What the Crescent on the Orthodox Christian Cross Means

The crescent is considered an Islamic symbol. So why does it also appear on some Russian Orthodox crosses?

Originally appeared at: Russia Beyond

Domes of the Cathedral of the Savior of the Holy Face (Verkhospassky Cathedral) of the Moscow Kremlin

Mikhail Dzhaparidze/TASS

The cross is one of the most important Christian symbols. Jesus, the Son of God, was crucified on the cross and his death was an atonement for all human sins. To the modern eye, the half-moon – which we have come to regard as an Islamic symbol – may seem out of place on the crosses that crown the domes of ancient Russian churches.

Crosses with crescents can be found in Moscow — for example, on the dome of the Church of Simeon Stylites on Povarskaya (1676); on the St. Sophia Cathedral in the Vologda Kremlin (1568); and the Holy Trinity Cathedral (1703) in Verkhoturye in the Urals.

Saint Sophia Cathedral in Vologda

Dmitry Kulakov (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Let's look at the different types of Orthodox Christian crosses and how the crescent ended up on them.

Types of Crosses in the Russian Orthodox Church

Traditionally, the Russian Orthodox cross is six-pointed or eight-pointed, consisting of a vertical bar and one or two horizontal bars on top. At the bottom is another, diagonal, bar representing the support for Christ's feet, and which symbolizes the scales that weigh human sins. You can read about the Russian cross in more detail here.

These many-pointed crosses were common in the 6th century in Constantinople (Byzantium), from which Russia adopted Christianity and its symbols. Under Tsar Ivan the IV, such crosses began to be used everywhere. He was the first Russian prince who proclaimed himself Tsar and it was important for him to emphasize the continuity of his power and its connection with the Roman Empire (Byzantium).

Until the 16th century various crosses could be encountered in Russia. For example, crosses inserted into a circle were used in Veliky Novgorod. They were similar to "Celtic" crosses and also originated in Byzantium. The circle symbolizes the halo of a saint or the crown of thorns. You can read about them in more detail here.

There were also crosses with a horizontal crescent in place of a diagonal bar at the bottom.

Is there a connection between the Crescent of Orthodox Christianity and Islam?

Domes of Christ the Savior Cathedral in Moscow

Vladimir Sergeyev/Sputnik

These days, the crescent is often associated with Islam, widely considered as one of that religion’s principal symbols.

The Christian crescent, however, has no connection with Islam. It was already in use in Christian Byzantium in the 6th century and was one of the symbols of Constantinople. According to one account, the Ottoman Empire appropriated the symbol after the capture of the city by the Turks.

What’s the significance of the Christian half-moon?

Saint Simeon Stylites Church on Povarskaya Street in Moscow

One theory is that the cross with a half-moon symbolizes an anchor. After all, it’s written in one of the Epistles of Paul that Christians view the Cross as a symbol of hope, and is like "an anchor sure and steadfast". The church itself is a ship that helps believers reach the Kingdom of Heaven.

Also, according to author B. Uspensky, "The cross is manifestly a symbol of Christ, while the moon in the Christian tradition symbolizes the Mother of God."

Crosses of the Main Cathedral of the Russian Armed Forces

Alexander Melnikov/Sputnik

This is confirmed by an image evoked in the Book of Revelation: "And there appeared a great wonder in heaven; a woman clothed with the sun, and the moon under her feet, and upon her head a crown of twelve stars." The moon can frequently be encountered in icons of the Mother of God.

Another use of the crescent in Orthodox Christianity

The crescent is also an important symbol of the birth of Christ since it mirrors the shape of the manger or cradle in Bethlehem in which the infant Jesus was placed after birth. This is why communion chalices and baptismal fonts, for instance, have a hemispherical form.

Moscow Kremlin Museums

The crescent also has another application in Orthodox Christianity. The halos of the saints as depicted in icons are semi-circular, and a feature known as a "tsata" can be encountered on the precious "oklads", with which icons are covered. The tsata is a particular adornment in the shape of a half-moon or double half-moon with an ornate edge, placed on the breast of icons of Christ, the Mother of God, the Holy Trinity and certain other highly venerated saints (John the Baptist or St. Nicholas, for instance). The illustration shows the halo, or "venets", of the oklad of an icon, above, with a pectoral tsata beneath it.

  • Shqip
  • العربية
  • English
  • Français
  • Deutsch
  • Bahasa Indonesia
  • Italiano
  • Português
  • Русский
  • Español