On wearing a cross pendant

О ношении нагрудного креста“… Take up your cross and follow me” (Matt.16:24)

How are we to wear a cross pendant? There is no set response to this question. This is an issue of personal piety, which, in turn, reflects the spiritual state of the believer. It is known that „the spirit creates form”, so the primary goal for a Christian has always been to acquire the Holy Spirit. Pious traditions are born when sincere religious feelings manifest in the Lord, and there has been plenty of them throughout the history of the Orthodox Church. These days, however, traditions are being discontinued, and, since wearing a cross pendant is a serious symbolic action, it is not a coincidence that many people are asking themselves: How am I to do this properly? Can I wear a cross in plain sight, over my clothes?

It is dangerous to revive “dead”, hollow traditional forms without understanding them and drawing a connection between them and their spiritual essence. If we do so, some of the ancient customs may look uncanonical in modern conditions, or when observed by a particular person. Thus, to answer this question we have posed above, let us see how the tradition of wearing crosses has developed, and most importantly, try to understand the underlying symbolism. Since the actions we will focus on are symbolic, first of all we need to clarify the meaning of the word “symbol”. The problem is that the modern rational mind tends to see the symbol as a sort of artificial convention that merely refers to something and has no connection with reality. When one wishes to emphasize the insignificance of an action, one may say it was “symbolic”. In Christianity, however, a “symbol it is not just a reference to the Other. It is the actual presence of the Other. The presence of that which cannot be manifested otherwise, at least, not in this world” (Father Alexander Shmeman). Etymologically, the word “symbol” is connected to the concept of merging or unification. Therefore, on the one hand, a symbol is connected to the prototype, carries its energy and, in effect, serves as its manifestation. On the other hand, by becoming connected to the symbol, we establish a connection with the prototype. Therefore, our “symbolic” actions in this realm turn out to be quite real in the spiritual one.

However, let us return to the cross pendant. The Complete Orthodox Theological Encyclopedic Dictionary provides the following definition: “a cross pendant is a cross worn on the chest either over or under one’s clothes”. The crucial element is the location of the cross on the chest, which is the seat of the heart, and, therefore, a sacred part of the body. No wonder ancient Byzantine crosses were called encolpia, which is Greek for worn on the chest, against the heart.

Now let us try to understand the concept of a “symbol”. Usually, we use this word to mean any conventional sign denoting a complex object, action, feeling, idea and so forth. To some extent, this is correct. The error lies in the fact that, according to the rationalist approach, a symbol is no more than an artificial convention and has no connection with reality. As they say, “this is merely symbolic”. But actual fact, sacred symbols are not natural in origin; they are not invented, but granted to us from the higher dimension. They cannot be be comprehended in a manner that would be rational, definite or completely straightforward. Symbols may only be interpreted, but even then, the interpretation itself is still a symbol, though a slightly rationalized one.

The custom that has been the most prevalent from ancient times to the present day is that of wearing a cross secretly, hidden under one’s clothing. In Russia, such a cross was called a “telnik” (from the Russian word for body, “telo”). It is given to each newly baptized member of the Russian Orthodox Church during the sacrament of Baptism for continuous wear. It is interesting that this custom originated and existed only in the Russian Church, but not, for instance, the Greek Church. Even the Russian name for the sacrament of Baptism, “kreshcheniye”, appears to be more suitable for revealing its symbolic essence, which is to be co-crucified and co-resurrected alongside Christ (compare the “kreshcheniye” – baptism and “krest” – cross).

The cross, which is constantly worn against the body and forms a single whole with the wearer, connects the latter to Christ and to the Holy Orthodox Church. The cross represents the person’s own “cross” and serves as a “school of true theology” (according to St. Ignatius Bryanchaninov). When a cross is worn for this purpose, the parallel between one’s private cross and the Cross of Christ becomes more apparent. Furthermore, this is the best way for the cross to carry out its apotropaic function, since the degree of protection offered to a Christian directly depends on the degree of his or her unity with God.

The first surviving evidence about cross pendants dates back to the early 4th century. The acts of the Seventh Ecumenical Council (Act IV) indicate that the martyr Procopius (+303 A.D.), who had suffered under Diocletian, used to wear a cross around his neck that was half gold and half silver. Apparently, so did the Christian soldier Orestes (+304 A.D.). This was reflected, among other things, on an 11th century Byzantine fresco that depicts the Great Martyr Orestes with a metal cross around his neck, on top of his armor. On the whole, images of saints with cross pendants are rather uncommon in Byzantine iconography and this detail tends to be reserved primarily for monks. Because of this, the images may not constitute historical evidence in favor of wearing crosses over one’s clothes, especially in the case of the warrior saint. Rather, they are likely to indicate the presence of a cross as such, which stresses the nature of the saint’s deeds and ministry.

St. Gregory of Nyssa also mentions an iron cross on a thin iron chain he had found among the belongings of his sister Macrina after she died (+379 A.D.). In addition, she wore a signet ring that was engraved with a cross and had a fragment of the Lord’s Holy Cross embedded inside.

It is the symbolism of Christian ministry that comes to the fore when someone decides to wear a cross openly over their clothing. In this case, they demonstrate that all their activities, even as a layperson, are carried out under the banner of the Holy Cross and are aimed at serving Christ. Consequently, a cross pendant meant to be worn on top of one’s clothing was part of a bishop’s status, first in Byzantium and later in Russia.

In the Russian Orthodox Church these crosses were only worn by the Patriarch and the Metropolitans. In addition, before the era of Peter the Great, a cross pendant was the compulsory part of a prince’s or tsar’s regalia. They were used to mark the leader as chosen by God and to designate any political power, whether spiritual or secular, as Christian, since it was thought to have been ordained and sanctioned by God.

The cross pendant  turned into an obligatory attribute for priests only after the decree of Emperor Nicholas II issued on May 14, 1896. Before then, priests were permitted to wear award crosses, which, in turn, had appeared during the reign of Peter I as a means to honor the most distinguished. This tradition became more commonplace when Emperor Paul I in 1797 introduced a uniform award in the form of a cross pendant. The so-called cabinet crosses, which the Emperor’s Cabinet began to issue with the Imperial royal permission in 1820, were regarded as a particularly high honor and exceptionally valued.

There were also specific crosses issued to commemorate the greatest events in Russian history, such as the Patriotic War of 1812, the Crimean War of 1853-1856 years and the 300th anniversary of the Romanov dynasty in 1913. (More on priestly pectoral crosses can be found in the book by S.V. Gnutova “The Cross in Russia”).

Apart from priests, the other group who wore crosses over their clothing, or, to be more precise, over their armor, were warriors. These crosses were known as “paramannye” or “paramennye”, from “paramand”, a part of the monastic habit that covers the shoulders and comes down the front and back, or the old Slavonic word for shoulders, “ramena”. The warrior would place the cross against his chest, over the armor, fixing it to his shoulders with a thin rope, as is done with the paramand (otherwise known as the analavos), or with the chains ascetics used to wear under their clothing. These crosses were used to bless warriors to feats of arms and served as a spiritual armor and a victorious weapon in the struggle against the enemy (a few examples of these crosses are given by A. Nechvolodov in the “Legend of the Russian Land”). This tradition was established already by Emperor Constantine the Great, who ordered that the sign of the cross be depicted on shields and armor.

However, a similar tradition of wearing a cross pendant on top of one’s clothes also existed among laypeople. In this case, the cross was part of a woman’s set of jewelry.

This is explained by the aesthetic and protective functions of the cross, or, rather, by its single combined function that implies both aesthetics and protection. Today, we find this difficult to understand, as modern aesthetics is a very subjective science, whereas protection tends to be understood as magical. Yet in ancient sacral cultures, beauty was seen as part of the spiritual dimension. In Christianity, for example, one of the Lord’s names was Beauty (according to Dionysius the Areopagite), while a collection of texts on spiritual guidance, whose name is translated into Russian as “Dobrotoliubiye”, or “Love of the Good”, in the original Greek is called “Philokalia”, which means “Love of the Beautiful”. A set of jewellery, above all, provided a means of comprehending the world and representing it in symbolic terms. No wonder the Greek word “cosmos”, apart from outer space, the universe or harmony, can also refer to a set of jewellery. A person felt protected due to their harmonious union with the complex structure of the world, which found expression in their jewellery. Human beings naturally felt at one with the universe, and this was what protected them. The Church did not reject these ideas, but, on the contrary, adopted them, sanctifying them and embuing them with the higher spiritual meaning provided by Christianity. Therefore, the cross, being the main Christian symbol (as well as due to its rich pre-Christian symbolism), came to occupy the central place in Byzantine jewellery sets, sometimes replacing any other symbols. Since worldly life in the Byzantine Empire was heavily sacralized, the cross could not only be present as an expensive cross pendant, but could be found, in combination with the images of Christ and His Blessed Mother, on other jewelry items, such as earrings, bracelets, belts and so on, along with some household items that required special protection and patronage. These sacred images consecrated the objects of the material world and connected them to the Kingdom of Heaven. A remarkable example are the early Christian lamps marked with crosses, which serve as a particularly vivid illustration for the idea of material light transforming into the light of Christ.

In Russia, the custom of wearing a cross over one’s clothes became the most widespread in the 17th century and survived until the second half of the 19th century. It was practiced, as a rule, by the plain folk, who saw worldly life as based on God’s commandments and did not draw any clear boundaries between the church and the world, as was the case once in the Byzantine Empire. Here, one must remember about one peculiarity of this historical period: the 17th century saw the strengthening of a single centralized Russian state, which, after the fall of Byzantium, was increasingly perceived as the stronghold of the Orthodox faith. It was natural that the cross, as the invincible weapon of faith, went on public display, supported by the words of St. Paul: “But God forbid that I should glory, save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world is crucified unto me, and I unto the world” (Gal. 6:14). These words of the Apostle can occasionally be found on the reverse of Russian cross pendants made in the 17th century.

Besides, in the 17th century, once the Time of Troubles was over, there arose a nostalgia for the piety of the old days, which found expression in a new symbolic language for ecclesiastical and ceremonial art. The public consciousness atrributed the long-awaited Tsar Mikhail Fedorovich with every conceivable sign of perfection and turned him into a role model. According to Simeon of Polotsk, “everyone is conducting themselves after the Tsar’s example and imitating him in their own lives”. Therefore, the ordinary clothing and furniture of the time became more similar to the royal ones, and the cross pendant, once an attribute of royal dignity, was integrated into the festive national costume. These cross had a solemn look and were complemented by skillfully crafted wide chains made of the same material, which formed a single item with the cross itself. Such crosses could be worn on wide chains made of beads, known in Russian as “gaytan”, or on braided thin ropes decorated with beads. You can become more closely acquainted with this type of cross in the study “The Russian Orthodox Cross”, carried out by the Russian Ethnographic Museum.

Our historical and symbolic overview confirms the common opinion that it is most correct and useful for a Christian in any historical context to wear a cross pendants hidden under their clothes, since, in this case, the connection (or unity) is established only between the wearer and the cross.

If one chooses to wear the cross on the outside, in plain sight, there is a third party – the world. When this world is Christian, as in Byzantium or in ancient Russia, the result will be a harmonious connection between the cross, the wearer and the world. But in today’s world, where the dominant ideology is increasingly becoming satanic, wearing a cross on top of one’s clothes require a special sense of responsibility and the spiritual qualities that distinguish a true soldier of Christ. If we are prepared for this, putting the cross on public display may not so bad after all.

These days, most of those who wear crosses over their clothing are women. If this is due to a genuine and pious desire to revive the ancient tradition of wearing sacred ornaments, having already arranged one’s worldly life in keeping with God’s commandments, it deserves respect. However, one should remember about the danger of desecrating the sacred object, and, of course, it is unacceptable to flippantly wear a cross as an ordinary secular decoration, because in this case we would inadvertently violate the third commandment: “Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord, thy God, in vain”.

Prepared in accordance with:

“The Church Jeweller”, № 19 (16), spring 2009

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