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descent from tau cross

This is a modern Andorre stamp showing the descent from a Tau cross, taken from a 16th century fresco at Maison des Vallees.

The Tau cross has never been as common as either the Greek or Latin forms. Today, it is occasionally found as part of the logo for the Franciscans.

The Tau (crux commissa) was one of forms used by the Romans for crucifixion. Others include trees, single poles (crux simplex), an X (crux decussata), and a structure like a football post that allowed the body to be hung by one hand and one foot.

One of the last reported outbreaks of St. Anthony's Fire occurred in August 1951 in the French village of Pont-Saint-Esprit. About 200 people became mad, ran into the streets as if on fire or stayed writhing in agony in bed. They were treated with antibiotics. A less dramatic outbreak may have prompted the Salem witch trials.

The Tau Part 2
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Tau: The Anticipatory Cross

St. Anthony and the Antonines

In 1095 an order of Hospitalers of St. Antonite (Antonines) was founded by a French nobleman, Gaston, and his son in order to help sufferers of St. Anthony’s fire (ignis sacer), caused by eating rye flour contaminated with a mold. The sufferers experienced hallucinations, an incredible burning sensation in the limbs, and ultimately gangrene. Gaston’s son, Guerin, had been cured of this disease. He had a vision of "Anthony instructing him to plant a Tau, which quickly bears fruit and develops healing powers" and selected the tau as the symbol of the order. (5)

St. Anthony leans on a crutch

St. Anthony Abbott (251-356), an Egyptian monk, is one of the founders of Christian monasticism. According to legend, he used a crutch that resembled a tau cross in his older years, which became a reference to his longevity. When he visited another monk and the crutch was placed outside of the cave, this meant that he was in communion with God and not to be disturbed.(6)

The Antonines placed a blue tau cross on a black habit. A bell came to be associated with the order, due to the practice of placing a bell on their pigs. According to one explanation, the order was allowed to let their pigs run free and had a bell placed on them for identification. (7) Pig fat may have been used to reduce the inflammation of skin diseases. (8) A secondary explanation for the pig is that this animal represented the lustful thoughts and temptations that St. Anthony often had to fight. (9)

Since St. Anthony’s fire inhibited circulation to the extremities and resulted in gangrene, the order became skilled in amputation. Paintings and prints from the middle ages show St. Anthony and numerous limbs hanging nearby. (10)

In 1441, an Antonine confraternity was founded in England. They wore an amulet shaped as a tau cross with a bell underneath, which is seen in portraits around this period. Recently, several tau crosses have been found in England that are beautifully crafted with a crucifix and a hollow place for a relic. (11) A tau cross with a bell made of lead was also sold as a pilgrim’s souvenir.

In 1777 the order joined with the Knights of Malta, which was later suppressed in 1798 during the French Revolution.

St. Francis

The tau cross is an important symbol to St. Francis and the Franciscans. In Rome, he stayed at the Antonine order where he may have first encountered the sign. Omer Englebert writes that the other influence was Pope Innocent III, who said the tau mark was the sign of his reform of the church. (12) The Pope explained that the tau was both the mark in Ezekiel and the true form of the cross on which Christ was crucified.

Franciscan logo from Carmel Mission, CaliforniaSt. Francis wrote a T-shaped cross as his signature and painted the mark on the walls and doors where he stayed. (13) The Franciscan insignia shows two hands crossing in front of a tau cross. A Latin cross is commonly found in missions in the Americas. The picture here is from a carving at Mission San Carlos Borrormeo in Carmel, California. One hand is the crucified hand of Christ, the other is the stigmata hand of St. Francis. The motto that is generally found underneath is Deus meus et omnia, "My God and My All."

The pre-Reformation sect the Waldenses (the movement began 1170) also believed that Christ died on a T-shaped cross. (14) In Western art, one of the ways to differentiate the thieves from Christ was to not only show them incredibly contorted but to place them on a tau cross. After 1300, Christ is also shown on a tau cross.(15)

In Corofin, Ireland, a tau cross carved out of limestone was used as a boundary mark. The cross has two faces on the top of the arms looking up into the sky, similar to the design sometimes found on the head of ivory crosiers. Similar landmark crosses are also reported in Roquepertuse in south-east France.

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  1. Andree Hayum, The Isenheim Altarpiece, (Princeton University Press, Princeton, 1989) 38. Timothy B. Husband, "The Winteringham Tau Cross and Ignis Sacer" Metropolitan Museum Journal, Vol 27, 1992, p. 23. The relics of St. Anthony had been translated from Constantinople to Saint-Didier-La-Mothe in the south of France around 1070, where Gaston was a lord. The Isenheim Altarpiece explores the meanings of the images on the famous altar created by Grunewald (Mathis Gothart Nithart). The altar panels were constructed in such a way as to provide visual comfort for the sick and dying. [Return]
  2. "Saint Anthony the Great", (perso.libertysurf/fr/antonins-france/anthony.htm), viewed July 23 2003. He was later associated with the bell and pigs. [Return]
  3. Husband, 19. [Return]
  4. JCF Metford, Dictionary of Christian Lore and Legend, (London, 1983) p. 30, writes that he experieinced the great temptations including visions of beautiful women and of attacks by wild beasts. This is often how he is depicted. "It is suggested that the pig which accompanies him in art symbolizes his lustful thoughts and that the bell shown near him is there to frighten the devil." [Return]
  5. Anthony the Abbott ( sainta06.htm). Husband, 31, says besides various herbs and possibly some hydrotherapy they used "two topical concoctions, a balsam and a wine vinegar known as Saint Vinage." [Return]
  6. Husband, the limbs were perhaps saved for the Last Judgement. The cause of the disease was determined in 1676. The medical explanation is that when the rye flour with the mold is baked, a form of LSD is created. Penicillin cures the disease. [Return]
  7. Husband, 19-20. The Winteringham cross now in the Metropolitan Museum was one recently uncovered and is made of a gold alloy. It has an engraved picture of a form of the Throne of Grace representing the Trinity. God the Father is at top, a dove representing the Holy Spirit comes down from the right hand, and Christ is shown on the cross. On the obverse, Mary stands holding the Christ child. [Return]
  8. Omer Englebert, St. Francis of Assisi: A Biography, trans. Eve Marie Cooper (Ann Arbor, Michigan, 1979) 140-141. In 1215 at the the Fourth Lateran Council, the pope said, "only those will be marked with this sign and will obtain mercy, who mortified their flesh and conformed their life to that of the crucified saviour." Pope Innocent III is considered one of the great popes. While supporting movements such as St. Francis, one of his crusades led to the massacre of the Cathars in 1209 (Albignesian heresy) and another to the sack of Constantinople. Hans Kung, The Catholic Church: A Short History (New York, 2003) trans. John Bowden, p. 100, believes this pope could have avoided the later split of the papacy and the reformation. He was found dead, naked, and robbed in the cathedral in Perugia on June 16, 1216. [Return]
  9. Englebert, 12. He dictated letters to Brother Leo and then signed his signature with the T. The original is in the Basilica of St. Francis. His blessing to Brother Leo is: "The Lord bless thee and keep thee, May he show thee his face and be merciful to thee; May he turn his face to thee and give thee peace,The Lord bless thee, Brother Leo." [Return]
  10. Gertrud Schiller, Iconography of Christian Art, Vol. 2, trans. Janet Seligman, (Greenwich, Connecticutt, 1972), p. 146. The sect was a reaction to the same practices of the Catholic Church that the later reformation leaders attacked. A few survived persecution. Some settled in Valdese, North Carolina, as well as a few other states. The largest groups however are in Italy and Uruguay. [Return]
  11. Schiller, 146.[Return]

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