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Images of the cross

Omnipresent icon speaks to different cultures, trades

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When the Romans chose to crucify (or "cross-ify") Jesus Christ, they had no idea they were handing his followers one of the most potent symbols in the history of the world.

According to tradition, the Romans selected a "Latin Cross" for Jesus — a simple stake in the ground with a cross bar just down from the top of the stake. And that cross became identified with Christians early on.

Legend has it the mother of Constantine — St. Helena — came into possession of the original cross and sent it to her son. When he died, he had the nails entombed with him. Other parts of the cross were scattered to the world. Many cathedrals and churches claim to have a piece of the true cross today — including St. Anne's Parish in Salt Lake City.

And though that original Latin Cross still stands at the heart of Christian iconography, hundreds of variations have been spun from it — versions of the cross that speak to a variety of cultures, occupations and personal needs.

There is the "Calvary Cross," a Latin cross perched on a three-tiered pedestal. There is the St. Anthony cross — a cross shaped like a capital letter "T," the St. Andrew's cross in the form of an "X" and the Greek cross in the form of a "plus sign."

The pope has his own version of the cross. So did the Crusaders. And the Protestants are constantly experimenting with the image.

"Not only are there traditional crosses," says Eleanor Rennemeyer of the LifeWay Christian Store in Ogden, "but new crosses are coming out all the time — the 'wedding cross,' for example, with two entwined rings on it."

People see crosses every day, of course — on churches, in cemeteries, on sharp turns in the highway where someone has died. But the truth is people are probably seeing even more crosses than they realize. The image is omnipresent.

When someone "knocks on wood," for instance, he is knocking on the cross of Jesus to ask for divine intervention.

On anchors, the little bar of medal at the top turns the anchor into a cross to protect the sailors.

The hilts and handles of many swords and knives are in the form of a cross to protect those who wield them.

Place names — "Santa Cruz," "St. Croix," "Veracruz" — pay homage to the cross.

When you see a person from another culture kiss his thumb in reverence, chances are he's turned it into a cross by laying his index finger behind it.

And if you take the cross of St. George (for England) and lay the cross of St. Andrew (Scotland) and cross of St. Patrick (Ireland) over the top of it, you get the "Union Jack," the flag of the British Isles.

For the spiritually minded, however, the French holy man Fenelon may have found the ultimate version of the symbol.

"The greatest of all crosses is self," he wrote. "If we die in part every day, we shall have but little to do on the last. These little daily deaths will destroy the power of the final dying."

E-mail: jerjohn@desnews.com