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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21 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.

      • Χρύσα Πολίτη says:

        Thank you for the thorough explanation, ”iconreader”, but on the top bar of the Cross in Greek- Byzantine Orthodox iconography is written ”The King of Glory” and not ”THIS IS THE KING OF THE JEWS” because the Jews wrote that sign ironically for the Lord to mock Him, so apparently we do not adopt that mockery and we restore it by writing that He is ”The King of Glory”.

  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. . .

  9. The Love of God is evident in Orthodox services as it weaves from Worship to Scripture to Prayer etc… and even though there is rarely any pause, it’s permeated with Silence.
    Before Thy Cross we bow in worship O Master,
    and Thy Holy Resurrection we glorify.

  10. John Doe says:

    When you fold the cross into a cube. The foot rest points to the corners. Why are there 3 crosses? If a cross can easily be folded into a cube (try it…make one out of paper)…why are crosses being used? hint: A cube has six sides.

  11. kat says:

    I have a ring with the orthodox cross hanging from it also attached to the same link is a tear or a egg. above the link is 2 circles wich r joined togeather plese explain what this mean I downt no where the ring came from or remember receiving it but iv had it for some years naw thank u

  12. Jerry Pihut in Crystal Lake, Ill. says:

    Another reason that is told – the bottom bar is turned up to the right because the thief/robber to Christ’s right repented.

  13. kimzef2015 says:

    I am a Catholic who is considering becoming Orthodox. How old or what (if known) is the origin of the story of the footrest being kicked out of place? Do you believe Jesus accidentally kicked it or someone else did? I have never heard of all of this!!

    Thank you for your answer!🙂

  14. mary says:

    For 67 years I have been attending a Ukrainian Catholic Church, all of our liturgies are in Old Slavonic Church Language. I understand from others that the Catholic and Non Catholic liturgies are exactly the same with the exception of our hierarchy. The first explanation and the second one are the explanations most often used to explain our crucifix. The most often used crucifix is the one with the 3 clover like ends on the horizontal and the perpendicular crosses. I can’t remember the year the other crucifix came about but it is not very old.

  15. Thomas says:

    There are some problems with this post. first, it assumes that the representation of the cross tries to emulate historical details, which was never the intention of iconography – it tried to convey a theological meaning instead, and this is why very often it disregards historical information in favour of a theological one. The first example of this is that although the Gospels agree that the inscription above the cross was INRI in four languages, for traditional iconography, before Russian innovations, the inscription was ‘The King of Glory’.

    More important, this type of Cross should not be known as THE Orthodox Cross, because it is not traditional or usual to many Orthodox, such as Greeks, Arabs, Serbians, Bulgarians, Romanians, Georgians, etc., but only among Russians and (if I am not mistaken) Ukrainians. Call it the Russian Cross if you must, but not THE Orthodox Cross. This form was developed by Russians as a national symbol, whereas in its oldest format, either there is no footstool, or it is turned, almost always, the other way round. The ancient symbolism of the footstool is not one of condemnation, but an upward movement (it is upward because we read from left to right), that implies the Resurrection. Russians turned this around in the 16th or 17th century, along with other changes to traditional symbolism.

  16. wolfkin says:

    You can’t have Heaven AND Hades. One is Christian the other is Greek.

  17. Adolph says:

    jesus is the reason

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