A cross is a cross is a cross, until one starts digging into its history. What originally was a symbol of a gruesome Roman death eventually became something so diverse in design that it spilled over into the secular realm. The earliest forms of crosses – tau, anchor, and Latin varieties – were soon joined by Greek and Orthodox versions. Variety, of course, is the spice of life, even in a symbol of death. Renaissance coats-of-arms were emblazoned with enough variations that heraldic words were employed to describe them. Terms like “fitchy” and “pattée” and “cercelée” were employed to define the different forms. Leave it to the French to have a different word for everything.
Horse chamfron engraved
with the Smalcaldic motto
One variation that you might notice more recently is a Greek version (of four equal “arms”) with the letters V,D,M, and A in each of the angles. This particular cross is distinctly Lutheran in origin. Martin Luther, however, probably had little, if anything, to do with its inception. Perhaps he had other fish to fry.
The VDMA cross first appeared in the court of Frederick III, Elector of Saxony – also known as Frederick the Wise – who had it emblazoned on the sleaves of his court officials and servants. Luther most certainly saw the cross, because Frederick the Wise was one of the Reformer’s staunchest allies.
The device became a sort of informal banner around which the Smalcaldic League rallied. A loose confederation of German princes with the common enemy of papal intervention, the group took its name from the town of Schmalkalden. Originally, the group’s emphasis was theologically-based, but later it became militaristic, and the league antagonized the Holy Roman Emperor and his plan to thwart Lutheranism.
Cross designed by the author.
Copyright © Ecclesiastical Sewing
The League’s cross became emblazoned on armor, weaponry and foot soldiers’ tunics. Eventually, the expanded version of those abbreviated letters went beyond swords of war and horses’ chamfrons and onto coins and architectural details – some of which are still visible today.
The VDMA cross still has staying power. Its military connection has faded into history, but the theological significance is perhaps greater than ever. In this 500th year of the Reformation, we can still claim the motto, “Verbum Domini Manet in Aeternum,” as our own. In a world in which the Church is still assaulted by powers of earth and hell, and in which lives of the Faithful are spent like so much grass, we yet join in proclaiming Peter’s inspired words, “The Word of the Lord Endures Forever.”