The world is living under the sign of Cross for two thousands of years. In the mind of every believer the Cross is inseparably connected with the voluntary sacrifice of Jesus Christ, the Son of God made for iniquities of the whole world. For His ineffable love of the sinful humanity the Saviour has descended to the earth, has been desecrated, condemned and crucified; He has died on the Cross, and has redeemed our sins by His sufferings and His blood.
But what would we have hoped for, if the sacrifice of Christ has ended with mere death? “If there is no rising from the dead – the Apostle Paul says — Christ did not resurrect. And if Christ did not resurrect, then our preaching is futile, and your belief is futile too” (1 Cor. 15, 13-14). However the Lord gives us the great reverential trust by His Resurrection, having overcome not only sin but death itself. So the instrument of torturous death has become the banner of Christ’s victory over evil, decay and death.
Nowadays, as in all previous centuries the Holy Life-giving Cross of Lord the Savior is the principal symbol of Christianity. But it is not a mere symbol: it is the heart of Christianity. Real hymns to the Cross of Christ have been sung by many Fathers of the Orthodox Church. Here are the words of the Cross by St. John of Damascus: “It is the shield, and the weapon, and the memorial to the victory over the Devil. It is the seal against the Destroyer touch. It is a rising for those lying; a support for those standing; a staff for those feeble; a mace for the flock; guidance for those returning; bringing of those prosperous to perfection; salvation for soul and body; declining on all kinds of evil; initiator of all kinds of good; exterminator of sin; growing of Resurrection; the tree of futurity”.
The Cross of Christ came to Russia (Kiev Rus thenadays) in 10th century together with Christianity. The baptism of Rus by Grand Prince St. Vladimir, Equal-to-the-Apls in 988 was first of all marked by the fact that heathen idols were thrown down from the hills of Kiev, vivifying crosses being erected instead of heathen temples.
Worshipping of the Cross was not only a devout custom of all Christians. It was as well secured in canons. Article of iconolatry by the 7th Ecumenical Council read: “With every reliability and careful examination we assign: after the likeness of the Holy Life-giving Cross the same should be put in all churches, on consecrated vessels and clothes, on walls and boards, in houses, and on the ways… “. The earthly life of a Christian is sanctified by the Cross. Indeed, in the sacrament of baptism a new church member is already protected by the Cross that will escort him (her) all over his life: the Cross crowns cupolas of our churches; the Cross dominates in the interior of any church; the Cross participates celebrating all the sacraments and rites; the Cross will as well protect the everlasting rest (up to the Second Advent of Christ) of a Christian in a cemetery...
Russian Orthodox world was protected by the Cross over a period of many centuries. Crosses were erected at the road intersections and forks, at waterways, at the entrance to towns and villages. When another disaster came like a drought or an inundation it was the Cross first of all that protected the land. It was erected in a day (such crosses were called votive); carried around towns and villages in cross procession; nailed to the house gates; in general it was the Cross that Christians took up as a shield and arms against any kind of evil. Adam Olearius, a German traveler who in the beginning of 17th century was present in Muscovy at the sacrament of baptism of a baby, noted that the priest without fail puts a golden, silver or lead crosslet (depending on the parents` prosperity) on the neck of a baptismal candidate.
“The person— А. Olearius goes — must wear that crosslet during his (her) whole life in evidence of his being Christian. If someone is found dead in the street, having no cross, he is not buried”.
Foreign travelers having visited Muscovy in 16th – 17th centuries noted in their travel sketches extraordinary religiosity and piousness of Russian people. Adam Olearius wrote that “even in the street the Russians are praying incessantly either before icons or before church crosses”. And further: “It is obligatory that a cross should crown churches, bell towers, and campaniles either plain or treble, i.e. eight-ended. That is why they do not consider our crossless West churches to be real temples. They say that the cross personifies Christ, the head of church”.
Cross is constantly found in interior of a church. In the base of a church — of the house of God — cross is put; the under-altar, or erection crosses are set up for consecration of a church, with an inscription: “Be blessed the altar of Our Lord Jesus Christ”.
The Communion table marked with the cross an antimension is put whereon the cross is obligatory. On the old Russian antimensions of 12th century the Calvary (Golgotha) Cross was pictured; in the later times «The Deposition from the Cross» or «The Entombment» were placed on the antimensions.
Tabernacle (repository for Holy Gifts) placed on the altar is always cross crowned. On the Communion table there is set up the altar cross; the outer cross symbolizing Calvary is placed behind the altar.
A newly built church becomes the house of God only after its Communion table (altar) and walls are anointed crosswise with holy oil.
“Cross is applied everywhere” – is written in “New Skrizhal (Annals)” compiled by Veniamin, the Archbishop of Nizhny Novgorod and Arzamas on the basis of ancient sources of the Holy Fathers in the middle of 19th century.
In “New Skrizhal” in book XI “About the Holy Cross” it is written: “Since the holy cross is erected on all the churches; and there are no any hieratic robes and utensil without cross; there are no any sacraments whereat sign of the cross was not used, then one should ask: what is cross? What for did Christ kindly suffered not any other death but on the cross? What Divine power the cross is vested with? And how did the ancients venerated the cross?”.
“The cross is the custodian of the entire Universe; it underlies both the earthly and heavenly orders. “God created this visible world in the likeness of four ends of the cross — the Holy Hierarch Demetrius of Rostov wrote – since He created it divided into four parts: East and West, midday and midnight; and a human being was created by God in the likeness of four ends of the cross because when a human being stretches his hands, he looks like a four-ended cross”.
Ancient ascetics coming to a desert erected a wooden cross for the desert being blessed, for marking of God’s power and for all kinds of devilry being suppressed. It is known from the life stories of many Russian saints. So St. Sergius of Radonezh erected the cross on the base of the Trinity cloister; St. Sabbatius of Solovki set up such a cross at the Solovki Isles. While settling of Russian deserts in 14th – 16th centuries Russian saints without fail erected the crosses on the sites of future cloisters. Cross blessing and encouragement to feat of arms; to founding cenobies — in short to sanctification of all aspects of human life — were of the utmost and peculiar importance.
Extant is data on many relic crosses related to historic persons and Russian saints. Russia-wide known are: the cross of St. Abrahamy of Rostov that was according to a legend given to him by St. John the Theologian, Apostle at the Lake Nero for suppressing Beles, the idol; the cross of St. Euphemius of Suzdal that is still extant in the culture preserve of Vladimir and Suzdal; the cross of 12th century owned by St. Euphrosyne of Polotsk, that was lost during the Great Patriotic War and reconstructed in 1997.
Also extant are pectoral crosses owned by Russian Grand Princes and Tsars, to Metropolitans and Patriarchs.
For example, there is a pectoral cross owned by the first Metropolitan of Moscow, Holy Hierarch Peter. In spiritual charters of Grand Princes it is called “the cross of Peter the Wonderworker”. In the Moscow Grand-princely family it acquired significance of a relic that was demised from a father to the elder son. By that cross St. Peter, the Metropolitan blessed “the Grand Prince Ivan Danilovich, our forefather and all our generations” – tells the testament of Ivan the Terrible (1572).
There is a story in “Kingly Chronicler” about the Grand Prince Vasiliy III who being on his deathbed blessed his four-year-old son Ivan (Tsar to be) by the cross of Peter the Wonderworker, and laid it on him saying: “Let that holy vivifying cross for you to drive our enemies and antagonists since multitude of the heterodox encroach on our Orthodox State God entrusted to us”.
The Peter’s cross was solemnly laid on Boris Godunov by the Patriarch Job in the Dormition Cathedral of Moscow Cremlin on April 30, 1598, the resolution of the Assembly of the Land of Boris Godunof to be voted into Tsar throne thus being affirmed.
Many Russian ascetic saints are known who wore various chains and fetters as an act of penance. In the Monastery of Sts. Boris and Gleb there the relics of St. Irenarchus rest up to the present. The saint wore 100 small copper crosses, three large ones with chains; and two large iron crosses with iron chains. St. Leontius of Rostov, the Elder wore iron chains, 33 copper crosses and 142 iron ones.
Crosses were valued not only as personal sacral objects but also as ancestral relics. Known it is that shrine crosses were inheritable. They were often preciously mounted. Such a tradition is described in the Murom “Legend of Founding of the Holy Cross of the Lord” that gives an account of Martha and Mary, two sisters who miraculously received gold and silver from Angel for a gold cross and a silver shrine for it being made. The sisters were told: “Accept them for your salvation and flourishing and for the world for diseases healing, passions conciliation, and driving out demons”.
This Legend concerns the wonder making cross that was in a village church of Vladimir Province up to 20th century. Many sick people from neighboring Murom daily thronged to it, and were healed. As a Legend of 17th century tells, “every year the clergy of the parish brings the cross to the imperial city of Moscow for the souls of Sovereigns and Patriarchs shining with piousness as well as of all the Orthodox Christians be purified, their passions be fought back, and bodies healed”. In Murom in 17th century another two wonder making crosses were found — those of Vlno (Lithuanian Vilnius today) and of Purification. Both are extant: the cross of Vlno is in the Trinity Convent, the Purification cross being in the Museum of Murom. These crosses have been considered wonder working since ancient time, and are worshipped reverently to this day.
For example the Purification cross was found during the pestilence — the plague epidemic; it was carried around Murom in a procession, and sick persons crawling out to the sacred object were healed. In commemoration of the event a chapel was built near the Purification Pond, a cross being erected therein. Copies of the cross were afterwards made that were venerated peculiarly, too.
A bit later in Arzamas district another wonderworking cross was found wherefrom light emanated, and numerous healings occurred. The Arzamas cross is extant, now being in the Arzamas Cathedral of the Resurrection. The embossed figure of Christ on the cross has darkened greatly, only the Savior’s feet remaining quite light due to touches of thousands of pilgrims.
17th century is a period of upsurge in spiritual life, time of finding numerous sacred objects, crosses in particular. In time of the Tsar Alexey Michailovich and the Patriarch Nikon there appear crosses made “in the likeness and in the size of the Cross of Christ”. It was in that time that the Patriarch Nikon ordered several similar crosses to be made of cypress in Palestine — for the Calvary side-altar in the Cathedral of the Resurrection of the New Jerusalem Monastery not far from Moscow; and for the Onega (Kiy-island) Monastery of the Cross. Kiy cross was a grandiose reliquary with more than 300 sacred objects; it was the most celebrated of them; and even on icons of 17th century it was pictured as a peculiar relic with the Tsar Alexey Michailovich, Tsarina and the Patriarch Nikon kneeling in prayers.
The Patriarch Nikon had a peculiar attitude to metany crosses, and he erected them en masse all over Russia.
Thus in 1652 when the relics of the Metropolitan Philip were taken from Solovki to Moscow a metany cross was erected by the order of the Patriarch Nikon that is now in the Church of the Holy Sign in Moscow. Known it is that along the line of the procession with the relics of the Metropolitan Philip the similar commemorative crosses were set up at the stopovers.
Being imprisoned in the St. Therapontus Monastery at Beloozero (White Lake), the Patriarch Nikon kept on erecting commemorative metany crosses. A small lake had been earlier allotted to the Patriarch Nikon by the Tsar Alexey for fishing. The Patriarch had an artificial island piled up whereon he erected a huge cross with an inscription: “A vivifying Cross of Christ is erected by lowly Nikon, the Patriarch By the grace of God, when being imprisoned in the St. Therapontus Monastery at Beloozero for the word of God and for Holy Church”.
Then Nikon ordered the Elder Jonas to make several more wooden crosses alike, to carve the same inscription on them, and to place in different places along roads. Those passing by stopped for praying before a roadside cross according to Russian custom; had to see that inscription, and to think over the fate of the exile Patriarch in the doghouse. All those inscribed crosses had been standing up to 1676 when they were removed by the order of the Patriarch Joachim. The inscriptions on them as well as on other things of the Patriarch Nikon were blotted out. On September 27, 1998 on the Holy-Cross' (Holy-Rood) Day a seven-ended pinewood cross was resumed and consecrated at the man-made island of the Patriarch Nikon, with an inscription: “The one was originally erected by the Holy Patriarch Nikon in the Year of Redemption 1667; resumed in the Year of Redemption 1998 with the blessing of the Right Reverend Maximilian, the Bishop of Vologda and Great Ustyug”. The event concurred with celebration of 6th centenary of the foundation year of St. Therapontus Monastery.
Votive crosses erected by historic persons were preserved by people with peculiar solicitude. Thus a cross history is known that has been erected by Peter I in 1694 at the coast of White Sea in commemoration of his being miraculous saved during violent gale. The cross was set up according to an old custom of coast-dwellers. Peter himself hand made it; carried it on his shoulders to the coast, accompanied by all the brethren; and carved a commemorative inscription (including Dutch language) with his own hand.
That cross lasted on the coast for only several decades, and was then taken to the Holy Trinity Cathedral of Arkhangelsk.
On the first cross site an exact copy thereof was set up; and during subsequent centuries it was changed by the local people if beginning to rot. The memory of the event remained green thereby, the metany cross being commemorative at the same time.
By contemporaries’ evidence in Arkhangelsk Province “A custom is highly widespread not only to build churches and chapels but to erect wooden crosses and posts at the street sides, at crossroads, at the entrance to villages or towns, at revered places... In crosses there is carved simply an image of Crucifixion; and into posts there are inserted either the copper cast exalted Crosses, or icons, plain or with metal mountings”.
The tradition of erecting wooden crosses at the Russian North, at Pomorye (Northern seaboard) and at Solovki Isles was not interrupted for many centuries. Invocatory prayers were said to the Lord in the absence of a church or a chapel. The cross meant belonging of those deserts to Christendom, and was a lodestar for salvation. Large-sized (up to 10 meters in height) conspicuous crosses placed along White Sea coast in addition were seamarks directing sailors to salvational haven. Prayers were offered up before crosses for safe and successful voyage. Multitude of votive crosses was erected all over Russia “in gratitude” on the termination of an uphill work or in commemoration of saving from pestilence.
Every Russian church certainly has a Calvary Cross reminding that “Church is an image the Crucifixion, sepulture and Resurrection” (according to interpretation by St. Germanus, the Patriarch of Constantinople).
The Holy Fathers called the image of the Christ's Cross “vivifying”, i.e. creating. This name has the deepest meaning. The image of the Cross and a cross sign in Church are life-giving by apparition of God’s power. Omniscient and omnipresent Christ, the Savior always and everywhere has His gracious influence on Christians making a sign of the Cross. The infinite grace of God emanating through the Cross is perceptible by every believer. It smashes the devilry power, cleanses the human soul of passions, and fills it with the Seven gifts of the Holy Spirit.
Christ's Cross power vivifies Christians and increases them in their deeds; grants them spiritual joy and peace in hearts. By the True Cross Church is elevated, the Vessel of our salvation...
From: “Crosses in Russia” by S.V. Gnutova; Moscow, “Danilovsky Blagovestnik”, 2004.
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