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An Altar Crucifix or Altar Cross is a cross placed upon an altar, and is the principal ornament of the altar[1] which is often attached to, or a central component of, the altar itself.



The first appearances of a crucifix-like structure upon the altar occurred approximately in the 6th century[2] and was almost always a cross rather than a true crucifix. This time period was also the era when candles started appearing upon altars instead of nearby, and as such marked a rather large evolution in the adornment of altars. Around the 14th century, altar crosses started falling out of style and soon crucifices replaced them, however, it was not until the Roman Missal of Pius V in 1570 that there is any mention of an obligation to have the crucifix on the altar.

It should be noted that early Christians were not accustomed to publicly expose the cross or crucifix due to fear of subjecting it to the insults of pagans or scandalizing the weak. To avoid this, they often used symbols like the anchor or trident. However, even in this time were crosses fixed to the top of the (architectural) ciboria which covered the altars.

Purpose and use


Catholic Churches

Altar with crucifix in the Armenian cathedral in Echmiatsin.

The crucifix placed upon the altar is intended to serve as a reminder to the people in attendance and the celebrant of the believed nature of the Eucharist as the actual body of Christ. It is for this reason that Roman Law decrees it necessary to have the crucifix upon the altar whenever Mass is celebrated. Specifically, it is placed directly in between the Candlesticks in such a way that it can is conveniently seen by the people. In some cases, to better fulfill this requirement, the crucifix is instead suspended above the altar as in this case, so that when the priest is facing the congregation the crucifix is not obstructed.

While the crucifix is demanded to be upon the altar at all times, during the period of time from the first Vespers of Passion Sunday to the unveiling of the cross on Good Friday it is expected to be covered with a violet veil, except for the High Mass on the altar, when the veil is white, and Good Friday, when the veil may be black. After Good Friday, until Holy Saturday it is necessary for all, including the Bishop, the Cannons of the Cathedral, and the Celebrant to genuflect to the Crucifix, which is in contrast to any other time of the year when the aforementioned are not required to Genuflect.

Protestant Churches

In many Protestant churches, such as the Lutheran and Methodist Churches, [3][4] also have Altar Crosses; usually a cross without the body of Jesus Christ.[5] These crosses are traditionally, but not always, brought in as processional crosses at the beginning of the religious service and placed at the altar in the sanctuary. [6] When approaching the altar, the acolyte is to bow at the cross to show respect toward the Lord. Only the acolytes, ordained ministers, and deacons are allowed to approach the altar.[7]

See also


  1. ^ Wikisource-logo.svg "Altar Crucifix". Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. 1913.  
  2. ^ J. H. Miller: "Crucifix; New Catholic Encyclopedia COM-DYS", page 485. Catholic University of America, 1967
  3. ^
  4. ^
  5. ^
  6. ^
  7. ^

This article incorporates text from the public-domain Catholic Encyclopedia of 1913.


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