The Origins of Summit Crosses

Summit Cross

The tradition of erecting crosses at mountain summits or passes dates back to at least the 4th century. The earliest known cross on a higher mountain peak in a Christian context was on the island of Cyprus. Helena, the mother of Roman Emperor Constantine, found the cross in Jerusalem in 327 AD, and brought it to Cyprus, where it was allegedly placed on the top of Mount Olympos. The Council of Ephesus in 431 established the cross as the official Christian symbol.

Sometime before 1100, crusaders set up wooden and iron crosses along their routes to the Holy Land to help mark designated roads. Around the same time in Europe, a cross stood on the Cisa pass in the Pyrenees Mountains, in front of which St. Jacob pilgrims kneeled.

Gardena Pass Birnlücke Cross on the border of Austria and Italy
photo credit: Salzburger Nachrichten

Some locations with crosses dating prior to the 13th century include the Arlberg massif in Austria, the Gardena Pass in Italy, and Birnlücke in a mountain pass on the border of Austria and Italy. These mostly served as trail markers for travelers to stop and pray for continued safety on their journey.

Large Summit Crosses

One of the earliest stories of large crosses being set on mountain peaks begins in 1489, when King Charles VIII of France first saw Mont Aiguille while on a pilgrimage to Notre Dame d'Embrun. He was struck by the inaccessible beauty of the mountain and the local legends surrounding it, including that of angels circling the peak. Charles VIII commanded his chamberlain and military engineer, Antoine de Ville, to ascend the mountain. De Ville took ten other climbers with him, including a stonemason, master carpenter, and priests. Using ropes and siege ladders, the group reached the summit on June 26, 1492.

Mont Aiguille Mont Aiguille, France

They remained on the summit for six days, discovering no divinities but only a charming meadow covered with flowers and “une belle gareyne de chamoys.” The group held mass, and set up three large crosses at each angle of the summit plateau.

One of the party wrote an imaginative account of wonders they had seen, including not only the chamois (goat-antelope), but strange birds and plants, as well as human footprints. Many witnesses stood in the fields below and confirmed the conquest which was a remarkable achievement in its time. It must have been with satisfaction that Charles VIII again sighted the mountain, passing its base in 1494 on his way to Italy. The summit was not reached again until 1834. Today it is recognized as the birthplace of rock climbing in France.

The Romantic Era

Morning In The Riesengebirge Morning In The Riesengebirge by Caspar David Friedrich (1810)

By the 16th century, crosses were being erected on mountain peaks for the purpose of marking alpine pasture or municipal boundaries. These were mostly of a simple construction from nearby small trees with a house crucifix attached. By the 17th century, crosses erected on mountain peaks were intended to supersede old pagan traditions associated with lightning or hail. By the time the Romanic Era began in the 18th century, Christian imagery was widely used across all artforms. The image of a cross on hills or mountain tops was a popular motif with Romantic artists such as Caspar David Friedrich. Two of his most famous works with such imagery are The Cross in the Mountains (1806) and Morning In The Riesengebirge (1810). This furthur inspired people to form expiditions to erect new crosses all over Europe.

Grossglockner Cross Rescue Grossglockner Cross Rescue 2010, Austria
photo credit: www.bergrettung.at

In Austria on August 25th of 1799, four climbers and two carpenters reached the Kleinglockner summit for the first time and erected a large permanent cross. In 1880, the Austrian Alpine Club, then less than 20 years since its formation, requested permission from Imperial authorities to scale the highest peak in Austria and install a simple cross. Their request was granted and on July 28th of 1800, the Alpine Club made the first ascent of Grossglockner and installed a cross with the inscription: "solemn commemoration by the grateful Austrian people of the familial celebration on 24 April 1879 of the twenty-fifth wedding anniversary of their majesties, Emperor Franz Josef I and Empress Elisabeth." Made of iron, weighing a third of a ton, and anchored to the rock with heavy chains, the cross endured until 2010, when it nearly fell from the peak. Austrian mountain guides rescued the Grossglockner cross and reattached it to its supports.

Grossglockner Hochalpenstrasse Grossglockner Hochalpenstrasse

Mountaineering expeditions and surveying work of this kind were both increasing during the 19th century. Usually simple wooden crosses were constructed during the course of this work, but large summit crosses designed specifically for mountain tops began to appear much more frequently towards the end of the century. Expeditions were specifically planned for cross construction.

Attempts were made to erect secular symbols on mountain peaks such as obelisks or flags, instead of crosses. The Emperor Obelisk was constructed on the Ortler in the Eastern Alps of Italy in 1888. Such motivations could not match the drive to erect religious symbols on mountain peaks. One of the most famous summit installations has been firmly anchored on the Matterhorn in Switzerland since September 24, 1902, when the mountain guide and priest Auguste Carrel erected a cross and celebrated Mass on the narrow summit ridge.

War Memorials

Butte de Warlencourt Butte de Warlencourt, France, August 1918
photo credit: Express

During World War I, the Butte de Warlencourt was a scene of intense fighting during the battle of the Somme. Despite it being only 60 feet above the surrounding area it was adorned with a cross in 1917 with the inscription: "this pagan memorial was Christianized by bombardment and large numbers of dead."

After the end of both the First and Second World War, communities organized to erect new crosses in honor of those lost to the conflicts. Veterans were often involved in the expensive and challenging installations. Universities have constructed mountain crosses as well, mostly to honor those lost in war.

Modern Crosses

It was during the 20th century that more permanent materials and technology were employed to construct summit crosses. In 1977 on Carrauntoohil, the highest summit in Ireland, a cross was constructed that featured a windmill that powered lights. This was a replacement for a wooden cross originally erected in the 1950's. In 2014 the metal cross was cut down. Within one week locals had organized and repaired the 16ft cross to its original condition.

Hochkalter Summit Cross Hochkalter Summit Cross in Berchtesgaden, Germany
photo credit: Berg Welten

The construction of summit crosses is still booming to this day. Alpine Clubs worldwide continue to construct and repair mountain crosses, a 150 year old tradition for the Club and a powerful symbol now almost 2000 years old. Other groups have formed specifically to aid in this tradition, such as Croix aux Sommets Foundation in Switzerland, and many other small local groups. It is a tradition that has been established and sustained by countless ordinary people.

Weißspitz Summit Cross Weißspitz Summit Cross
photo credit: Summit Post
Jenner Mountain, Berchtesgaden, Germany

Originally published

Sources:
  
  
  "The history of the summit cross", in: "Alpine Club", Journal of the OeAV 2/2000 by
  Crucifix, Calvary, and Cross: Materiality and Spirituality in Great War Landscapes by
  
  



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