I have always loved the magnificent Lily Cross in St George’s churchyard, Beckenham as it’s such a bold and well carved one. It’s also one of the largest memorials with the churchyard and is dedicated to a prominent local family, the Goodharts. There is a poignant epitaph as well.
The Lily Cross is in the form of a Celtic Cross with the four arms of the Cross each ending in a lily flower.
Lilies have always had a special and long significance with death. In the 19th century their pungent, heady aroma was purportedly used to disguise the smell of the recently deceased’s body when it was the custom to have them rest at home prior to the funeral. But the lily has also been seen as a representation of the soul’s return to innocence after death.
This is because of the lily’s strong associations with purity and innocence and with its colour of pure white it’s especially linked with the Virgin Mary. Hence its other name the Madonna Lily. In Christian Art, the Archangel Gabriel and the Virgin Mary are often depicted as holding a lily.
But there are other variants on the Lily Cross and these are:
- The Flore Cross
- The Patonce Cross
- The Fleur de Lys Cross
These are more stylised versions of the Lily Cross. In the Flore or Fleury Cross the arms end in a representation of flower petals and usually a lily. They often have three points at the end of each arm which represent three petals which is the version that I have usually seen without realising it. A variation may be two points or horns or crowns but I haven’t seen this variation yet.
The Patonce Cross is any form of cross which has expanded end in which each arm ends in floriated points like the Flore or Fleury Crosses. In heraldry, the three petals represent faith, wisdom and chivalry and the four arms of the cross spread these to the four corners of the world. As a Christian Cross, the three petals represent the Trinity and the total of twelve petals symbolise the Apostles.
According to seiyaku.com, it’s claimed that the term Patonce is derived from the French word for the paw of an ounce or Snow Leopard. However it looks nothing like the paw print of a leopard but has been interpreted as the French being whimsical or romantic.
The Fleur-de-Lys Cross has similarities to both the Fleurie and Patonce Crosses in that it has liliform ends to the arms of the cross as they do. But these represent barbed fighting spears which are used in French heraldry. The entire cross is a very stylised lily that has heraldic associations especially in France where it was traditionally connected with royalty. When Pope Leo II crowned Charlemagne as Emperor he was reputed to have presented him with a blue banner emblazoned with a golden fleur de lys. However, after the French Revolution the fleur de lys was less obviously associated with royalty. Edward II is said to have used it in his coat of arms to emphasise his claim to the French throne. Iwww.senyaku.com it’s claimed that this cross has been adopted by modern sub cultures such as the Goth movement who know it as the Gothic cross and New Agers who call it the Lotus Cross.
But a brief word on the cross as symbol. It wasn’t always the primary emblem of Christianity and in fact, it wasn’t adopted until after the 2nd century. Prior to this it was the fish symbol, the ichthys, that was used by early Christians to identify fellow believers and often appears carved or written on their tombs.
In Christianity, the cross represents the Crucifixion and is a sign of Christ and faith.
But the cross also appears throughout many cultures and civilisations in several forms. The cross of Horus, or the ankh, was used by the ancient Egyptians and, as it was often held in the hand of a god or powerful person, it’s a symbol of power.
The swastika was another ancient form of the cross. But is now unfortunately associated with death and destruction due to its adoption by the Nazis. But originally it was seen as a sign of good fortune and came from the East as these two examples show:
However, even for Christians, there were uncomfortable connotations to the cross. For centuries, it had been used as a method of punishment, not only for early Christians, but also for wrongdoers such as criminals. However, its adoption as the central symbol of the Christian symbol is attributed to a dream of the Roman Emperor, Constantine, in AD 320. In this he decided to abandon the Roman pagan gods and pray to the Christian god. According to Douglas Keister:
‘During a midnight prayer Constantine gazed towards the heavens and saw a group of star that looked like a huge, glowing luminous cross. After he fell asleep, Constantine had a dream in which he saw Christ holding the same symbol and instructing Constantine to affix it to his standards. He defeated Maxentius. As a result he had the emblem applied to all of his standards and emblems’
When I began researching this post, even I had no idea of how many variants there were on the Lily Cross or, indeed, on crosses in general. It makes a stroll through a churchyard or cemetery even more intriguing now that I can spot the subtle differences between the various types. Although I have often seen lilies carved on headstones and memorials I have yet to see one as lovely as the St George’s Lily Cross.
©Text and photos Carole Tyrrell unless otherwise stated
References and further reading
Stories in Stone, Douglas Keister, Gibbs Smith, 2004