EDITOR'S NOTE: The following is an excerpt from The Mystery of the Cross: Bringing Ancient Christian Images to Life by Judith Couchman.

From the beginning, Christ's followers celebrated the cross as a symbol of their faith. It was honored in church worship, carved into rough tombstones, pressed onto loaves of bread and set out as a sign of sanctuary. The cross represented what Christians believed, who they hoped for and how they approached life. Here, author Judith Couchman explores early images of the cross, what they meant to the early church, and what they tell about the meaning of the Savior's sacrifice.

Coins for the Kingdom

Now have come the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God, and the authority of his Christ. —Revelation 12:10

Throughout human history, money has changed people and things. But people and things have also changed money, especially when a new Roman emperor ascended the throne. It's possible to trace the lineage of Roman emperors and their beliefs by sorting through the images and inscriptions on the empire's coins. Emperor egos couldn't resist expressing power and authority via monetary exchange, a system that almost everyone under their rule participated in. Even John Chrysostom, a fourth-century spiritual leader in favor of strict asceticism, observed, "The use of coins welds together our whole life, and is the basis of all our transactions. Whenever anything is to be bought or sold, we do it all through coins."

Constantine's ego was no exception, and he continued the imperial tradition of ubiquity by gracing coins with his image. The British Museum in London claims, "One important legacy of Constantine's authority is his coinage. The coins of Constantine and his sons are still some of the most common to be dug up in Britain today." Three coins displayed at this museum exemplify Constantine's influence on coinage, gradually replacing pagan images with Christian symbolism and in particular, the cross.

A silver coin from the beginning of Constantine's reign (c. ad 306-307) depicts the profile of a young man wearing the Roman laurel leaf. Created when Constantine still held the title of Caesar, the reverse side of the coin features the gate of a Roman military camp. The museum titles the coin's description "A Symbol of Security," emphasizing the empire's military might.

After Constantine became the sole Roman emperor, in the early fourth century he distributed a golden coin with his profile looking heavenward. Although some images of Alexander the Great (336-323 bc) exhibited this pose, the museum explains that Constantine's upward look suggests his dependence on God and titles its display "Divine Inspiration." In contrast, the back of the coin illustrates Constantine's brutality toward his enemies. Although ancient Romans wouldn't think of this two-sided coin as thematically inconsistent, today we'd criticize Constantine for his mixed messages.

Eventually the coins for the Roman empire featured small images of the Christogram, an image of the Chi-Rho cross he saw in the sky before his battle at Milvian Bridge in ad 312. A third coin at the British Museum, minted in the mid-fourth century, displays a Christogram on its reverse side. The museum displays this coin with the title "The First Symbol of Christian Faith." The museum explains, "The example illustrated shows the Christogram in its fullest form. . . . Though the western provinces of the Roman Empire were Latin-speaking, and the Greek letters would have been meaningless to most people, the symbolism would have been instantly recognized."

Roman Coins with the Cross