I have often been asked about the 3 bar Cross and why it is so different or to some folks weird, especially since I have it tattooed on my forearm. I came across this the other day and thought for those inquiring it would be useful:
The symbolism of the “complete” Cross (much of which is contained in the Old Rite Russian prosphora seal and on metal and wood icons) is quite complex…
Through the Cross came our Salvation. We are constantly reminded that Christ died for us when we see the Image of the Cross (depicting the crucified Lord), and we are reminded that He rose from the dead when we behold the Image of Christ “Not made by hands” (Slavonic: Нерукутвореному образъ) on the towel (depicting the Lord risen frem the dead).
Worshipping the crucified Lord are two flying angels, with the inscription between them: “Angels of the Lord” (in Slavonic:Ангели Господни). In some depictions of the Cross the Angels are bearing an image of the Holy Trinity, but traditions vary in allowing this; usually the Angels are simply holding towels, indicating their position as messengers who serve the Lord and who wait on Him.
The top bar of the Cross is the title-board which Pilate ordered to be hung in mockery over Christ’s head. On this board was inscribed: “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews” in Hebrew, Greek and Latin (abbreviated to the Greek initials ‘INBI’, or the Latin initials ‘INRI’ in the Western tradition). This has been replaced with the Christian inscription: “King of Glory”(Slavonic: Царь славы), placed below the knees of the angels. [Note that while the use of the inscription ‘І.Н.Ц.І.’ does not usually appear in the Russian tradition, examples of its occurrence are occasionally found on newer Russian Crosses.] On the title-board is inscribed the initials ‘IC XC’,being the first and last letters of Christ’s name in Greek (Greek: Iisous Khristos; Old Rite Slavonic: Ісоусъ Христосъ; New Rite Slavonic: Іисусъ Христосъ). In addition, just above Christ’s arms we see the inscription: ‘NIKA’, which in Greek means: “He conquers” or “He is victorious.” [Frequently, especially on the Greek and New Rite Russian prosphora seal, we see these last two inscriptions together with the simple two-barred Cross: ‘IC XC NI KA’, meaning: “Jesus Christ is victorious” (i.e., over death and sin). Note that in the proper Orthodox tradition the Saviour does not wear a crown of thorns (as in the Western tradition), nor is He portrayed alive on the Cross, nor in any aspect of suffering, but in a state of humble and peaceful repose, with inclined head. Also note that His feet are nailed with two nails.]
The middle bar is that on which the Lord’s hands were nailed. On either top corner we see the depiction of the sun (left; in Slavonic: солнца) and themoon (right; in Slavonic: луна), for “The sun hid its light, and the moon turned to blood.” (Joel 2:31) The inscription: “Son of God” (Slavonic: Сынъ Божіи) is placed on both sides of Christ’s head, and below His arms we read the inscription: “We bow down before Thy Cross, O Master, and we worship Thy holy Resurrection” (in Slavonic: Кресту Твоему покломняемся Владыко, и святое воскресение Твое славимъ). The halo of Christ is inscribed with the Greek letters ‘w ov’, meaning: ‘The Being’ or ‘He Who is’, to remind us that Christ is the same God Who identified Himself with those words to Moses in the Old Law.
Behind the body of Christ, on either side, are a lance (which pierced Him) and a sponge (which was soaked with gall or vinegar and offered Him to drink) on a pole made of reed or cane. The lance (on the left:) is marked “К”in Slavonic; standing for “копие”, while the sponge (on the right) is marked“Т”, standing for: “трость” (which means: ‘reed’ or ‘cane’). [On some Crosses one might see instead of “Т” the inscription “Г” which stands for “губка” (sponge) in Slavonic.] On the body of Christ is depicted blood and water flowing forth from His side.
The slanted bottom bar is the foot-brace. In prayers for the Ninth Hour, the Church likens the Cross to a type of balance of righteousness:
“Between two thieves Thy Cross did prove to be a balance of righteousness: wherefore one of them was dragged down to Hades by the weight of his blasphemy [the balance points downward], whereas the other was lightened of his transgressions unto the comprehension of theology [the balance points upward]. O Christ God, glory to Thee.”
The city of Jerusalem is depicted in the background, for Christ was crucified outside the city walls. By the foot of the Cross are the letters: “Г Г” standing for ‘Mount Golgotha’ (in Slavonic: Гора Голгофы); this is the hill outside the city gates upon which Christ was crucified. Below the feet of Christ are four Slavonic letters with abbreviation marks: “М.Л.Р.Б.”, meaning: “The place of the skull, where Adam was” (in Slavonic: Место лобное рай бысть). Hidden in a cave under the earth is ‘the skull of Adam’ (for by pious tradition it is said that Christ was crucified at preciseIy the same place where Adam was buried), identified with the letters: “Г А” (in Slavonic:глава Адамла). We are thus reminded that Adam our forefather lost Paradise through the tree from which he wrongIy partook; Christ is the new Adam, bringing us Salvation and Paradise through the tree of the Cross.