The Upside Down Cross: Satanic or Symbolic?

July 17, 2014 | 10 comments

Over the years I have had my fair share of encounters with anti-Catholics. Their arguments against the faith are pretty predictable - one of the most popular being that the Pope is the Antichrist. One of the typical “gotcha” proofs of this claim is the Papal symbol of the upside down or inverted cross, which the anti-Catholic confidently asserts as being satanic. Because of this, they reason, the Pope is himself in league with Satan.

The truth of the matter is that the upside down cross is an ancient symbol of St. Peter’s crucifixion. Tradition tells us that when St. Peter was martyred, he insisted that he be crucified upside down as he did not believe himself worth to be crucified in the manner of his Lord. 

We see an allusion to this in the Gospel of John, when our Lord speaks of the kind of death that Peter would suffer:

Truly, truly, I say to you, when you were young, you girded yourself and walked where you would; but when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and another will gird you and carry you where you do not wish to go.” (This he said to show by what death he was to glorify God.) And after this he said to him, “Follow me” (Jn 21:18-19).

“You will stretch out your hands.” In the ancient world — particularly in the Christian tradition — “to stretch out one’s hands” was a common reference to crucifixion. The words ‘Follow me’ bespeak imitation of Christ’s example of obedience ‘unto death, even death on a cross’ (Phil 2:8). The chief shepherd would follow the Good Shepherd even in the manner of his death.  By the time of the writing of John’s Gospel, Peter’s martyrdom had already occurred, the manner of which was arguably well attested to by his readers. 

We can trace back the testimony of Peter’s martyrdom to the earliest Christian writers, including Origen, Eusebius of Caesarea, St. Clement of Rome, St. Ignatius of Antioch, St. Irenaeus, and Tertullian.

In De Præscriptione 36 (c. A.D. 200), Tertullian writes: 

If thou art near Italy, thou hast Rome where authority is ever within reach. How fortunate is this Church for which the Apostles have poured out their whole teaching with their blood, where Peter has emulated the Passion of the Lord, where Paul was crowned with the death of John. 

In Scorpiace 15 (c. A.D. 204), he again writes of Peter’s crucifixion:

And if a heretic wishes his confidence to rest upon a public record, the archives of the empire will speak, as would the stones of Jerusalem. We read the lives of the Cæsars: At Rome Nero was the first who stained with blood the rising faith. Then is Peter girt by another, when he is made fast to the cross. Then does Paul obtain a birth suited to Roman citizenship, when in Rome he springs to life again ennobled by martyrdom. 

In his Ecclesiastical History  (c. A.D. 325), Eusebius of Caesarea writes:

Peter appears to have preached in Pontus, Galatia, Bithynia, Cappadocia, and Asia to the Jews of the dispersion. And at last, having come to Rome, he was crucified head-downwards; for he had requested that he might suffer in this way…. These facts are related by Origen in the third volume of his Commentary on Genesis (III.1). 

Thus publicly announcing himself as the first among God’s chief enemies, [Nero] was led on to the slaughter of the apostles. It is, therefore, recorded that Paul was beheaded in Rome itself, and that Peter likewise was crucified under Nero. This account of Peter and Paul is substantiated by the fact that their names are preserved in the cemeteries of that place even to the present day (II.25.5).

As a result of the manner in which he was crucified, the Church has used the upside down cross (without a corpus, so not a crucifix) to designate Peter, not Christ. The Pope, being the successor of Peter, employs the symbol of the upside down cross as a symbolic reminder of St. Peter's humility and heroic martyrdom. Unlike an upside down crucifix, which seeks to invert and subvert it’s meaning, there is nothing satanic about an upside down cross.

Painting: Crucifixion of St. Peter by Ventura di Arcangelo Salimbeni


Hector Molina is a dynamic lay Catholic speaker and apologist with over 20 years of experience in professional pastoral ministry and leadership in the Church. It was during his early years as a Youth Minister that Hector discerned his call to lay ecclesial ministry. He pursued his theological studies at...

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Comments by Catholic.com Members

#1  John Esmero - Malinao, Aklan

Now I know.. thank you so much for that explanation I'll share it with all my friends.

July 17, 2014 at 5:09 am PST
#2  A L - Montreal, Quebec

Unfortunately though, we have to admit that many people know (even if erroneously), that the meaning of an upside cross is Satanic, I know that for the longest time I thought so too, and unfortunately many people do not go beyond what they think they already know. An example would be the rainbow flag. The rainbow has been given to us as a sign of God's friendship (through Noah's story). Today we associate it with homosexuality, so the significance of that sign has been changed if not downright "perverted" if you want...

July 17, 2014 at 7:28 am PST
#3  Hunter Moon - Chandler, Arizona

Tell this to the Anti Catholics on Instagram. That's one of the biggest things they try to attack us Catholics on Instagram with along with the usual stuff like statue worship, call no man father etc.

July 17, 2014 at 3:04 pm PST
#4  Matthew McTaggert - Burnaby, British Columbia

Very educational to know this. Now that I understand though, is there any other representation besides the photograph here that depicts the crucifixion of St. Peter?

July 17, 2014 at 10:17 pm PST
#5  Hector Molina - El Cajon, California - Catholic Answers Blogger

Matthew, There are many artistic representations of the martyrdom of St. Peter - one of the most famous being Caravaggio's: Crocifissione di San Pietro. Just type "crucifixion of St. Peter" into a google image search to bring up some examples. Hope that helps. - Hector

July 18, 2014 at 1:16 pm PST
#6  Will Johnson - Grand Rapids, Michigan

Mr. Molina,
Nice post. I already knew of Peter's inverted crucifixion, and I was actually more surprised to learn it was a tool of attack on Catholics. I'm a protestant and have heard the stereotypes about Catholics, though I hadn't heard that one.

However, I do think aurelia lipardi has a point. I don't know how familiar you are with "Black Metal", or just Metal in general, but that particular sub-genre of the music is very much about Satanic/Pagan themes (which are really just secular themes fundamentally). The inverted cross is used ubiquitously by the musicians of the sub-genre. And it's use by them has essentially made it known as a Satanic symbol. So it isn't unlike the rainbow, as aurelia lipardi said, becoming a symbol of homosexuality. The inverted Cross, to me, is a Satanic symbol, depending on the context. For Black Metal musicians, it is Satanic, and for Catholics and educated Protestants, it is a symbol of faith and passion.

July 18, 2014 at 8:11 pm PST
#7  Chad Scott - Dallas, Texas

Will,

I am all too familiar with black metal. It's true: Black metal bands use the inverted cross in all of their imagery. So many of these bands use the inverted cross in their logo as well (ex: Mayhem).

Due to my extensive background in this genre of metal, I still find myself cringing when I see the inverted cross used to represent St. Peter's martyrdom.

July 21, 2014 at 7:31 am PST
#8  David Biddulph - Fredericksburg, Virginia

"Due to my extensive background in this genre of metal, I still find myself cringing when I see the inverted cross used to represent St. Peter's martyrdom."

We need to stop letting others tell us what OUR symbols mean. If some anti-christian/anti-catholic group starts using the chalice to represent something evil - do we give up our chalice?

July 22, 2014 at 6:49 am PST
#9  A L - Montreal, Quebec

I do not think that we need to give up anything, the Chalice is the Chalice, Christ is Christ and the Cross is the Cross inverted or not.

July 22, 2014 at 7:12 am PST
#10  A L - Montreal, Quebec

if we have to go from its origin, the Cross prior to Christ was a symbol and an instrument of torture and denigration. Romans would not condemn roman citizens to death on the cross but only people of different birth, that is why death by the cross was a motive of scandal especially when it was applied to Christ. God decided to change the meaning of that particular instrument to become a mean and a symbol of salvation and eternal life. the only thing that we can do as Christians is to apply the meaning God has intended for it and not whatever meaning the rest of the world applied or still applies to the Cross today.

July 22, 2014 at 7:36 am PST

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