Chistian Symbols

The Crux Quadrata



The Square Cross

The Kassite Cross

The Assyrian Cross

The Jewish Cross

Constantine the Great

The Achievement


Symbol of Secular Authority


Back to: Christian Symbols


The Square Cross


Crosses were used in ancient times long before our era and in almost all parts of the world as religious or other symbols. It is not always easy to say if these crosses have a special (institutional) meaning or if they are just a sign to mark a property or an annexation. In the Christian Imperium Romanum and in the postulated Imperium Christianum the square cross or Crux Quadrata (also called ‘Greek Cross’) has developed into a symbol of the christian administrative authority, together with the rectangular cross for the religious- and the cypher of Christ for the armed authority.

These symbols are described by Eusebius and Lactantius in a rather confusing way and their meaning is not explicitely stated anywhere, reason why they sometimes are thought to be merely different forms of the same symbol.

Because these symbols often occur together and sometimes also in certain combinations, we can be sure they actually have different meanings.

This section, following the introduction of Christian Symbols is meant to throw some light on the meaning and use of the square cross.


The Kassite Cross


The Kassite Dynasty ruled Babylon from about 1729 until 1155 BC. From this period seals are known showing the socalled Kassite cross. Its meaning can not be deducted from the context in which it is depicted. Nor is given an explanation on the seal itself.


Print of Kassite Seal (1729-1155 B.C.)

Seal of chalcedon, H. 31 mm, Æ 13 mm (Musée du Louvre coll. Ph. Roger Parry)

Ruler and his prime minister, dog, square cross charged with another cross.


Print of a Babylonian Kassite seal (1729-1155 B.C.)

Seal of yellow chalcedon. H. 40 mm. ( Collection Mrs. Agnes Baldwin Brett)

Sitting ruler, cross charged with a sun. Frieze with animals.


The Assyrian Cross


A square cross patée occurs in the Middle East under the reign of Ashurnasirpal II of Assyria (883-859). This ruler wears this symbol on a stone on which he is depicted together with other symbols which can be interpreted to be national symbols. [1]  Alas it is not reported what the meaning of this cross has been. On other memorial stones or reliefs the cross patée is the charge of a medaillon, itself supported by a pair of wings and in an augmented form  this achievement is charged with the imago of the ruler. On still other reliefs the charge of the winged medaillon is an archer and thus the achievement could be the emblem of the armed forces.

At best we can suppose that the Assyrian cross is the royal emblem (in Ancient Egypt symbolized by a cobra) and as such the achievement would mean “The heavenly government of the King of the Four Regions of Assyria”. In this achievement the disc would symbolize Assyria, the wings the heavenly mandate, the cross the King of the Four Regions and the imago the ruler himself. [2]



Top of the carved stone of Adad-nirari III (810-783 B.C.)

Image of the king crowned with a tiara, on his wrist a bracelet with a twelve-rayed sun, on his breast a cross patée. On the left of his head are the symbols for the sun, the moon and the Pleiades and on the right are the standards of some cities, a crown and a winged sun, charged with a cross patée. (Iraqi Museum inv. 70543)


Disc charged with a flaming cross patée.


Winged disc charged with a flaming cross patée.


Winged disc charged with a flaming cross patée,

charged with the bust of a prince, crowned, and with staff and ring.

Detail of a doorpanel of  glazed tiles in the southern wall of Room T3 of  Fort Salmanassar, build in the time of Adad-nirari III (810-783)  Nimrud. (Iraqi Museum inv. 72136.)


Detail from a relief in the throne hall of Assurnasirpal (883-859).

Winged sun, charged with a flaming cross patée and an archer.

From the Northwestern Palace in Nimrud. British Museum, London, inv. nr. 124551.


Print of Neo-Assyrian Seal (625-539 B.C.).

Cow nursing her calf, attacked by a lion. Eagle and emblems of sun, star, crescent and cross. [3]


The Jewish Cross


If we take into account the Assyrian conquest and occupation of Judea from 722 until 609 BC, we may understand why the cross was adopted by the Judeans. As such it was the symbol of the ruler of Judea who was of divine status and by its adoption the Judeans would explicitely have recognized Assyrian supremacy. Another question is why the Judeans apparently clinged to the symbol of the vanquished King of the Four Regions after the conquest by Median-Babylonians in 609 BC.. Maybe this has something to do with the Babylonian Exile which followed Assyrian rule. At that time the Judeans could have remained loyal to their imaginary Assyrian ruler (of which they could not make an imago anymore) and the display of the cross would have been a manifestation of protest.

Be it as it is, in modern literature a different reason is given of the use of the cross by the Judeans.

In the kanaanite alphabets, it is said, a cross or a cross saltire is the last letter with the value of our letter ‘T’. [4] In the hebrew alphabet the letter T is called ‘taw’ and is also the last letter but has a different form [5]

The little crosses on Jewish ossuaries from the first century AD in Palestine for example, sometimes are interpreted to be the kanaanite letter ‘T’ which, because of its position at the end of the alphabet, would symbolize the Youngest Day. This would be the ‘sign’ mentioned in Ezekiel IX.4: And the Lord said unto him, Go through the midst of the city, through the midst of Jerusalem, and set a mark upon the foreheads of the men that sigh and that cry for all the abominations that be done in the midst thereof.”

This could have been a manifestation of protest of course but it could also have been a mark of selection in particular in the Last Judgement (see Revelation 9.4: And it was commanded them that they should not hurt the grass of the earth, neither any green thing, neither any tree; but only those men which have not the seal of God in their foreheads). [6]

According to the paleo-christian authors Tertullian (155-220) and Origen (185-254) the early Christians thought the passage of Ezekiel to be a prophecy of the sign of the cross.

From this all it may be clear that the cross was originally a symbol of the Christians in their quality of a Jewish sect. It meant that the Christians considered themselves to be selected to belong to a certain people or society (i.e. the Jewish). In that sense the cross does not differ from other socio-political symbols.


Constantine the Great


Eusebius of Caesarea relates that many years after the strange events of 312 (when Constantine saw a sign in the sky) Constantine assured him that these consisted of two parts: the first during the day in the presence of the army followed by a dream in the night explaining and confirming the vision (Vita, I. 28-29). This time, according to the double testimony of Eusebius and Constantine, the salutary sign (segno-salutis) consisted of a luminous cross appearing in the sky, written with the words τουτω νιχα. [7].  From another passage in the work of Eusebius it can be gathered that the crux quadrata was adopted as a symbol by Constantine immediately after his victory over Maxentius in 312:


Chap. XL: Of the Statue of Constantine holding a Cross, and its Inscription.

MOREOVER, by loud proclamation and monumental inscriptions he made known to all men the salutary symbol, setting up this great trophy of victory over his enemies in the midst of the imperial city, and expressly causing it to be engraved in indelible characters, that the salutary symbol was the safeguard of the Roman government and of the entire empire. Accordingly, he immediately ordered a lofty spear in the figure of a cross to be placed beneath the hand of a statue representing himself, in the most frequented part of Rome, and the following inscription to be engraved on it in the Latin language: BY VIRTUE OF THIS SALUTARY SIGN, WHICH IS THE TRUE TEST OF VALOR, I HAVE PRESERVED AND LIBERATED YOUR CITY FROM THE YOKE OF TYRANNY. I HAVE ALSO SET AT LIBERTY THE ROMAN SENATE AND PEOPLE, AND RESTORED THEM TO THEIR ANCIENT DISTINCTION AND SPLENDOR.  [8]


This statue of Constantine has not been preserved and on other portraits of Constantine there is no cross-staffto be seen. His Christian successors Valens and Valentian I however, are depicted with a cross-staff on the Murano Diptych (illustrated below) and another emperor bearing the cross-staff is Valentinian III († 455) in the upper register of the socalled Barberini Ivory from Paris.


An early picture of the square cross is on a Roman coin showing Roma with the legend URBS ROMA, and on the reverse the Capitoline Wolf nursing Romulus and Remus and two square crosses with almond-shaped rays above:



Roman coin, 333 AD


Constantinian square cross from the end of his reign


In later designs of the square cross however, the cross is always patée, thus avoiding optical distortion, like on this floor-mosaic from Caesar Augusta:


Photo H.d.V.

Part of a floor-mosaic from the Villa suburbana de Santa Engracia, 2nd half of the 4th c. AD

Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya, Barcelona


After the fall of Rome the square cross did not disappear because the Eastern Roman Empire, later called the Byzantine Empire still existed. In this Empire, of course the use of Christian Symbols was continued, including the square cross, which can be called a Greek Cross since then.

Nevertheless, the use of the square cross was also continued in those empires of which the rulers  were considered to be the successors of the Western Roman Emperors or of former officials of the Western Roman Empire.

In this way the square cross was used by the Franks, the Vandals, the Ostrogoths, the Lombards and the Visigoths from the moment their rulers were converted to Christianity.

Most of the time some specific symbols were added to make a difference between these local rulers and the emperor. These crosses are mainly on coins.

Golden square crosses, richly decorated with precious stones, were also made to symbolize the Christian administrative authority of a certain part of the former Western Roman Empire. Such crosses for example are known from Lombardy and the Empire of the Visigoths but also from the Eastern Frankish Empire and the Hungarian Empire. These crosses were kept in Royal Treasuries and were exposed at coronations and other ceremonies of state and actually can be called Imperial Crosses.

Their religious counterparts were golden crosses in the shape of a latin / or rectangular cross and should be called Ecclesiastiacal crosses. These crosses will be dealt with in the section about the latin cross.

The square cross also is a part of the royal or imperial orb, and the combination of the cross and the globe symbolizes the Christian administrative authority of the nation or empire. The same configuration is found in square crosses encircled, the cross symbolizing the administrative authority, the (sun-) disc the Empire.

In the same way the square cross on the rim of the royal crown  symbolizes the administrative authority of the ruler wearing it, the fleur-the-lys symbolizing his armed authority.


It maybe of some interest to realize that the groundplan of the greek orthodox churches is a square cross, probably because the head of the Orthodox church was for a long time the Byzantine Emperor (and later his successor the Ottoman Sultan). His emblem was a double-cross existing of a combination of a square cross and a rectangular cross, symbolizing his administrative and religious authority.

On the contrary, the Roman Catholic churches have a groundplan in the form of a rectangular cross, because the head of the Roman Catholic church was the Pope, that is to say a  pontifex maximus who held religious authority only.


The Achievement


There are many examples of square crosses supported by angels or other beings. These achievements are in a millenium-old tradition established in the valleys of the Nile and the Euphrates and the Tigris. An example of such an ancient achievement is the winged sun mentioned above.

In fact, the Roman achievement differs only from the Assyrian one in that the wings are replaced by angels. These, as we know, are the messengers of God and as such symbolize the divine mandate.

Even the crown or garland we notice in some of the Roman achievements is a continuation from the black-and white bordure we see in the achievement of Salmanassar.


A difference is that the cross certainly symbolizes administrative authority instead of the dynasty or royal title, but for the rest we may be sure that the achievement means: The Administration of the Roman Empire by the Grace of God.


* Be aware that in the Assyrian achievement the administration of the divine ruler is supported by heaven and that in the Roman achievement the administration is supported by messengers of God, which makes all the difference for the position of God.


Upper register of the Murano Diptych (Monza Cathedral), ca. 365 AD

Square cross with almond shaped rays, supported by two angels between the imago’s of  Valentian I (Emperor of the West, 364-‘75) and Valens (Emperor of the East 364-’78) with cross-staff and globe.


The Crux Quadrata between two imperial imago’s and supported by two angels

on the Pillar of Arcadius, 403 AD. (After a drawing in the Trinity College, Cambridge).


Upper register of the Lorsch Diptych, ca. 792.

Square cross radiant supported by two angels.


This achievement apparently is the emblem of the administration of the Byzantine Empire.


Photo R.M.O

Square Cross supported by two deer with latin crosses tied to their necks.

Koptic, 4th-5th c. AD. (Rijksmuseum van Oudheden, Leiden)


As a deer is a symbol of an elder teacher (psychopompos), the stone may the emblem of the government of a (high) koptic prelate, for example the patriarch of Alexandria. [9]


Fragment of a marble arch, beginning 9th c.

Cortona (Umbria), Academia Etrusca.


The arch shows a square cross supported by two peacocks. Below is the legend: IPORIBVS DN CARVLO IMPERATOR IBO   P & B FI ERI FECI PRO AMORE DIE....

Probably Charlemagne is meant by Carvlo Imperator and in that case the achievement would mean “The Prefectural Administration (of the Frankish Empire)”, as the peacocks are a symbols of a prefect. This is in agreement with the style of prefect which he adopted after his recognition as the emperor of the West by Emperor Nicephoros I in 807. A silken cloth sent to him by this emperor shows a quadriga, which was the privilege of a prefect.

This remarkable arch also shows early pictures of a fleur-de-lys.



Socalled “Cristo Giovannetto”, 4th c. AD

Museo Aquileia

(Square) cross charged with a haloed imago probably of Valentian I (364-’75)




Valentian III saluted, 425AD.

Mosaic in the Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome [10]

When the square cross is combined with an imago, the symbol of (the) Christian ruler/administrator (Pantocrator) arises. An early example of such a combination is a metal cross showing the bust of a prince with a halo around his head. [11] Later, the cross is placed on the halo itself as can be seen on a portrait from the fifth century of Valentian III (425-455) on which he has a halo with a small white greek cross around his head. [12] A still younger example is the portrait of the Emperor Justin II (565-578) on the mosaic in the apse of the S. Vitale in Ravenna, but we can not be sure if the cross has been added later. Later emperors and empresses are not depicted with a halo with a cross anymore.

After the ultimate division of the Imperium Romanum and the fall of Rome, the idea of an Imperium Christianum and an Imperium Mundi took shape. This would comprise all of the former Roman Empire and all of the Christian World. [13] The supreme administrator or ruler of this Empire would be Christ himself. The symbol of this supreme ruler is the imago of Jesus with a halo charged with a square cross. In this configuration the imago of Christ is the symbol of the ruler, the halo is the symbol of the empire and the square cross the symbol of administrative authority.

When supported by two or four angels the symbol arises of the ‘heavenly sanctioned imperial administration of the Empire.’[14]  As this composed emblem is related to the Imperium Christianum as a whole, it occurs in the Eastern as well as in the Western Christian world.


Christ Pantocrator in the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul


Christ Pantocrator, a halo with a square cross behind his head.

In his hands a codicil. The medallion surrounded by a crown of laurel and supporterd by four angels.

Mosaic on a vault in the San Zeno in Santa Prassede, Rome. Built by Pope Paschalius I (817-824).


The Symbol of Secular Authority


When at some time in Christian history the armed forces came under the direct supervision of the imperial administration, the cypher XP, symbolizing armed authority became obsolete. As a result the square cross became the symbol of christian secular authority and could be combined with military symbols. Well known are eagles with a square crosses on their breasts from early mediaeval Europe, but also, for example from Sudan. Lions and square crosses are known from Armenia. Soldiers with square crosses on their breasts are known from the time of the Crusades.


Byzantine Banner


Also, from this time on, the square cross occurs on banners and shields, symbolizing parts of the armed forces of the secular government. As such, for example, there is the shield of the Byzantine Imperial Guard or the shield of William the Conqueror. These shields are the successors of the shields of the Christian Roman Empire showing, on a circular shield, a large christogram XP. This, in itself was replaced by the fleur de lys, the symbol of the police force.



Shield of the Byzantine Imperial Guard.

After the Madrilene Chronicle of John Skylitzes. Palermo, ca. 1150-’75. Bibl. Nacional, Madrid, Vitr. 26-2 fol 28 v°.








Shield of William the Conqueror as on the Bayeux Tapestry, 1066.


These are the prototypes of many other banners and shields



Back to Main Page


© Hubert de Vries 2010-07-05. Updated 2014-03-03




[1] ) Stele des Assur-nasir-pal II (883-859). Der König grüßt die Symbole der Hauptgötter. Die Inschrift beschreibt seine fünf  ersten Feldzüge und den Bau von Kalchu (Nimrud). Nimrud. Tempel des Ninurta. B.M. Nr. 118805. 290 x 136 cm. The cross patée occurs twice on the stone: on a winged disc and  pending from the neck of the ruler.  On an other place (B.M. Nr. 124551) is a winged sun-and-cross charged with the portrait of the saem ruler  armed with a bow and arrows. Such an arrangement is also known from Urartu.

[2] ) The cross may just symbolize the title of the ruler. This title was introduced shortly after the reign of Ashur-uballit I (1363-’28) and reads: king of the four regions (which would explain the cross), ‘king of kings’ or ‘great king’.

[3] ) After Moortgat, A.: Vorderasiatische Rollsiegel. Berlin 1940. T. 75 n° 630.

[4] ) That is to say in moabitic, phoenician and  makkabeian. Faulmann, C.: Das Buch der Schrift. Wien 1880 / Nördlingen 1985 p. 78. By  Cecchelli, C.: Il Trionfo della Croce. Roma, 1953 fig. 6 illustrated as paleo-sinaitic, north-semitic and phoenician.

[5] ) The greek letter ‘T’ is called  tau but is not the last letter of the alphabeth.  This letter is the origin of the tau-cross which has the form of the letter T.

[6] ) Compare the hindu tilaka, a red dot on the forehead of hindus made of sandalwood paste, which means that the person belongs to the Hindu community. This red dot can easily be interpreted to be a red sun and thus to be the symbol of a postulated Hindu Empire. A picture of a queen wearing a square cross on her forehead on the Ratchis Altar (r.744-’49).

[7] ) The passage from Vita 28-29 is cited in the essay about the christogram. The cross itself is depicted correctly, according to Grabar, in the  Omiliario di Gregorio Nazianzeno made for emperor Basileus I (880-886) in Constantinople (Paris, Cod. Gr. 510, fol 440, r°). Here the cross that appeared in the sky according to Eusebius and Constantine is depicted as a  square cross botony, set with pearls. On the arms of the cross are the words  εν τουτο νιχας  (with this sign you will conquer).

[8] ) Eusebius op.cit. 40 (1). The head of this statue is supposed to be the head of the colossus preserved in the Museo Capitolini. Casartelli Novelli, Silvana: Segni e codici della figurazione altomedievale. Centro Italiano di Studi sull’alto Medievo. Spoleto 1996. p. 56. This head certainly is not of  Constantine  but probably of one of his sons.

[9] ) A 4th of 5th century greek cross supported by two deer from Egypt. (R.M.O. Leiden inv. F 1984/4.1). Theodosius I made of Egypt a separate diocese with the name of Præfectus Augustalis.

[10]) Compare Gibbon Chap. xxxiii pp. 275-277: “Theodosius resolved to seat his cousin Valentinian on the throne of the West. The royal infant was distinguished at Constantinople by the title of Nobilissimus: he was promoted, before his departure from Thessalonica, to the rank and dignity of Cæsar, and after the conquest of Italy, the patrician Helion, by the authority of Theodosius, and in the presence of the senate, saluted Valentinian the third by the name of Augustus, and solemnly invested him with the diadem, and the Imperial purple.” And: “Valentinian, when he received the title of Augustus, was no more than six years of age: and his long miniority was entrusted to the guardian care of his mother, who might assert a female claim to the succession of the Western empire.”

[11] ) The ‘Christ Giovannetto’ from the  Museo Archeologico Nazionale in Aquileia (picture). As the base of the cross has disappeared we can not be sure if the cross is a rectangular or a square cross. For this reason this item sometimes is thought to be the prototype of a crucifix. The little holes in the cross make it probable that it was fixed to a coffin or on clothes. Later examples in the museum of Cividale always show a square crosses. Because of its curled hair (or crown?) the portrait on the cross does not match other portraits of Jesus made in the 4th and 5th century, nor is Jesus haloed yet at that time.  For this reason we may suppose a (young) man from the house of Constantine or Valentian is depicted.

[12] ) On a mosaic in the S. Cecilia in Trastevere in Rome.

[13]) The idea of a Christian Empire was developed in the 5th century when the Western Empire collapsed after the invasions of the peoples from the north. “Das Reich wurde als Imperium Christianum, als universales christliches Reich, angesehen. Auch hier wurde die Überlieferung des christlich gewordenen Römerreiches fortgesetzt. Schon in der Zeit der Kirchenväter wurde das römische Reich als für die Heilsgeschichte der Menschheit notwendig betrachtet. Im 5. Jahrhundert wurde in der Silvesterlegende das Reich als “Werk des göttlichen Erbarmens” bezeichnet. Das  Mittelalter wurde von der Vorstellung der heilsgeschichtlichen Bedeutung des Reiches beherrscht. Diese war von Gott geschaffen als der staatliche Rahmen für die Verwirklichung des Erlösungswerkes Jesu Christi. (Postkommunio der Kaisermesse: “O Gott, der Du zur Verkündigung des Evangeliums des ewigen Königs das römische Reich geschaffen hast”). Christus war unter der Friedensherrschaft des Augustus geboren worden. Er hatte unter dem römischen Kaiser gelebt und sich dem Todesurteil des Römische Richters unterworfen. Das Reich war das vierte und letzte der von Daniel vorausgeschauten Weltreiche.”

[14] ) Its counterparts are the combinations of Christ and a rectangular cross, developed into the crucifix, and Christ with his cypher XP (behind his head). Of this last combination the examples are very rare and the idea of  Jesus in a role of supreme commander seems to have been abandoned very quickly.