TAU: Meaning and Origin

The Tau (or Thau) is the last letter in the Hebrew alphabet (ת), the 19th letter of the Greek one (τ), and it corresponds to the letter T of the latin alphabet. This symbol, with a very ancient story from the Old Testament and known as well as T-Cross, has been chosen at the beginning of the 13th century from St Francis of Assisi, as a sign of cristian devotion, redemption and salvation

The Tau Story

In the Old Testament, prophets already wrote about a symbolic use, specifically in the Book of Ezekiel (Ezek. 9,4). It is the symbol that, if signed on people's foreheads from Israel, could save them from extermination. 

“Go throughout the city of Jerusalem and put a mark on the foreheads of those who grieve and lament over all the detestable things that are done in it.” (Ezekiel 9,1-4).

The symbol has been taken again in the New Testament, in the Apocalypse of St John (or the Book of Revelation), where it is described as the seal of the living God, brought from an angel coming up from the east (Revelation 7,2-3). As Tau is the last letter of the Hebrew alphabet, it had the same meaning of the Greek letter Omega (ω), the end

St Anthony’s Cross

Many centuries before St Francis, the Tau appears in the representations of another distinguished character: St Anthony, born around 251 and died in 356 A.D., considered the initiator of monasticism. The T shaped handle of his stick and the letter Tau which appears upon his cassock in the images that represents him, recall both the Egyptian cross, adopted by Alexandrian Christians, and the Greek word thauma (θαῦμα), prodigy
After almost a thousand years from his death, the Tau has been taken from St Francis of Assisi and consecrated to his religious order: the Franciscans.

The Franciscan Tau

Well-known as a symbol of Christian devotion, the Tau was chosen from St Francis of Assisi and the members of his order for its intense religious meaning. St Francis was used to write it on the wall, as a signature for his letters and on his body, in order to consecrate every action to God. 

Everything started in 1215 when, at the opening of the Fourth Council of the Lateran, Pope Innocent III, talking about the Book of Ezekiel, focused his attention on the Tau. The Pope himself encourages Christians to mark the Tau cross on the foreheads of all who got close to them, allowing everyone to start an authentic conversion path to get closer to God. Story goes that in the crowd there was St Francis, together with some friars of his religious order; that speech remained indelible in their own souls.
Since that moment, Francis preached penance and conversion, marking with the Tau the forehead of all who met him, as a sign of salvation and victory of Jesus Christ over evil. Due to its similarity with the Christian Cross, the Tau remained the symbol that St Francis loved the most, with which he used to sign his letters. 

Welcomed from Francis from the beginning, the Tau cross was always part of his life, until his last days, when the stigmata appeared in his flesh.

Common Use and Symbology

Nowadays, everyone who recognizes himself in the Franciscan spirituality (friars, nuns, seminarists, faithful, etc.) wears an olive-wood Tau cross, as a distinctive mark. 
Generally, the Tau is tied with a three-knots rope, symbols of the three Franciscan vows: obedience, poverty and chastity

It remains a concrete mark of Christian devotion, that deeply links the life of the human beings to Jesus on the cross, as an irreplaceable medium of salvation. 

Variants of Tau

The most typical representation of the Tau cross is in olive-wood, poor and ductile material that recall the faithful to a simple lifestyle. As well as wood, even the baptised Christian has to let the Word of God shape him during his daily life. 
The Tau pendant can even be a powerful tool for praying, like the Tau rosary in olive-wood. 

 

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Among other versions, the Tau is available as a Gold pendant.  

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Another article inspired to the Franciscan Tau is the Sterling Silver ring below.

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Related Posts:

5 types of crosses and their meanings 

St Francis Life in a nutshell