At the heart of symbolism

The cross in all its dimensions

(Detailed page)


Cross and spatial orientation

Since the dawn of time, man found his bearings with the help of the sun or the stars of the starry vault.

During the day, man obviously finds his way around observing the sun. The vertical point of the observation place rises to the zenith and the sun at its peak point projects a shadow on the horizon, pointing in the direction of south. Then, the observer can find his way alongside the four directions associated with the cardinal points. They draw with the vertical line of the place a three-dimensional cross related to the solar orientation.

During the night, the being locates himself by observing the polar star and the stars accomplishing an apparent revolution around the axis of the poles representing here the vertical. The axis incline over the horizon gives the direction of the terrestrial north, the projection of which on the equator provides the northern direction of this plan. The four cardinal points of the equator plan form with the axis of the poles another three-dimensional cross related to the polar orientation.

The solar orientation takes into account the axis of the observer whereas the polar orientation refers to the Cosmos axis. Consequently, it is natural to associate the first one to the individual or the microcosm and the second to the Cosmos or the macrocosm. 1

The symbolism of the three-dimensional cross

Based on the spatial orientation, the three-dimensional cross is the symbol of the vertical and horizontal expansion:

  • The vertical branch represents the totality of the states that the being carries in himself or the state set of the cosmic or universal Existence.
  • The horizontal branches depict the plan where all the possibilities associated with a specific being or state of Existence are deployed.

Keep in mind an essential distinction between the states of the being and the states of Existence. Even universal, the states of Existence come under the manifestation. The states of the being, on the contrary, belong to the manifested as well as to the non-manifested. Indeed, the pure Being, Principle of the manifestation, is non-manifested.

The vertical axis represents the indefinite number of states of the being or Existence from the highest, spiritual or celestial states to the most obvious, physical or terrestrial ones. This hierarchy of states is divided into three orders, at the level of the microcosm (bodily/physical, psychic/subtle and spiritual) as at the level of the macrocosm (terrestrial, atmospheric and celestial).

The microcosm intermediary order covers the psyche or soul and constitutes, with the bodily or physical order, the human world.

Each point of the vertical branch contains in power all the possibilities associated with a state of the being or Existence and symbolizes, in a way, the centre of this state. If the observer stands in one of the vertical points, he is centred in this state and can consider the centres related to the other states, which are inferior as well as superior to the one where he is standing in. If, on the contrary, the observer remains in one of the possibilities associated with that state, he is located in the corresponding horizontal plan and can only perceive the centre of this state.

The vertical branch linking together all the centres of the indefinite state hierarchy represents what the Chinese tradition calls the “Invariable Middle”, i.e. the locus where each of its points is reflecting the World Centre or the principial Unity at the source of all states of the being or Existence. The pre-eminence of the vertical covering all the states over the horizontal containing only one of them is more often depicted by unequal vertical and horizontal branches. On the other hand, as the expansion of the possibilities of a specific state in a horizontal plan is spreading equally in all directions, the corresponding branches are only able to be equal.

This distinction between vertical and horizontal brings us naturally to pay attention to the two-dimensional cross representations.

The symbolism of the two-dimensional cross

The vertical cross

The vertical cross presents three basic forms in relation to the three orders mentioned above:Different crosses related to different orders

1. The simple or Latin cross describes the superior states of spiritual or celestial order within the totality of the being's states. In this respect, it figures the total being who has integrated all the existence and non-existence states.

2. The double cross, called Lorraine cross - even if of Greek origin - associates the spiritual or celestial and human or intermediary states. It describes the being who has realized the union of the divine and the human symbolized by the vertical.

3. The triple or papal cross depicts the union of the three orders (spiritual or celestial, psychic or intermediary, physical or terrestrial) represented by the vertical. It is associated with the Pontiff, i.e. the one who is and is making the bridge between the three worlds. As such, he is the true mediator between the upper and lower worlds (For more details on this subject, see the Vatican flag).

Under its multiple branch form, the cross evokes also the “Middle Tree” that stands in the “World Centre”. Its lateral branches describe the horizontal deployment of the being's states unified alongside the vertical trunk, symbol of the “World Axis”. Following the axial Way, the Middle Path means to follow the most difficult Way which takes the being directly from the human to the spiritual state centre and to the World Centre.

In the biblical tradition, the “Middle Tree” is similar to the “Tree of Life” situated in the middle of the “Garden of Eden”.

In the “Middle Tree”, each of the horizontal branches associated with a state divides the vertical between the states which are comparatively inferior and superior. Nevertheless, what about the cross where the vertical stops to the height of the horizontal branch, either above or below. The Tau cross, of Egyptian origin, takes one or the other of these two shapes:

Tau cross4. The first form characterizes the states below the spiritual ones, i.e. the human states or the world below. Looped at the top, it is called ankh cross and depicts the death to the human and the re-birth into the spiritual states. In use in Egypt and among the first century Christians, the ankh cross symbolizes the access to the spiritual states through the direct Way, the loop of Horus, the narrow door, the eye of the needle, the passage towards true immortality. Placed on the forehead, between both eyes, it represents the third Eye seeing everything in the perfect simultaneity of the eternal present, i.e. beyond the human senses.

Upside down Tau cross5. Upside down, the Tau cross puts precisely in epigraph the spiritual or supra-human states and depicts the Heaven (vertical) above the Earth (horizontal). It symbolizes the celestial world hammered by the thunder of the gods, and highly respected at that, such as Zeus in the Greek tradition or Thor in the Scandinavian one. The upside down Tau cross represents at once the hammer, attribute of Thor, and the insignia of his worshippers.

The horizontal cross

The horizontal cross presents many forms of which only the most significant will be resumed here.

Greek and Saint Andrew crosses1. The cross with equal branches can be oriented according to the four cardinal or intermediary points. It is called Greek in the first case and Saint Andrew in the second.

2. The orientation according to the cardinal or intermediary points illustrates the deployment of a being's state from his centre. The unity of a being's state, defined by the centre, is manifested under the appearance of couples of opposites symbolized by the botonée or trilobate cross. Each of the cross branches ends up, indeed, with three interrelated lobes: the central lobe evokes the Unity and the two lateral ones a couple of opposites. These lobes are strongly associated for the Unity contains in itself all apparent oppositions which are only resolved in It or in the return to the centre.

Threefold and pattée crossesA similar meaning can be found in the pattée cross with splayed ends. The two distinct points of each branch extremity converge towards Unity while we are approaching the centre 2.

3. The Jerusalem cross also reminds us thatJerusalem, crosslet and Celtic crosses at the four corners of the World, each symbolized by a cross in miniature, everything comes from Unity and everything returns to It. That is the message given by the representation where the four Evangelists or Gospels occupy the place of the four crosses.

When the four small crosses occupy the ends of the branches instead of the four corners, the cross is called crosslet. It suggests that, even if we are far away from the centre, we can always, at any moment, return to it. When the four crosses are no more separated, but linked by a circle centred at the branch intersection, we rediscover a similar meaning with the so-called Celtic cross. The special study of the Celtic cross will give us the opportunity to deepen even more the symbolism of the cross and, especially, of the centre.

4. The cross with equal branches also fits into the circle. It takes this appearance within certain Central America and Celtic peoples. As such, the cross constitutes a symbol of the centre deploying to the periphery and represents the World in its Unity (centre) and its manifestation (cosmic wheel). This wheel, especially under the form of 6 or 8 radiuses,Circle in a cross, a symbol of the World is notably spread in Celtic and Hindu traditions. If the symbolism of the 4 or 8 radius wheel is clear, the meaning of the 6 radius one must be put in relation to the plane representation of the three-dimensional cross, another symbol of the Cosmos or World.

5. From the last representation directly ensues the Chrisme one (Greek monogram of Christ), within a circle or not. In its simple form, the first Christians saw the two I and X Greek initials of “Iesus Christos”. In its Constantine form,Chrisme in a circle or not it is resulting from the union of the two first Greek letters X and P of “Christos”. The loop that transforms the I of the simple Chrisme into the P of the Constantine Chrisme reminds us of the topped loop of the ankh cross and echoes to the eye of the needle, the direct or vertical Way to reach the Heavens.

6. The potent crossPotent cross and counter clockwise and clockwise swastikas consists of four Tau crosses oriented according to the cardinal points. The extremity of each branch indicates the end of the expansion of the considered state from the centre. Conversely, the realization of the full potential of possibilities linked to a specific state prefigures the return towards the centred state. The potent cross is, consequently, a symbol of expansion and contraction, expiration and inspiration made in the image of life, pulsation made in the image of heart.

The left or right shift of the potent cross ends leads to the clockwise and counter clockwise swastikas. This operation adds a rotation to the pulse movement. Now, the alternation of clockwise and counter clockwise rotation combined with the pulse movement generates a spiral. And, in fact, the two swastika forms are closely linked to the double spiral, widely developed.

Under this apparent variety of vertical and horizontal crosses, a universal meaning common to all traditions and standing at the crossroads is hidden.

At the crossroads

The true man

The horizontal plan represents any being's state or degree of Existence. To move from the periphery towards the centre of this state, located at the horizontal plan and vertical intersection, leads to integration of the different possibilities associated with this state. Integrating means realizing the union of apparent oppositions.

Thus, in the physical-corporal domain, the constituent elements of the physical world are usually linked to the cardinal points and opposed two to two: Fire to the south and Water to the north, Air to the east and Earth to the west. Nevertheless, from a more global view point, the complementary character of Fire and Air on one hand, Water and Earth on the other hand, allow a balance between the elements, symbolized by the branches of equal lengths. Moreover, all these elements resolve themselves in a fifth one located at the centre, the Ether, which contains all of them in an undifferentiated state and from which all proceed.

The same is true in the psycho-sensitive domain, where the sensations of fear or aggressiveness, of sadness or anger that oppose each other in appearance, find their balance in love.

In a general way, the complementarity within the cross derives from a relatively branch active character compared to the other passive one. Such a complementarity, at the basis of the constitution of the different worlds and beings, can be found in diverse traditions under various names: Purusha and prakriti in the Hindu tradition, yang and yin in the Chinese tradition or masculine and feminine in the Hermetic or Alchemic tradition. This last one does, in fact, primarily refer to the human states and rejoining the centre in this tradition means to realize the harmony between the masculine and feminine aspects within each of us. Doing this, the being rediscovers his original state of “Primeval Androgyne” in perfect balance. Then, he is becoming a full human being, a “true man” standing at the crossroads and no more torn apart on the cross branches.

The Universal Man

Nailed up at the crossroads, the Christ represents the union of divine (vertical) and human (horizontal) nature, the symbol of the mediator par excellence between Heaven and Earth

The integration of any human or other state appears as a reflection in the horizontal plan of the indefinite multitude of the centred states located on the vertical. Established in the “Invariable Middle”, the being can now rejoin the centre of the vertical cross, the Universal centre and overcome the human state to embrace the states in their totality. Having become “the Universal Man”, he is beyond active and passive, yang and yin, masculine and feminine balanced points for these distinctions have no more sense and even less existence for him. He is henceforth situated in the non-manifested, the World Centre, at the crossing of all roads. Through a synthesis of all being's states, he became the “mediator par excellence” between Heaven and Earth as the Christ who realized the union of the divine and human natures.


  • René Guénon:
  • “The symbolism of the cross”. Sophia Perennis Publisher 2002;
  • This work deals in details with the cross symbol.

1 back Note that both three-dimensional crosses have the East-West axis in common. No wonder that temples and churches are using that axis as entry, which may open up the being both to himself and to the Cosmos.

2 backCrosses of the Temple, Malta and Teutonic Knights The pattée cross is particularly illustrative of the monastic chivalry and, more specifically, of the three following orders:

  • Poor Knights of the Christ Order of the Jerusalem Temple or Temple Order;
  • Hospitaller Order of Saint John of Jerusalem or Malta Order;
  • Teutonic Knight Order.