Why does the Orthodox Cross have three bars?

Three-Barred Orthodox Cross

The three-barred Cross, as shown above is the most common shape used in the Orthodox Church – whether as simple adornments, crucifixes, or in Icons which show the Cross, the three bars are usually present.

The short, extra top bar represents the sign nailed to Christ’s Cross, which read: THIS IS THE KING OF THE JEWS (Luke 23:28; in John’s Gospel the sign reads: “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews”)

The lower, slanted, bar is the foot-rest of the crucifix. All crucifixes would have had these, as no one could be suspended from a cross by nails alone. The cruel death of a crucifixion was not brought about through blood loss, but by lack of oxygen: exhausted, the man is no longer able to stand straight upon the foot-rest, the body sags, and air can no longer be drawn in.

The foot-rest of Christ’s Cross is slanted because it is believed that in the final moments before Jesus gave up His spirit, His flesh spasmed and the foot-rest was kicked out of place. But in this true event there is also symbolism. The foot-rest points up, toward Heaven, on Christ’s right hand-side, and downward, to Hades, on Christ’s left. One of the Orthodox Church’s Friday prayers clearly explains the meaning:

In the midst, between two thieves, was Your Cross found as the balance-beam of righteousness;
For while one was led down to hell by the burden of his blaspheming,
The other was lightened of his sins unto the knowledge of things divine.
O Christ God glory to You

(c.a. Luke 23:39-43)


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10 Responses to Why does the Orthodox Cross have three bars?

  1. Dionysios says:

    This is a good explanation. However, there is one mistake. The top bar did not say “THIS IS THE KING OF THE JEWS” but rather “JESUS OF NAZARETH, KING OF THE JEWS.” Otherwise, you did pretty well.

    • iconreader says:

      Thank you for the comment, Dionysius. In John’s Gospel the sign is described as you say, though in Luke’s Gospel it is described as “This is the King of the Jews”. I have modified the blog to put in the appropriate reference and mention the fuller inscription described in St. John’s Gospel.

      • Dionysios says:

        Perhaps I shouldn’t have called it mistake, it’s just that in all of the Orthodox representations of the True Cross that I have seen which have an element indicating what was written on the sign the inscription noted in St. John’s Gospel was preferred.

        Apologies for my earlier comment. I didn’t think it through and presented myself rather arrogantly, I feel.

  2. Noni says:

    Thank you so much for this explanation. I’m travelling through Russia at the moment, and have been fascinated by the Russian Orthodox Church, the architecture and its icons. I have asked a numerous Russian host about symbolism of the slanted footrest, and they haven’t been able to explain why. So thank you!

  3. Mary says:

    My Baba would concur with the first explanation. The bottom bar is slanted because one thief repented his sins and went with Jesus to heaven (up), the other thief showed no repentance so
    went to hell (down).

  4. Pingback: The meaning of the Eastern Orthodox Christian Cross | An Eastern Orthodox Christian Blog

  5. kthlnarof3 says:

    This was succinctly informative and well written! Thank you so much!

  6. Carrie says:

    What a great explanation. Thank you so much.

  7. Thank you, all.

    Thank you, JESUS!

  8. rebecca wright says:

    Thanks to all of you for this explanation. Although I’ve always used the simple, evangelical symbol, I lam impressed with the profundity of the meaning behind the orthodox icon.
    But most of all, your spirit of kindness and generosity toward one another shown throughout this thread has been a blessing to me. Thank you, all of you. Blessings. . .

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