A cross potent (plural: crosses potent), also known as a crutch cross, is a form of heraldic cross with crossbars at the four ends. In French, it is known as croix potencée, in German as a Kruckenkreuz, all translating to "crutch cross", but more familiarly called a swastika.
Potent is an old word for a crutch, from a late Middle English alteration of Old French potence "crutch"[a] The term potent is also used in heraldic terminology to describe a 'T' shaped alteration of vair, and potenté is a line of partition contorted into a series of 'T' shapes.
In heraldic literature of the 19th century, the cross potent is also known as the "Jerusalem cross" due to its occurrence in the attributed coat of arms of the Kingdom of Jerusalem. This convention is reflected in Unicode, where the character ☩ (U+2629) is named CROSS OF JERUSALEM. The name Jerusalem cross is more commonly given to the more complex symbol consisting of a large Greek cross or cross potent surrounded by four smaller Greek crosses.
The "cross potent" shape is found in pottery decorations in both the European and the Chinese Neolithic. In Chinese bronze inscriptions, the glyph ancestral to the modern Chinese character 巫 "shaman, witch" has the shape of a cross potent, interpreted as representing a cross-like "divining rod" or similar device used in shamanistic practice.[b]
The cross potent as a Christian cross variant is used on Byzantine coins of the 7th century, under the Heraclian dynasty, mostly as a "Calvary cross potent", i.e. a cross potent standing on a number of steps. A Tremissis of Heraclius, dated c. 610–613, also shows the cross potent without the steps. A cross potent, or cross patty, is already shown on a Tremissis of Theodosius II (first half of the 5th century).
Early heraldic crosses are drawn to the edges of the shield, as ordinaries, but variations in the termination of the cross limbs become current by the later 13th century. The heraldic cross potent is found in armorials of the late 13th century, notably in the coat of arms of the Kingdom of Jerusalem, argent, a cross potent between four plain crosslets or (Camden Roll, c. 1280). Use of the cross potent remains rare in heraldry outside of the Jerusalem cross. In medieval heraldry, as in medieval seals, the distinction between the cross potent and the cross patty may be unclear. For example, the cross patty of the Teutonic Order is drawn as a cross patent for Tannhäuser in Codex Manesse (c. 1310).
Use of the Jerusalem cross is associated with the title of King of Jerusalem which passed from the kings of Cyprus to a number of royal houses of Europe in the late medieval period, notably the kings of Naples and the House of Savoy, via Louis II of Naples to the House of Lorraine, via conquest of Naples to the House of Aragon, and via Francis I to the Habsburg Emperors of Austria. A simple cross potent is used as the arms of northern Calabria (Calabria Citra) as a province of the Kingdom of Naples in the early modern period (Ferdinand, Duke of Calabria).
Use of the cross potent in heraldry is revived in the 19th to early 20th century, and then as an emblem for Roman Catholicism directly based on the Jerusalem cross.
Upon the passage of the 1924 Schilling Act the cross potent was used as a national symbol of the Austrian First Republic, minted on the back of the Groschen coins. In 1934 it became the emblem of the Austrofascist Federal State of Austria, adopted from the ruling Fatherland's Front, the Catholic traditionalist organisation led by Chancellor Engelbert Dollfuss. A reference to the Jerusalem Cross, it served as a counter-symbol for both the swastika and the Hammer and Sickle, as the Fatherland's Front was both anti-Nazi and anti-Communist. The symbol was also adopted by the Russian far-right People's National Party and the obscure Cambodian militia MONATIO in the 1970s.
Today the cross potent is used by many, mostly Roman Catholic, Scouting and Guiding organisations in their logos and insignia. It is currently used in the coats of arms of the Santa Cruz Department in Bolivia, and of the Wingolf Christian student fraternities in Germany, Austria and Estonia.