Navigation (in separate window)

Homepage Art History on Stamps

Search Google

Back to Index

Crosses. Front of the Beresford Hope Cross.

Crosses. Title-image.

From The Byzantine Empire 
to The Third Reich

Crosses. Back of the Beresford Hope Cross.

The cross has played an important role for mankind since ancient times.  The first figures to be referred to as crosses were found in the sky as star constellations.  Not only had these constellations mythological importance, but were also used by seafarers for correct navigation when sailing at night. The Cygnus constellation [The Swan] has always been perceived as a bird, and one of the most well known legends is that Zeus, disguised as a swan, enticed the virgin Leda to leave Sparta. It lies mostly within the Milky Way, and is seen best during early September, when it reaches its highest point in the evening sky. It contains the bright first magnitude star Deneb and a group of six stars that form a Latin cross known as the Northern Cross. 

The Southern Cross [Crux] appeared on a stamp issued by Tristan da Cunha in 1984, as well as on a Christmas Seal from the Danish West Indies, issued 1916. 

Faroe Islands 2001. Crosses. Christmas Seal. Northern Cross, Cygnus. Tristan da Cunha 1984. Crosses. Southern Cross. Danish West Indies 1916. Crosses. Christmas seal. Southern Cross.

Air Mail Label fro Australia Post. Crux.

Finally, the Southern Cross is contained in the national flags of Australia, New Zealand and Western Samoa, and appears on air mail labels from Australian Post.  
  • Air Mail Label from Australia Post.

The Crux is visible in the southern hemisphere located between Centaurus and Musca, containing four bright stars so situated that they depict the extremities of a Latin cross. The constellation is situated above the Antarctic Circle and is visible as far north as latitude c. 30° North, corresponding to Southern Morocco, The Canary Islands and the southernmost tip of Florida.  

In Morocco it has been a cherished subject by gold smiths and artisans, who over time have designed a stylized form and specialized in manufacturing beautiful jewelry, like this gold brooch, which is often given to a Moroccan bride to bring her luck in her coming marriage and "navigation" through the darkness of human life when her husband is at sea, either as a sailor or fisher ...

The brooch on the image is a gold filigree work, manufactured in Goulimine in the southernmost part of Morocco, the northwestern end station for the camel routes through Sahara.  It belongs to the webmaster as a souvenir from my four years stay in the country during the 1960s, working for the Danish Foreign Service.  

  • Gold Brooch from Morocco, featuring a stylized Crux. 
  • Libya 1949. Cross of Agadem. A Libyan variety of the Crux from the  Ghadames oases, French military territory. Air Post.  

Gold brooch from Morocco. Crosses. Stylized Crux.

Libya 1949. Cross of Agadem. 

The cross as such is an ancient symbol found in many cultures, but especially associated with Christianity. The cruciform design consists essentially of two lines that intersect to form right angles.  There are many variations; the Tau (Greek letter 't') cross, for example, is T-shaped; the Saltire, or St. Andrew's cross, is X-shaped. In the Latin cross, the short horizontal member is near the top of the longer vertical member; in the Greek cross, the members are of equal length and intersect in the centre. The Russian cross has two unequal horizontals set on the vertical member above a small slanting bar. The cross of Lorraine has two unequal horizontals; the papal cross has three. The Maltese cross is a Greek cross with V-shaped members widening from the centre and notched at the ends. The crux ansata (or ankh) is a tau cross with a circular loop above the horizontal bar. The Celtic cross is like a Latin one with the addition of a circle surrounding the intersection. In the swastika (fylfot cross) the members, of equal length, are bent at the ends. 

One of the few true remnants of Byzantine Art in Denmark is the "Dagmar Cross", first brought to Denmark around the year 1200 by the legendary Bohemian Princess Dagmar (in Bohemian: Dragomira). She was the daughter of the Bohemian King Ottokar II, and married the Danish King Valdemar the Victorious (Valdemar Sejr).  She was so good-hearted and kind, that the whole country fell into grief, when she died in 1212 when giving birth to a still-born baby girl.  .  

Denmark, Christmas Seals 1959.  Crosses. The Dagmar Cross

In memory of the dead queen and her baby, the Dagmar Cross has been given ever since to all Danish baby girls, wishing them a long and prosperous life. 

Common superstition demands that to make such wishes come true the cross must be given away, normally in connection with the first communion, by the owner, to someone less fortunate in life than herself.

Russia 1998.  Crosses. Russian Dagmar Cross, named after the Russian Czarina Dagmar, who was a Danish Princess by birth

Traces of the Byzantine Empire and its splendour are found in many places around the world that have not themselves been part of the Empire, particularly in Sweden, brought home by the Vikings.  

The Vikings can roughly be divided into three parts; the Norwegians, the Swedes, and the Danes.  Although they were of the same breed, they were totally different in character.  The Norwegians were known as seafarers, explorers and state founders (The Faeroe Islands, Iceland and Greenland);  the Danes were first of all warriors, who conquered parts of England and France; the Swedes were tradesmen who went east to explore the Orient, and established excellent contacts with the peoples living there.  They sailed down the huge Russian rivers and reached Kiev and Odessa in the Ukraine, the coasts around The Black Sea, and eventually arrived in Istanbul in Turkey, which they called "Miklagaard".  They traded furs and slaves (whom they captured on their way south), and in return they received glass-ware, jewelry, silver coins, etc.  In archeological excavations plenty of such Arab and Orientals coins have been found in Sweden, witnessing the Vikings' travels into The Byzantine Empire.  

Sweden 1990. Crosses. The Viking set.

Sweden 1990.   The Viking Set, printed se-tenant as shown.  The stamps are engraved by Czeslaw Slania.  The four stamps in the middle are a composite design describing Viking Ships setting out to sea, and their landing in foreign towns.  

England 1958.  Regional Issue Scotland.  "The Saltire" (St. Andrew's Cross)

To the left a Scottish regional issue 1958, showing the X-shaped Cross (the Saltire) of St. Andrew's (patron saint of Scotland).

The equal-armed Celtic cross (right), originally a pagan symbol, symbolizes the four quarters of the earth, and/or the four elements (earth, air, fire, and water). The circle symbolizes eternity and the path of the sun in the sky.  This symbolism is also known from ancient Egyptian art as in the Crux Ansata.   

England 1969.  Celtic Cross.

The cross, as a basic design motif, appears in the pottery, weaving, carving, and painting of many cultures. It may be simply decorative, or it may have symbolic meaning. The Tau cross, for example, was a symbol of life to the ancient Egyptians, when combined with the circle, it stood for eternity. For most ancient peoples the Greek cross was a metaphor for the four indestructible elements of creation (air, earth, fire, and water), thus symbolizing permanence. The swastika, with the ends of its cross bars bent to the right, was common in both the Old World and the New. It originally represented the revolving Sun, fire, or life and later, by extension, good luck. To Buddhists, a swastika represented resignation; to the Jains, it symbolized their seventh saint. To Hindus, a swastika with arms bent to the left symbolized night, magic, and the destructive goddess Kali. In early 20th-century Germany, the right-facing swastika was the Nazi party emblem. 

Nicaragua 1968.  Salvador Dali (1904-1982): "The Crucifixion".  Glasgow Art Gallery, Scotland.

The cross was also used as a symbol in the ancient world of execution by crucifixion. Malefactors were often executed by being impaled on a pointed stake and being left to die. The Latin word crux ("cross") originally referred to such a stake. 

Later horizontals of various types were added to it. In Roman times only the lowest class of criminals was crucified. In Christianity the cross became not only a symbol of the shameful death of Jesus Christ as a criminal on a tau-shaped Roman cross, but also of his subsequent Resurrection to eternal life and of his promise of salvation to Christian believers. 

  • Nicaragua 1968. Painting by Salvador Dali. 


The Greek letters C (chi) and R (rho), the first two letters of the Greek word CRISTOS, were superimposed to form the chi-rho, which, as the monogram of Christ, became a pervasive decorative element in Early Christian and Byzantine Art, thus the souvenir sheet to the right from Belarus, showing an early Russian Orthodox cross with two unequal horizontal arms. 

  • Belarus 1992. 

The cross became an important part of Christian liturgy and art. Christians make a sign of the cross with the right hand both to profess their faith and to bestow a blessing. Early Christian clergy used small hand-held crosses to bestow blessings. 

Belarus 1992.  Early Russian Orthodox Cross with two unequal, horizontal sets.

Larger crosses were carried in processions; these took spectacular forms in later centuries. In time, crosses were placed on altars in churches and erected outdoors in markets and along roads. Small crosses were worn by clergy and laity as tokens of piety, marks of ecclesiastical office (pectoral crosses), reliquaries, good-luck charms, or decoration. Most large medieval churches were built on the plan of a Latin or Greek cross, symbolic of Christ's body.  

Denmark 1969.  Crosses. 750th centenary of the Danish National Flag "Dannebrog"

The Danish national flag, "Dannebrog", is a so-called cross flag, showing a white cross on a bright red background. The flag's origin is uncertain, but legend has it that the flag fell  from Heaven during a frightful battle on 15th June 1219 at Reval (Estonia), where the Danish king Valdemar the Victorious fought against the Estonians. 
  • Denmark 1969. Danish National Flag. 

Maltese Knighthood Flag

He was about to loose the battle, when all of a sudden the flag fell from heaven and thus encouraged his army to fight again - and win the battle.  It is more likely that the flag from Heaven was the banner of the Maltese Knighthood, which in the same period invaded Estonia for the sake of Christianity.

The cross, as first used in Christian art, generally did not show the body of Jesus, not only because the early Church still followed the Jewish prohibition of images as idolatrous, but also because the empty cross symbolized Jesus' Resurrection rather than his death. As a result, Christ was sometimes symbolized by a lamb or a bust of a youth above the cross. By the 7th century, in the Byzantine period, however, it had become customary to represent the whole figure of Jesus, alive and robed, as the triumphant Christ, in front of the cross but not attached to it. Gradually, as the Church put more emphasis on his suffering and death, Christ was portrayed naturalistically in a loincloth and crown of thorns, nailed to the cross. The wound in his side was visible. Thereafter, most three-dimensional crosses in the Roman Catholic Church were crucifixes, and scenes of the crucifixion became popular themes of medieval and Renaissance painting and sculpture. Most non-Lutheran Protestant Churches, which tend to follow early Church traditions, use the cross alone. 

Denmark 1966. Crosses. Red Cross,

Also the Red Cross International has made the cross one of their official symbols, together with the Half Moon (Arab countries), and the Lion (Iran).  In Japan the equivalent organisation is The Red Sun (not represented on this stamp). 

Switzerland 1971. Criosses. Swiss National Flag.

One cross that has to be mentioned in this context is The Swastika, an even cross, the arms of which are bent at right angles. Since all four bars point in the same direction (either clockwise or counterclockwise), the form creates an impression of perpetual rotation. 

The origin of the swastika symbol is unknown. For thousands of years, it has been used as a symbol of the revolving sun, fire, infinity, or continuing re-creation, as well as a decorative motif in the Americas, China, Egypt, Greece, and Scandinavia. Swastikas have been found in the catacombs of Rome, on textiles of the Inca period, and on relics unearthed at the site of Troy. The swastika has also been important in Eastern religions: to Buddhists, it represents resignation; to Jains, it represents their seventh saint; and to Hindus, a swastika with arms bent to the left represents night, magic, and the destructive goddess Kali. 

In the mid-20th century in Germany, a swastika with arms bent to the right became the symbol of the Nazi party. Some members of the German Free Corps, who later formed the nucleus of the early Nazi Party, are believed to have brought the swastika to Germany from Finland and Estonia, where it had been an official and decorative emblem. In 1920 many troops wore the swastika on their helmets when they occupied Berlin in their abortive attempt to overthrow the German Republic. 

From March 1933, a few weeks after the ascent of Adolf Hitler to power in Germany, the swastika flag flew side by side with the German national colors.  From September 1935 until the downfall of the Nazi regime in 1945, the swastika flag was the official flag of the Third Reich and was prominently displayed. The swastika is still used as a symbol by supremacist and separatist hate groups. The Swastika appeared on unofficial Danish Christmas Seals, issued by the Danish Nazi Party, during the period 1937-1942.  

Kryžių Kalnas -- "The Hill of Crosses" -- Lithuania

One of the most spectacular sights in Lithuania is undoubtedly Kryžių Kalnas (The Hill of Crosses), revealing the soul of the Lithuanian people.  The hill is situated around 12 km north of Šiauliai in the northern part of the country. It is an incredible sight, nearly unimaginable, to see millions of Christian Crosses collected in such a small area, virtually on a hill top.  

Lithuania1999. Lithuanian Liberty Movement "Sajudis".

Lithuania 1990.  Hill of Crosses. Lithuania 1990.  Hill of Crosses.

The Lithuanian Liberty Movement "Sajudis" was active 1949-1989. The stamp shows the Lithuanian version of a cross, issued 1999 commemorating Sajudis. The text on the stamp reads: 

Freedom for Lithuania. 
Freedom of (the month of) March.  
[The Lithuanian Liberty Day is 11th March]

The below three private photos show to the left a single cross with a sign saying "Freedom for Lithuania" (Lietuvos Laisvė), and to the right a fragment of the hill with the forged tops.  Both photos belong to the webmaster. During the Soviet period the Hill of Crosses became intolerable to the authorities, and even became a forbidden place marked by ignorance and fanaticism.  During the years 1941-1952 a considerable number of Lithuanians were deported to Siberia by the Stalin-power, and the Hill of Crosses with heart-breaking inscriptions became a kind of manuscript of people's tormented life.  

Lithuania.  The Hill of Crosses.  "Freedom for Lithuania".

Hill of Crosses.  Paoramic view of The Hill of Crosses.

Fragment of the Hill of Crosses, with forged tops.

The forged tops of crosses are special for Lithuania, and samples are seen everywhere in the country, including the Hill of Crosses,  fixed to poles or crucifixes along the roads, such as shown on the above Christmas Stamps 2000.  

Lithuania 2000. Forged Top on Lithuanian Cross.  Stamp #1 of five. Lithuania 2000. Christmas stamps. Roadside Cricifixes with forged tops. Stamp #1 of two. Lithuania 2000. Forged Top on Lithuanian Cross.  Stamp #2 of five. Lithuania 2000. Christmas stamps. Roadside Cricifixes with forged tops. Stamp #2 of two. Lithuania 2000. Forged Top on Lithuanian Cross.  Stamp #3 of five.

In Spring 1961 the Soviet government decided to finish with the Hill of Crosses for good. It was simply bulldozed, the wooden crosses were burned, the iron crosses were taken to the scrap metal store, the stone crosses were buried into the soil.  But no matter the governmental efforts, new crosses appeared overnight in memory of Stalin's unbearable torture, and of those who died for their country's freedom. A real War Of Crosses burst out and lasted for more than ten years. The Soviet government went so far as to flooding the place, blocking the roads and turning the Hill of Crosses into an inaccessible island.  But all was in vain, new crosses always appeared overnight, and in 1985 the Hill was finally left in peace.  

Lithuania 1993. Papal Visit to Kryziu Kalnas, Vilnius, Siluva, and Kaunas. Stamp #1 of four. Lithuania 1993. Papal Visit to Kryziu Kalnas, Vilnius, Siluva, and Kaunas. Stamp #2 of four. Lithuania 1993. Papal Visit to Kryziu Kalnas, Vilnius, Siluva, and Kaunas. Stamp #3 of four. Lithuania 1993. Papal Visit to Kryziu Kalnas, Vilnius, Siluva, and Kaunas. Stamp #4 of four.

In the beginning of the 1990s, after the collapse of Communism, the Hill was declared a sacred place.  The Pope John Paul II visited Kryžių Kalnas in 1993, which was commemorated on the above stamps, issued by Lithuania that same year. The set of four shows the Papal visit to various places in Lithuania.  

Sources and links: 

See also

Back to Index


Navigation (in separate window)

Homepage Art History on Stamps

Search Google

Revised 24-jul-2006. Ann Mette Heindorff
Copyright © 1999-2007. All Rights Reserved

Homepage Heindorffhus