EVEN a non-observant observer might remark on the medley of symbols atop Bratislava’s churches and throughout the country, knowing the one established Roman Catholic sign from the Eternal City is basically the single Latin cross ‘immisa’. Why alternate it here in Slovakia with a double one? The fact requires an explanation rooted back into history and time.
After ‘the second Rome’, Constantinople, became the seat of Christian faith from 330, a two-bar cross began to appear as an emblem of the Byzantine emperor’s secular and ecclesiastic power – particularly on coins in the ninth century bearing such holy and political meaning. Its use was granted to clergy and missionaries, marking notably the archbishopric crosier – hence its armorial name of ‘patriarchal cross’.
In this connection, when Prince Rastislav of Great Moravia requested Michael III and patriarch Photius of Byzantium for some appointed clerics to evangelise his state (comprising parts of today’s Hungary and Slovakia), the Thessalonian brothers Cyril and Methodius conveyed to these new lands such eastern variant in 863 AD, also introducing it to Slav prince Kocel’s subjects in Pannonia – although these saints are shown with all sorts of crosses, adding to subsequent confusion.
Following Cyril’s death in Rome, where he lies in St. Clement’s basilica, Methodius was himself made Archbishop of Moravia by Pope Adrian II, extending to Bohemia the task for which they are both named ‘Apostles to the Slavs’, until he died in 885. Their feast is celebrated on July 5.
Some theories about the double-cross suggest it may recall the death and resurrection of Jesus, or his earthly and divine nature, or else the shorter beam might represent the heading ‘Jesus Nazarene King of the Jews’; possibly even all of this at once.
Thus a distinctive mark from the Eastern Empire first came to be on the Hungarian coat of arms, featuring now upon the Slovak flag as well as above Roman Catholic churches of these two nations and the Czech Republic.
But not on every church, however, for some that were aside from Magyar landocracy eventually retained the simpler type deprived of any further connotation. Slovakia was a province of the Hungarian crown from the 11th century.
This was the start of a differentiation between Rome, demanding Latin as the ecclesiastical language, and Constantinople, encouraging national idioms for the liturgy; a gap of which these crosses seem nowadays remindful.
Although symbolic of the mission that brought the Christian faith to Slavic peoples, the sign of this ‘crux gemina’ retained the political weight of its Byzantine origins when set within the blazon of the Hungarian kingdom ruling Slovakia’s religious matters from the Primacy in Esztergom, which moved to Trnava (‘the Slovak Rome’) during the Turkish invasion and stayed some 280 years until 1820. Maybe significantly, primatial crosses are seen on 18th-century buildings but hardly later as the neighbouring influence eventually drooped and the Latin ‘immisa’ seems to have succeeded. Curiously enough both also appear together on some places of worship in the Old Town.
But Bratislava holds yet another curiosity, that of regal insignia over belfries, relating to the sovereigns of this world.
Indeed St. Stephen’s royal crown rests on a tasselled cushion perched 85 metres high at the top of St. Martin’s Cathedral, where kings and queens – such as Maria Theresa – were invested while Ottomans crammed Buda, and long afterwards (1563 – 1830); whereas the ‘Blue Church’ tower of St. Elisabeth Regina raises a double-cross from her gold diadem, seen also in the mosaic above the entrance.
Monarchs were holy, once upon a time…