The sideways cross, also known as the Saint Peter’s Cross, has been a symbol of Christianity for centuries. But what exactly does it represent and what is its significance? Here is an in-depth look at this unique Christian symbol.
The Origin of the Sideways Cross
The sideways or upside-down cross is believed to originate from the crucifixion of Saint Peter, one of the most prominent disciples of Jesus Christ. According to tradition, Peter was martyred in Rome during the persecution of Nero in the 1st century AD. He requested to be crucified upside down as he felt unworthy to die in the same manner as Jesus. Thus, the upside-down cross has come to be associated with Peter’s humble devotion to Christ.
There are varying accounts of the details surrounding Peter’s death. One account states he was afraid of having to imitate his Lord in being crucified head upwards though he avowed himself willing to undergo any suffering for Christ’s sake. So at his own request he was crucified with his head downward, as he did not consider himself worthy to die as his Master died. Another account says Peter fled Rome during Nero’s persecution but saw a vision of Jesus while leaving the city and turned back. Peter was then arrested and sentenced to death by crucifixion.
Whatever the exact details, the upside-down or sideways cross has come to symbolize Peter’s deep humility and his high veneration of Christ’s sacrificial death. This poignant symbol also represents Peter’s own sacrifice and devotion as one of Jesus’ closest followers.
Meaning and Significance
So what does the sideways or inverted cross mean for Christians today? Here are some of the key meanings and significance behind this symbol:
- Humility – As mentioned, the cross represents Peter’s feeling of unworthiness in relation to Jesus. It symbolizes putting others above oneself and leading with humility.
- Sacrifice – The inverted cross reminds us of the sacrifices Peter and many other disciples made to follow Jesus and spread His Gospel.
- Devotion – This cross is a testament to Peter’s total devotion to Christ even in the face of death.
- Faith – The symbol celebrates continuing faith and veneration of Christ long after His earthly ministry.
- Persecution – The sideways cross hints at the persecution faced by the early Christian church. Peter himself was martyred for his faith.
- Unworthiness – As Peter felt unworthy of being crucified in the same upright manner as Jesus, the inverted cross has come to represent feeling unworthy of Christ’s sacrifice.
So in short, the inverted or sideways cross is a venerated Christian symbol representing the sacrifice and humility of the apostle Peter and other martyrs of the faith. It points to their deep devotion and faith in Jesus Christ.
Use in Christianity Today
Today, the Saint Peter’s Cross remains a popular symbol in Christianity, particularly among Catholic churches that honor the sacrifice and devotion of Peter. Some specific uses and meanings in modern Christianity include:
- It remains a central symbol among popes, representing the authority of the papacy that Catholics believe descends from Peter as the first pope.
- The sideways cross can often be found in Catholic churches and cathedrals built in honor of Peter.
- It is associated with the feast day of Peter’s martyrdom on June 29th.
- The symbol may appear on priestly vestments and other Catholic clergy garb.
- It continues to generally represent humility, sacrifice, and vouched faith in Christianity more broadly, beyond just Catholicism.
- Some Christians wear the Saint Peter’s Cross in jewelry or hang it in their home or car as a personal symbol of their faith.
So while predominantly found in Catholicism, this unique cross retains spiritual meaning for many Christians today as a veneration of the apostle Peter’s devotion.
Confusion With the Cross of Nero
Over the years, there has been some confusion between the Saint Peter’s Cross and the Cross of Nero. The Cross of Nero is also an upside-down cross, but has quite a different origin and meaning.
According to legend, the martyrdom of Peter took place during Nero’s reign and persecution of Christians. But the Cross of Nero refers specifically to another symbol said to have been promoted by Nero himself. According to some medieval legends, Nero falsely blamed Christians for the Great Fire of Rome in 64 AD and had them killed using various cruel means, including by crucifixion.
It is said that Nero crucified some Christians upside down as a mockery of their faith and veneration of Christ’s crucifixion. The Cross of Nero, then, came to represent the antichrist or defiance of Christ. But there is debate among scholars about whether Nero himself actually promoted the inverted cross.
So the main difference lies in the intent behind the symbol. The Saint Peter’s Cross represents apostolic sacrifice and humility. The Cross of Nero theoretically represents mockery and the antichrist. But these two upside-down crosses are often mistaken for one another.
Use in Other Contexts
Outside of Christianity, the sideways cross has also been used in various other contexts, both religious and secular. For example:
- It has sometimes been co-opted by heavy metal and goth subcultures as a mockery of Christ’s sacrifice, evoking a similar antichrist meaning as the Cross of Nero.
- Some occult groups have used the inverted cross in rituals and symbolism, again representing concepts seen as antithetical to Christianity.
- The symbol has appeared in various films and television shows, both as a Christian symbol and more dark representation of the antichrist.
- Various pagan groups have adopted the sideways cross into their own symbology and practices.
So while this cross retains its core Christian meaning, its resemblance to the Cross of Nero has also led to many non-Christians appropriating it for radically different uses.
What Does the Bible Say?
The Bible itself does not directly reference an upside-down or sideways cross symbol. But Peter’s martyrdom appears in John 21:18-19, where Jesus prophecies the death Peter would endure:
“Truly, truly, I say to you, when you were young, you used to dress yourself and walk wherever you wanted, but when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and another will dress you and carry you where you do not want to go.” (This he said to show by what kind of death he was to glorify God.) And after saying this he said to him, “Follow me.” (John 21:18-19 ESV)
This passage predicts Peter being led to crucifixion, which came to pass under Nero’s persecution. The upside-down cross arose later as a legend relating to the manner of Peter’s death, not directly from Scripture itself. But the concepts of sacrifice, devotion and unworthiness that it represents are very biblical.
Other key passages that shed light on Peter and the cross symbol are:
- Matthew 16:13-19 – Peter’s confession of Jesus as Christ, establishing his importance.
- Matthew 26:33-35 – Peter boasting devotion to Christ but being told he will deny Jesus.
- John 18:15-27 – Peter denies knowing Jesus 3 times after His arrest, fulfilling the prophecy.
- John 21:15-19 – Jesus forgives and reaffirms His love for Peter after the denials.
So the life of Peter provides many biblical illustrations of the concepts of devotion, sacrifice, persecution and unworthiness intertwined with the Saint Peter’s Cross today.
Controversies and Debate
There are some controversies and debate surrounding the sideways cross that should be noted:
- As mentioned, its similarity to the Cross of Nero has led many to associate it with the antichrist or broader anti-Christian sentiments. This has made some Christians wary of its use.
- The lack of concrete biblical or historical evidence of Peter’s crucifixion has led some to claim it is merely legend or myth rather than fact.
- Some Protestant Christians reject the authority of Peter passed down through the papacy, and thus see less meaning in Peter’s cross.
- Its appropriation by secular culture and non-Christian religions has made some Christians view this cross with more skepticism.
- Debate continues around whether Nero himself actually used the upside-down cross to mock Christians in the 1st century AD.
So there are certainly some divisions in opinion around this symbol. But its core spiritual meaning and the concepts it represents remain significant for many Christians today.
The Saint Peter’s Cross or sideways/upside-down cross is an ancient and venerable symbol of Christian devotion. While its exact origins are uncertain, it has come to represent concepts like sacrifice, humility, persecution and living faith in Christ. This cross points specifically to the apostle Peter’s spiritual journey and steadfastness even in martyrdom. While controversial for some, it remains an important symbol, especially in Catholic tradition, of the realities of following Christ.