High atop every Orthodox Church (that I have ever seen) is a three bar cross at the top of the dome. I noticed this right away on my first visit to an Orthodox Church and it’s something that always struck me as odd before I learned much about Orthodoxy. Why does this cross have 3 bars? I was curious to know the answer back then and one of my readers recently asked me a similar question. So I share with you today what I have learned.
While, in my experiences, many people generally refer to this cross as a “Russian” cross, it actually precedes the Christianization of Russia in 988 AD, although generally, in earlier representations of the Crucifixion, the bottom bar is horizontal rather than the angled form we usually see today.
The top bar represents the title-board or sign which Pontius Pilate ordered to be hung over the head of Jesus. This was done out of mockery and on the board was inscribed, “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews”. On the title board on many crosses you see today are the initials IC XC, being the first and last letters of Christ’s name in Greek.
The middle bar is the bar upon which Jesus’ arms were stretched and nailed. On either corner of a decorative wall cross you may see an image of the sun (left) or the moon (right) from Joel 2:31 “The sun hid its light, and the moon turned to blood”.
The bottom bar is the footrest which supported the body of Our Lord. There is some speculation as to whether it was truly on the Cross of Christ but is still seen as worthy of placement due to the prophetic words “Exalt the Lord our God, And worship at His footstool- He is Holy” (Psalms 98:5). Why is the bar slanted? One tradition says it came from the idea that as Jesus took his last breath, the bar broke and slanted to the side. Another tradition says that the slanted bar represents the thieves who were crucified along with Christ – the one to Jesus’s right side repented of his sin and ascended to Heaven to be with God in Paradise while the thief on his left fell to Hades and separation from God. Often depicted here in decorative wall crosses or icons is the image of the ‘skull of Adam’. This reminds us that Adam lost Paradise through taking from a tree but Christ is the new Adam, bringing us Salvation and Paradise through the tree of the cross. These crosses usually also show Jerusalem in the background showing that Christ was crucified outside the city walls.
Through Christ’s death and resurrection from the Cross came our Salvation. In seeing the cross, we are constantly reminded that Christ died for us, and that He rose from the dead.