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17 Major Types Of Crosses And What They Mean

Updated April 27, 2020 89.5k views17 items

Crosses are a popular form of religious iconography. Most of them represent various denominations of Christian religions, but this is not true for all crosses. They appear on churches, tombstones, and religious books, but you may find some of these in other places as well. 

What crosses symbolize depends largely on the beliefs surrounding them, some of which go back thousands of years. These different types of crosses are all distinctive, with particular meanings and traditions attached to them. What might look like subtly different aesthetic renderings can actually represent vastly different historical and cultural traditions. So, read on to find out more about the rich histories behind some of the most popular cross shapes.

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  • Scientology Cross

    Photo: Andreaguidolin67 / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0

    Scientology is a non-Christian based group or movement that uses a cross as one of its major symbols. The main visual difference between the Scientology cross (also described as a "sunburst" cross) and the Christian cross are the two extra diagonal lines that bisect the center of the traditional vertical and horizontal lines (adding four extra points to the cross). According to the Scientology website, the eight points on the Scientology cross represent the eight parts or "dynamics" of life that Scientologists believe each person must deal with. These include the individual self, creativity, family, and the universe.

    The Scientology cross emerged as a design of L. Ron Hubbard, who was inspired by a cross he saw at an old Spanish mission in Arizona.

  • Canterbury Cross

    Named after the town of Canterbury, England, the original Canterbury cross was found there in a 1867 excavation. This cross is a Saxon design that dates back to around 850 CE and has come to symbolize the Anglican church. The original Canterbury cross is a brooch cast in bronze with silver inlays filled with niello (a black mixture of several materials). It is stored at the Canterbury Museums and Galleries. The Canterbury cross is in a circular shape with a square in the center. Each arm of the cross contains a triangle shape, which symbolizes the Holy Trinity and its three points. 

    A stone version of the cross is displayed at Canterbury Cathedral and other Anglican churches.

  • Forked Cross

    Photo: Günter Seggebäing / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0

    The forked cross is also known as the ypsilon cross, furka cross, or thief's cross because it was thought that criminals were executed on this shape in ancient Roman days. This type of cross is in a dramatic Y-shape, "a fork" (hence the name), and it often has the crucified form of Jesus Christ attached to it. The vertical brace is the same as that on standard crosses, while the horizontal supports are attached at a 45-degree angle so that they go upwards, instead of out. It is meant to resemble a tree.

    During this cross's heyday, which dates back to at least the 13th century, the cross was commonly used as a decoration on priests' liturgical vestments. In other interpretations, it is said to symbolize the Tree of Life. The most well-known and documented forked cross is the Coesfeld Cross, first made in 1250 CE, which is hung in the Church of Saint-Lambert in Coesfeld, Germany. 

  • Gnostic Cross

    Photo: Benjamin D. Esham / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    The Gnostic cross is unique because of its unusual shape. It consists of a standard cross with a circle on top. A smaller horizontal cross piece sits inside of the circle, creating a second cross. It is a combination of a sun cross (the upper circle with a cross within it) and a traditional Latin cross.

    Gnosticism describes a variety of philosophical and religious systems within and outside of Christianity, dating back thousands of years.The Gnostic cross represents this dense meshwork of its historic origins.