But why? Why has the cross remained so relevant even today? What is its history? Where does it originate? What is its meaning today?

The cross is a unique master symbol with a rich history. We will seek to answer the question of its portrayal as a master symbol and its different meanings.

Pagan Use and the Beginning

“Instead of studying those magnificent galloping horses and bisons, researchers are investigating the symbols painted beside them. These signs are rarely mentioned in most studies of ancient cave art…There are triangles, squares, full circles, semicircles, open angles, crosses and groups of dots” (McKie, 2012).

The origin of the cross is mysterious. We do not know who first created the wheel, nor do we know who made the first cross. It has differed in shape and design as ancient peoples and civilizations differed. But in some form, the cross has existed and has had indispensable implications and impact on history (Benson, 1934).

There are generally two types of crosses seen in ancient times – either simple or complex. The simple cross may or may not have held any sacred significance; however, the more complicated crosses were often overloaded with decoration. There are a variety of pagan crosses including those that are the letter “x”, the swastika, and a capital “Z” type cross (Benson, 1934).




The swastika has a vast history that predates the Nazi use of the symbol by 5,000 years (History of the swastika, 2013). The cross-like symbol is of Sanskrit origin. Historically, it has been known as a symbol of good luck or fortune in almost all the early civilizations of Asia, Africa, Europe, and America. The Chinese believed that God fashioned the earth in the form of a cross. It is interesting to note that even before Christianity, crosses were often religious symbols (Benson, 1934).

“In the beginning of the twentieth century the swastika was widely used in Europe. It had numerous meanings, the most common being a symbol of good luck and auspiciousness. However, the work of Schliemann soon was taken up by völkisch movements, for whom the swastika was a symbol of ‘Aryan identity’ and German nationalist pride. This conjecture of Aryan cultural descent of the German people is likely one of the main reasons why the Nazi party formally adopted the swastika… as its symbol in 1920” (History of the swastika, 2013).

Later on the swastika became a master symbol of the Nazi party. The other meanings of this cross are almost lost in translation because of this. The swastika was widely used in Nazi propaganda. They manipulated this symbol from something that was good into something evil. This proves the magic bullet theory because the propaganda that was used proved powerful enough to change their way of thinking when it came to the swastika (Baran & Davis, 2012).

Hitler chose this symbol because of its simplicity and as quoted in Mass Communications Theory:

“Fritz Hippler, head of Nazi Germany’s film propaganda division, said that the secret to effective propaganda is to (a) simplify a complex issue and (b) repeat that simplification over and over again” (Baran & Davis, 2012).


Crucifixion was a means of capital punishment among many different groups, particularly the Romans, from the 6th century to the 4th century. Usually the victims would be whipped before having to carry their cross to where it would be fixed to the ground. This method of execution was most frequently used to punish political or religious agitators (Crucifixion, 2013).

Tradition was that the cross was somewhere between ten to fifteen feet high. The Jews believed that, “…anyone who is hung on a pole is under God’s curse” (The Holy Bible, 1984, Deuteronomy 21:23). This made Jesus’ death on a cross all that more significant. It also made the cross a symbol to fear. “Crucifixion sent a message: we, the Romans, are in control. Defy us and die a horrible death” (Fraser, 2012).


The symbolism of the Christian cross is concise and important. It is the symbol to those who believe of eternal life, of resurrection and redemption through faith. While Joan of Arc was being burned at the stake, the one thing that she asked for was a cross (Benson,1934). What kind of symbol would drive a dying woman to cry out for it? She would cry out for the symbol most significant to her: the cross. That symbol, alone, would offer the profound, healing balm for which she pleaded.

“Symbols must be created, and people must be gradually taught to associate specific emotions such as love or hate with these symbols” (Baran & Davis, 2012).

The cross was not used as a symbol of the Christian church for some three centuries after Christ’s resurrection (Benson, 1934). This might be because of the “no graven image” rule, but more than likely it was because the cross was such a gruesome means of execution. The Christian world does not think of the cross as a means of execution, but rather a symbol of Christ’s sacrifice for all those that choose to believe in him. This is dramatically different meaning from the gruesome crucifix. The symbol that once meant fear, now means love and hope.




The church has a collective intelligence when it comes to knowledge of the cross. The cross is used to remind people that God’s only son was sacrificed in order for them to have eternal life. The Catholic Church continuously uses the crucifix instead of the empty cross, while Protestants use an empty cross. The Catholic church uses the crucifix, or a cross with Jesus still dying upon it, to remind mankind of the seriousness of sin and to focus on the sacrifice that Jesus made. Protestants use the empty cross because Jesus has risen and is no longer hanging upon the cross. They chose an empty cross because it reminds mankind that Jesus has defeated death and completed the work of Christ. This is a form of propaganda because they took a complex idea like God sending his only son to die for all the world’s sins into a simple message with a simple symbol, the cross.

Actually, propaganda was derived from Christianity.The word propaganda came from the Congratio de Propaganda Fide (Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith), a congregation founded by Pope Gregory XV in 1622. The Encyclopedia of Film says, “Its original missionary denotation has been incorporated into modern dictionaries, where it is defined as the spreading of ideas, information, or rumor for the purpose of helping or injuring an institution, a cause, or a person. However, this rather neutral meaning has taken on, in common parlance, a more negative connotation, namely the assumption that disinformation, not information, is at its core” (Grant, 2007).

The cross is all too often raised again every Easter, but a better symbol for Easter is the empty tomb. “It is not the murder of Jesus that makes Christianity distinctive, but His rising from the dead, through which God demonstrates the limited power of Roman execution. Love is stronger than death and fear, for which the cross was propaganda. But an empty tomb does not lend itself to a piece of jewelry” (Fraser, 2012).

The Ku Klux Klan and Cross Burning

“Burning crosses had never been part of the Reconstruction Ku-Klux. They had come from the exotic imagination of Thomas Dixon, whose fictional Klansmen had felt so much tangible pride in their Scottish ancestry, they revived the use of burning crosses as signal fires from one clan to another” from The Fiery Cross: The Ku Klux Klan in America written by historian Wyn Craig Wade (Wade, 1987).



The cross seen here was used as a symbol of hatred and intimidation. It was used to promote white supremacy as a form of propaganda. It is interesting to see how the cross has changed again here from a symbol of hate to symbol of love to a symbol of hate once more. Most Ku Klux Klan members will deny that this is sacrilegious; after all, they do claim Christianity as their religion of choice. They claim that they are “lighting” the cross and not “burning” it (Koehner, 2002). Once again, the symbol of the cross became a means of torture for a specific group of people in history.

Postmodernism and the Cross

“The story of how a symbol of suffering and political domination became domesticated as a religious fashion accessory turns on perhaps the most audacious rebranding exercise in western history” (Fraser, 2012).

“…postmodernism embraces all things popular and refutes the modernist separation of high from mass culture” (Laughey, 2009). Postmodernism essentially changed the way people’s worldviews. People were used to accepting accepting separation of “high” and “mass culture”. In the case of the cross, “high” culture were leaders of the church such as the pope and other ministers. Postmodernism changed the way the cross was viewed; instead of something holy and unattainable, it was suddenly fashionable and available.

The cross, a powerful statement of torture, to an instrument of love and sacrifice has been revolutionized once again. The cross has become an art form and a political statement. Is this blatant disrespect for the master symbol or just another phase of its history?

The Cross as a Fashion Symbol



The cross continues to change its meaning and symbolism even today. Currently, the cross is trending in fashion. This trend has leant itself to the ever evolving meaning of the cross. The cross being used in fashion is not a new trend, many Roman Catholics wore crosses with their prayer beads, etc. The new trend is that many do not know what they are wearing or the implications behind the cross. This has leant the cross’ meaning to becoming ambiguous; so much in fact, that the meaning altogether is lost in history.


There are many theories that are represented throughout the evolution of the cross. Since this symbol has changed so much throughout the years, it can relate to many different theories. For the most part the cross relates to hermeneutics – the study of understanding and interpreting action and text. Hermeneutics focuses on the understanding the culture of the users of a specific text. In this case, with the cross for the most part it has largely been related to Christianity and the symbolism of the cross cannot be fully known without study of the Bible and scriptures (Baran & Davis, 2013).

The ontology, or what is knowable, about the cross to people really is based on what they want to know and their own social world. Where I grew up, I understood the biblical meaning, but now the image has skewed and changed so people’s prejudices often change the symbolic meaning of the cross. The epistemology, or how the knowledge is advanced, has often lay in the hands of the church (the observer) and the people (the community) (Baran and Davis, 2012).

The cross belongs to the era of meaning-making but it has been used and manipulated throughout all four eras. The cross now belongs to an active audience who use it not only as a symbol of Jesus but also of fashion or making a statement for a particular group. It can be whatever the social world makes of it and that is an example of framing theory. Framing theory suggests that people use expectations of the social world to make sense of that social world. I use the cross and the message that I believe it means to make sense of my world, much like Joan of Arc did, and numerous other believers.

The magic bullet theory can be applied to the symbolism of the cross. The intended message of the gospel, of Jesus’ death and resurrection, is generally accepted when someone gazes upon the cross. It can be direct, immediate, and have a powerful effect over many.

Personal Reflections on the Cross

I grew up in church with a large wooden cross hung high and illuminated. I sang many a hymn about the “old rugged cross” and according to Johnny Cash, it was the number one requested piece in sheet music. Today, I’m still a church-goer. Actually, I work at one of the largest and fastest growing churches in America. When I came to know Christ, or chose to believe in Christianity, the cross played a role in that. The cross is everywhere, but the cross is changing. Its history is vast and exhaustive. The cross has changed the lives of so many people throughout history and is still relevant today.


Baran, S. J., & Davis, D. K. (2012). Mass communication theory: foundations, ferment, and future. Belmont, Calif.: Wadsworth Pub. Co.. (Original work published 1995)

Benson, G. W. (1934). The cross: its history & symbolism: an account of the symbol more universal in its use and more important in its significance than any other in the world. New York: Dover Publications, Inc.

Crucifixion. (n.d.). Encyclopedia Britannica. Retrieved October 8, 2013, from

Fraser, G. (2012, April 12). The cross is a symbol of cruelty, not a club badge. The Independent. Retrieved October 10, 2013, from

Ghosts of the Old World: Ancient Artifact Pictures to Make Your Hair Stand on End. (n.d.). Discovery. Retrieved October 10, 2013, from

Grant, B. K. (2007). Propaganda. Schirmer encyclopedia of film (pp. 339-348). Detroit: Schirmer Reference.

History of the swastika. (n.d.). United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Retrieved October 6, 2013, from

Koerner, B. (2002, December 17). Why does the Ku Klux Klan burn crosses?. Slate. Retrieved October 10, 2013, from

Laughey, D. (2009). Media studies: theories and approaches. Harpenden [England: Kamera Books.

McKie, R. (2012, March 10). Did Stone Age cavemen talk to each other in symbols?. The Guardian . Retrieved October 10, 2013, from

The Holy Bible: New International Version.. (1984). Colorado Springs, CO: International Bible Society.

Wade, W. C. (1987). The fiery cross: the Ku Klux Klan in America. New York: Simon and Schuster.

Katie Allred

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