The Southern Way of the Cross

There are myriad forms of—and uses for—the cross
throughout history and across cultures


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Humans have always used symbols as instruments of knowledge and as means of expression. Lower animals have signs; humans have symbols, which ultimately transcend them. Symbols span the ages and are international as well, contributing to humankind's self knowledge.

One of our most persistent and ancient symbols is that of the Cross, which is both the quintessential cosmic symbol and the symbol of universal, archetypal man. Its vertical line is considered male and spiritual; its horizontal line, female and earthly. It is the solstitial axis (North-South) and the equinoctial axis (East-West). It is the symbol of duality and the union of opposites.

One of the earliest forms is the Tau Cross, basically a "T" shape. It was used by the Vikings and the Druids; in Christian times it has been associated with both St Anthony and St Francis. The caduceus, a Tau Cross with winged staff and two intertwined snakes, is the symbol of modern medicine. The Tau Cross is associated with Abraham, and is believed by some to have been used by the Jews in Egypt to mark their doors at the original Passover. The Tau with a circle (symbol of the universe) is called an Ankh.

The two basic cross shapes are the Greek, with arms of equal length, and the Roman, with the bottom of the vertical line elongated; the Tau cross is the Roman type. Variations of the Greek and Roman crosses (including the Tau) can be found throughout Latin America.

The Indians of the Americas used the Greek-style cross to represent the sun, the morning star and the four directions. It was their principal cosmological symbol, and it remains so today. Many of the Indian crosses contain combinations of old and new symbols, such as the sacred squash blossom motif, the dragonfly, and the swastika. Among the Maya, the cross is a symbol of Quetzalcoatl, in whose arms were birds and plants representing the four seasons, thus associating the cross with the Tree of Life.

Strongly linked to the ancient Tree of Life is the crucified Christ on a cross. To quote Joseph Campbell, ". . . Christ restored to man immortality. His cross . . . was equated with the tree of immortal life, and the fruit of that tree was the crucified Savior himself."

The Cross as Art

Many Latin American folk artists' crosses depict the devotional representation known as the Arma Christi - the Arms of Christ or Instruments of the Passion (the ladder, dice, nails, robe, etc). A Franciscan devotion depicting the crucified Christ accompanied by the instruments of the Passion is also represented in House Blessings, Road Crosses and others.

Road Crosses (Cruces del Camino)

Wayside crosses, where the wayfarer could stop to rest or to pray, are common both in Europe and in the New World. They are used as guideposts and as sites for religious ceremonies in the Andean world. They are related to weathervanes, and there is speculation that the Pre-Christian peoples used them to determine wind direction. Sometimes road crosses mark the spot of a wayfarer's accidental death, such as the descansos in northern New Mexico.

Jungle Crosses

The mola is a traditional reverse appliqué craft of the Kuna Indian women of the San Blas Islands, Panama; the cross is prominently depicted in mola design. Visually, it shares the basic characteristics of Kuna verbal art and thought: repetition, parallelism and symmetry. There are wide differences of opinion among the Kuna women about the symbology. Shipibo and Canela Quichua groups of the Amazon employ the ancient cross symbol in their bark-dyed and painted hand-stitched skirts and in their pottery. The Jungle Cross is most prominent and conspicuous in the crafts of these two groups, sharing with the Kuna crosses the visual characteristics of repetition, parallelism, and symmetry.

Cross Milagros and Milagro Crosses

The cross has been employed throughout the ages to seek protection: we still cross our fingers as a prevention and a hope; "cross-your-heart" verifies the truth of an utterance; burying a metal cross with the dead is an ancient and persistent custom, as is marking a grave with a cross. In Mexican culture, the metal milagro in its many forms (body parts, undedicated human figures, etc) is used to make requests of, or give thanks to, Christ or a saint, and modern adaptations of the milagro-encrusted cross have become popular decorative art. In Peru, the curandero crosses contain magical amulets, herbs, seeds, colored water, and plants, to seek or assure physical and psychological health.

The Cross in Traditional Peruvian Retablo Style

The Peruvian Retablero sculpts or molds religious figures created from his own recipe of a potato-based paste, which probably includes ground huamanga stone and peach juice. He uses an identical technique to make crosses depicting the Passion.

House Blessing(Cruces de Casa)

Throughout Latin America, the protection of home, family, and animals is sought by means of roof crosses, which are installed on the ridgepole at a roof-raising. Among the Zinacantan of Chiapas, Mexico, the crosses of various materials are adorned or replaced periodically, an event which is part of a larger religious celebration. Metal house blessings from Azuay Province, Ecuador, include a wide variety of designs, including Passion symbols, birds, angels, and bullfighters. Most are hand-forged, employing techniques introduced by the Spaniards in the 1500s. In San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas, the blacksmiths produce iron crosses that seem to be most commonly used as decorative house blessings. Most of these contain syncretic combinations of Indian and Christian symbols.

Crosses for House Altars

In Latin America, house altar pieces have been made by folk artists emulating academic works and utilizing commonly available materials. For several centuries many have employed tin, which is painted or worked sculpturally. With industrialization of printmaking in the 19th century, prescribed Christian iconography was made readily available to the folk artist. He was essentially a copyist who could bring individual creativity and innovation to his work since it was domestic and out of the reach of ecclesiastical control. Therein lies much of its charm and uniqueness.

New Mexico Decorative Crosses

In New Mexico, the cross figures importantly in a rich variety of religious folk art. Tinwork, which originated during the Moorish occupation of Spain and was brought to our region by Franciscans, has been a principal medium for decorative crosses and house altar crosses. The tin cross, of many styles, is currently very popular in New Mexico. Crosses made of distressed wood, emulating or interpreting old designs, are also being made by local artisans. Another Hispanic New Mexican folk art which dates back to the Moors, and which is currently being executed with great virtuosity, is straw inlay. A design is cut into the wood, and wheat, corn or oak stalks are laid into it. Straw overlay, in which the design is glued on top of the surface, is more popular today. Some artists still use the traditional pine pitch adhesive and varnish, but many have turned to modern glue and store-bought paint. Nonetheless, the tradition remains, uniting the new Hispanic artisan with his forebears.

The Cross in Folk Jewelry

Jewelry crosses were not worn in the Americas until the Conquest. Since then, jewelry crosses of fantastic variety have adorned many "Americans," be they South, Central, or North Americans. Among the most interesting is the Yalalag Cross of San Juan Yalalag, Sierra de Juarez, Oaxaca, Mexico. Its basic design, which predates the Conquest, consists of a central cross from which hang three lesser crosses. The decorative elements in the design can be Indian in origin (usually geometric) or Christian (wings, hearts, flowers). A neighboring town, Choapan, uses a cross depicting Christ's head and a pictograph of the Passion (Arma Christi), a Franciscan representation. A cross with two arms in the upper half is called a Patriarchal Cross. This design, combined with two angels, the Caravaca Cross, is found not only in Spain but also in many parts of Mexico and South America. The Maya traditionally used an equilateral cross (the Greek form), representing the four directions or cardinal points. This cross is associated with astronomical / religious orientation and with the Tree of Life. Despite this strong visual tradition, the jewelry cross of Guatemala is usually of the Roman type.

The crucified Jesus has long been interpreted according to local custom and racial origin. His is shown in many diverse styles, the principal idea always being to show "God as Man." The missionaries were adaptable in their interpretations of Christ, following in general the color, style, or manner of those being proselytized. Thus, in contrast with the more austere European Christ, the Latin American Cristo is of a more relaxed, naive and sensual form, as seen in Peruvian and Bolivian jewelry crucifixes.

So the Cross symbol, like all symbols, is "a key to a realm greater than itself and greater than the man who employs it," to quote symbolist JC Cooper. It is a simpler, lower expression of a higher truth. Throughout all of the Americas, the cross remains, in all its forms and interpretations—be they native cosmological or European-derived Christian—a potent symbol and force.

Written by Patricia LaFarge to accompany an exhibition at El Rancho de las Golondrinas remote a living-history museum in La Cienega, NM, south of Santa Fe.

Patricia LaFarge is the owner of que tenga BUENA MANO pic a private gallery of Latin American folk art, Santa Fe, NM 505-982-2912

Originally appeared in
The Collector’s Guide to Santa Fe, Taos and Albuquerque - Volume 13

Related Pages

The History of an Ancient Human Symbol article
The Pomegranate in New Spain article
A Tradition of Making Straw into Gold article

Relicarios: Devotional Miniatures article
Three Hispanic New Mexico Metal Traditions article
Straw Art in New Mexico article

Collector’s Resources

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Museum of International Folk Art | 505-476-1145


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