Musings on the Symbol of the Cross


Salvador Dali, Christ of Saint John of the Cross

The symbol of the cross has held a fascination with me for a very long time now. I don’t wear a lot of jewellery but the Celtic cross is something I wear very often. Both the Ankh (juxtaposing the eternal circle with the four arms symbolizing the material plane; an Egyptian symbol of life and fertility) and the Celtic cross hold an evocative power for me.



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I remember seeing Salvador Dali’s painting Christ of Saint John of the Cross for the first time during an Arts lesson at school. It had a tremendous effect on me, which only now I can rationalize. All its elements: the dark sky, a body of water and a fisherman’s boat emanate with a primal archetypal force. It is a crucifixion but it is not an image of physical suffering, at least not with the usual gory display. Apparently, the vision of the painting came to Dali in a dream, in which he was admonished not to present Christ with the crown of thorn or blood. The lighting used in the painting is extraordinary and so is perspective. We view the painting from above, so to speak, which to me emphasizes its eternal quality and shows the significance of Christ’s passion for the whole humanity. Nevertheless, the sea below is not shown from a bird’s eye view, which makes this painting quite unique and surreal, creating a mixed perspective and a feeling of vertigo which I get looking at it. To me the essence of this image is the following: the earthly perspective is juxtaposed with the heavenly one. The transcendent is overlooking the mundane. The mystical dimension pointing towards the earth cannot be ignored; it has urgency about it and affects the viewer on a physiological level, making his or her head spin. The cross in this painting is the axis mundi, the world axis connecting Heaven and Earth. Dali himself wrote:

In the first place, in 1950, I had a ‘cosmic dream’ in which I saw this image in colour and which in my dream represented the ‘nucleus of the atom.’ This nucleus later took on a metaphysical sense; I considered it ‘the very unity of the universe,’ the Christ!

I love reading about the history of the cross symbol throughout the ages. Long before Christianity the symbol of tau (the letter T) was allegedly drawn on foreheads of mystery initiates. The Pagan roots of Christianity are compelling to anybody who just takes a cursory glance at world mythologies. Death and suffering of a god was not invented by Christianity. Tammuz, Orpheus, Osiris, Mithra and other ancient deities also died and some were even resurrected.

What is the synthesis of the meaning of the cross? The Ankh symbol shows how the divine principle (symbolized by the circle) descends to the material plane via the vertical line of the cross. The vertical line is an active principle descending on the passive horizontal plane. The vertical line of the cross symbolizes what is active and positive, the horizontal what is passive and negative. The cross is a very dramatic juxtaposition of opposites, complete opposite to the symbol of uroboros (the divine serpent eating its tail), which shows the dynamic interplay of opposites, the chaos preceding the order of creation. The cross is a symbol of the human drama connected with being incarnated into hard matter, where the opposites create conflict, tension, pain and suffering. It is a symbol of human existence on the material plane here and now.


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13 Responses to Musings on the Symbol of the Cross

  1. MartsArts Poetrypictures says:

    Thanks for your interesting and inspiring cultural-historic review on the symbol of the cross.

    Here some personal reflections from my day-to-day experience en thinking as a 51-year old Dutchman.

    I was raised in a strong and simple believing Christian family. So I got all the bible-interpretation of the Easter story with me.
    The cross from that influence has different meanings for me as I try to remember now; the first is of course the symbol of the dying of Gods son for our sins. And thereby it became also a general symbol for the Christian church and religion in general, as for most people I think.
    In my memory it was also a symbol of the torture of the –bad- Romans witch made jezus suffer and dy. In fact this is quite strange I do think now, Imagine for example a middle-age-torture-cage as a symbol of Christianity…
    This is maybe also connected with the emotion I had as a child, and in fact still now, with crosses in churches as something threatening, dark, heavy, sinister. So not at all positive or hope-giving or forgiving.

    At my sixteenth I left church and Christian belief in the sense my parents learned me. Like a lot of people in Holland did in the last decades of the former century. This mainly because I saw what Christians (and people of other religions too) did to others in name of God. So since then the cross grew also to a symbol of a wrong institution. In the same time it became a symbol of guilt, even more than it already was from out my Christian education, because I left church and Christian religion.
    Again in later years I read more and more about world-religions and the history of it; also about the mixed en diffused origins you’re talking about in your blog. By this I also learned to revalue the immense impact and worth of Christian (and other) beliefs and religion in world-art and culture.
    So now the cross (and many different forms of it) has also another, more-or-less positive association for me with this richness, however its still not easy to separate this form the living function and operating of now-a-days Christian church. But I also can appreciate the esthetic beauty of for example the painting of Dali as you showed.

    One last, funny association with your words about the horizontal and vertical beams of the cross: in one of my jobs I did in business-consultancy we had to develop a T-set of competences; a horizontal beam for broad competences in all fields of the consultancy-firm and a vertical beam for one or two specializations to be very good at; Never have seen this as a cross before, but looking back now… 🙂

    • This is such a valuable comment on many levels. In my post I wanted to delve deeper into the symbolism of the cross, go beyond the Christian associations. I was born in the very Catholic Poland and some of my knee-jerk reactions are also quite similar to yours.
      You see, symbols are everywhere, even in the soulless business world!
      All my best.

      • MartsArts Poetrypictures says:

        Thanks SR; well you did delve deeper I think.
        I also have some deeper questions remaining after writing my comment; I did also learned good things of my christian aducation about such values as remission, compassion and personal integrity. And in fact I’m concerned about the maintenance of this kind of virtues when we’re not having religions and chruches to do this. Can we aspect this from states or schools? And is so, what are goging to be the (re)new(ed) symbols for this of not more directly christian-related?
        A friend-artist of mine is doing a international project on a ‘flag of compassion’ for this:
        Very interesting I think. Curious what your opinion on this.

        And about the ‘soulless business world’: on the one hand you’re right; often a superficial world; on the other hand we are almost all working in organizations and searching for meaning there. For me this tension is always exiting. And in fact there also nice literature about ‘symbols’ and ‘images’ & organization. For example the classic:
        We should start a ‘symbolproject’ on this! 🙂
        Sincerely. MartsArts.

      • Here’s what I believe. We will never ‘lose’ Christian symbols because they carry the deepest truth forever present in the collective unconscious. Archetypes are eternal and all symbols spring from the same source. Christian or Pagan, for me it is all the same because there is only one Truth. I like a quote by Jung that I posted here:
        Making symbols conscious will not lead to any loss of morality; quite the contrary, I believe. By experiencing the divine in a direct way, individuals will be able to understand that they alone are responsible for their actions and God indeed gave us free will, but there are always consequences (karma) of our actions. As Socrates believed, knowledge (enlightenment) is a means to good life and ethical action. Knowledge is virtue.
        What I wrote about the soulless world of business was in fact said a bit jokingly. I do believe the anima mundi, world soul, permeates all aspects of human life. Called or not called, God will be present, as Jung wrote.

      • MartsArts Poetrypictures says:

        Okay. I have to get used to this new language you’re introducing to me (sorry to other bloggers who are aready known to ‘Jung-speech’). So I understand God is not the ‘good’ nor the ‘bad’, but something as the obligation or possibility to use our knowledge for our personal responsibility for all our thoughts and deeds.
        And I understand that you do belief with Jung that we as a human society are in a transition to let this kind of God-interpretation into our hearts and use our free will and take our responsibility.
        If thats what you or Jung meens it sounds good to me.

        But what if people have completely different opinions about what they are responsible for and are very convinced that what they do is right. For example the North-Korean soldier who is maybe goging at war these days against South-Korea, Or the dutch farmer who was accused this week by coolblodded murdering of a young girl for sex. Or Greg Lemond who lied to the world and himself for 10 years or more about using doping in cyclingsport?

        Does the Jung-God say nothing about good or bad? Whose knowledge or responsibility is leading than in the cases if the soldier, the farmer and the cycler? We just have to wait what the Karma will be? I think I have to learn a lot more about Jung-ethics than :).

  2. I’m afraid I am completely out of my depth discussing God’s nature or the significance of evil. But there is a blogger whose knowledge surpasses mine. I love his blog. It is

  3. Love the Dali quote about his cosmic dream. There is definitely a synastry if you will between the patterns of the microscopic and the universal.Have you seen pictures of the big bang that look like an egg? Creation is very impeccable in its design…..

  4. I came here to write about something else, but just read your remark about the Buddha fractals, so I need to regain my focus because that is so amazing! I was listening to a recorded lecture by Alan Oken in which he speaks of the cross. He relates it to the Heart. The 4th Chakra, the 4th ray, the 4th kingdom which is human and how in order to evolve it is through our heart, living from love consciousness, not romantic love, but the love energy of an open hear so to speak. This heart opening is how we become a human “being,” before that we are more like human “animals.” He said the vertical line is like between the Soul and our personality. The horizontal line is like our relationships: our relationship with our boss, partner, friend, associate . . . The crosses meet in the middle, which is the heart. The crucifixion is like the death of our ego. Pluto rules Pisces in esoteric so from this perspective we must go through the death of this lower part of ourselves in order to transcend and unite the higher and lower, this is like the death of duality. We unite our Self. I don’t totally understand this completely yet, I am in mid process, but when listening to it I remembered your post about the cross and so I thought I would share. The link between the cross and the Heart makes so much sense to me. It is like in Christian symbolism, there is the cross, but there is also that burning heart image that is also so important.

    • What an amazing analogy. I wish I had put that in my article because I have long been fascinated with that Old Testament quote: “And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up.” This is directly related to chakras and the kundalini energy. One thing I studied very long and extensively are the chakras. I first encountered this topic via Jung in his Psychology of Kundalini Joga, and then I started to explore it myself. The fourth chakra is indeed the threshold that you are talking about.

  5. Pingback: Images of the Zodiac: Contemplating Libra | symbolreader

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