CHRISTIAN SYMBOLISM

 

"CHRISTIAN symbolism is the use of signs and emblems to teach and present religious truths. Words often fail where symbolism succeeds, while taken together they frequently make spiritual things more fully grasped. This is as true today as it was in those times past, when education was not as general and printing was unknown. Like Musical Notation, Christian Symbolism illustrates that for which it stands. And it adds a certain beauty and mysticism to religion, speaking as it does of an unseen world and a supernatural faith. For the proper understanding of Christian Art and Architecture some knowledge of symbolism is absolutely necessary. A few of the most frequently occurring representations are here explained.

 

The Aureole is the luminous cloud or circle of light used in religious pictures to surround the whole figure. It symbolizes the Glory of GOD and properly used for Divine Persons or the Blessed Virgin as the Mother of Our LORD. [See Christ in Michalangelo's Last Judgment. Note the luminous cloud.]

Alpha and Omega, the first and last letters of the Greek Alphabet, signify the Eternity of GOD, Who, without beginning or end, cannot be conceived of except under human limitations. [For a superimposed example, see this page.]

Three Circles, connected by bands forming an equilateral triangle, symbolize the Three Persons of the Ever Blessed TRINITY.

The Dove represents the HOLY GHOST, under which figure the Holy Spirit descended upon Christ at His Baptism. [View El Greco's Trinity.]

The Eye symbolizes GOD the FATHER, telling that He sees and knows all that we do. The Father is also represented by a HAND, and also by the upper part of the FIGURE OF A MAN. [See representation of the eye here.]

The Flames of Fire signify the HOLY Ghost, as He descended upon the Apostles on Pentecost. [One example is a candle flame; thus the mass candles indicate the presence of God.]

Of Flowers the Lily signifies purity, the Pomegranate Immortality, the Rose Love.

The Fish represents Our LORD and also the Eucharist. The Greek word "Ixthus"* which means "Fish," is spelled from the first letters of Greek words meaning, "Jesus CHRIST, Son of GOD SAVIOR." This sign was used as a secret symbol by the early Christians in the days of persecution. See Christ symbols.

The Gospels are symbolized by the Figures of a Man, a Lion, an Ox, and an Eagle referring to Saint Matthew, Saint Mark, Saint Luke and Saint John, who respectively represented Our Lord as Man, King, Priest and Victim and GOD.

The Good Shepherd represents Our Lord. This is probably the earliest of all Christian symbols. CHRIST is sometimes shown with the Sheep in His Arms.

I. H. S. are initials of the Holy Name. They are generally taken to stand for "Jesus hominum Salvator," (Jesus the Savior of men), but more likely they are an abbreviated form of the first letters of the words Jesus Christ, with a cross between them, as written in Greek.
(See also the symbol of an "x" superimposed over a "p" which is an R in Greek. "The monogram of the name of Christ, formed of the two first letters of that name in Greek, X and P is the celebrated sign which appeared in the sky at noon-day to the Emperor Constantine and his troops, and was afterwards adopted by him on his standard...")

The Lamb typifies Our Lord as the Lamb of GOD that taketh away the sins of the world. It is usually seen holding a Banner and Cross.

A Light symbolizes the Presence of GOD, as the Burning Bush to Moses, or the Pillar of Flame to the Israelites. Thus the Red Lamp or Candle before the Altar notes the Presence of Our LORD in the Blessed Sacrament.

The Nimbus is the halo of light placed about the heads of Saints and Angels, symbolizing the beauty of holiness. [See the head of St. Francis as an example, by Giotto.]

The Orb surmounted with a Cross means that the Christian Religion is for all. It often has under it written in Latin, "The Cross stands while the world revolves." [Notice the orb under God the Father's hand in El Grecko.]

The Passion of Our LORD is typified by the Crown of Thorns, the Spear and the Nails, the Five Sacred Wounds, the Precious Blood and the Sheet. Sometimes there are added the Reed, the Scourge, the Seamless Robe, the Pillar, the Cock and also the Passion Flower.

The Pelican, a bird which nourishes its young with its own blood, symbolizes Our LORD feeding the faithful with the Blessed Sacrament.

The Rock represents: sometimes CHRIST, sometimes the Church. A very ancient way was to have flowing from it four streams of water symbolizing the Four Gospels. [Of course, for Catholics, "rock" also represents St. Peter, and his successors.] (Note that Jesus is standing on a rock in Michaelangelo's Last Judgement.]

The Star is the emblem of CHRIST, "the bright and morning Star." This is particularly used to illustrate Christmas and Epiphany.

The Holy Communion is represented by a Chalice with the Host above it; by the Wheat and Grapes and also by some of the Symbols of Our LORD.

Of Trees, the Cedar symbolizes consecration, the Cypress mourning, the Laurel victory, the Mustard growth, the Oak strength, the Olive peace... More.

The Trefoil, copied after the Clover or shamrock, represents the Trinity. Saint Patrick is said to have taught this doctrine from a Shamrock. It is similar to the French emblem, the "Fieur-de-lys".

Of a different kind is the Symbolism with the arrangement, the appointments and the Services of the Church, the most interesting of which, as well as certain other adjuncts of a Ceremonial Service, may be noted as follows:

The Altar symbolizes Mount Calvary, where Our LORD was offered for the sins of the world. It is generally of Marble or Stone to typify place of Sacrifice. [In modern Catholic practice, the altar is often wood, although stone can also be used. The altar is to be a table to carry forward the meal symbolism of the eucharist. The Last Supper, the first eucharist, was a meal.] [You can look at the interior of the new St. Yves Mission Church. The altar is in the center next to the pulpit. Or look at the interior of Sacred Heart Church.]

Ashes signify Penitence and Death Ash Wednesday takes its name from the ancient custom of signing the Cross with ashes on the forehead, this the first day of Lent. [One graphic example of a "death" by fire is the destruction of St. Yves Mission.]

Bells signify the call to devotion and attention... [Note the reference to a bell on the window sill on Old Woman Praying.]

Banners symbolize the Church moving in army to victory as the Psalmist says, "Thou given a Banner to them that fear thee." [See the wall hanging in the new St. Yves Church to your left of the photo.]

The Candles symbolize that Our LORD was the Light of the World. The Six "Standard Lights" have this meaning. Where two larger ones or "Eucharistic Lights" are used they represent CHRIST'S Divine and Human Natures. The Seven Branch or Vesper Lights tell of the Seven Gifts of the HOLY GHOST or the Seven Sacraments. There has always been large deviation as to the number of lights used at Services. A beautiful meaning attached to Candles in general when used in worship is that Wax... symbolizes Our LORD'S Body born of the Virgin Mary, the Wick His Soul, the Flame His Divinity, thus setting forth the Mystery of the Incarnation. [In Catholic practice, candles are lit at the pulpit for the liturgy of the Word, then extinguished and the altar candles are lit. The candle flame represents the presence of God, who gives light to us, who enlightens us by his word. Then the presence of God moves to the altar where we offer, with Christ, the sacred meal and sacrifice.]

crossThe Cross represents the mode of Our LORD 'S Death. Though long antedating Christianity it was early adopted as its greatest Sacred Symbol. Of the many forms of the Cross, the Latin, the Celtic, the Greek and the Maltese are those most generally seen. The shape of the "True Cross" was probably the Latin (or perhaps the "T") Cross, having the lower arm longer than the others. [See the discovery of the Cross.] (See the collection of Crosses at Religion Facts.)

The Crucifix is the Cross with the Carved Figure of CHRIST added to it. Its use is very ancient and very helpful. [See three trees and Crucifixion.]

The Church Building symbolizes the Ark or Ship of the LORD. The Nave, Chancel and Sanctuary (which correspond to the Court, the Holy Place and the Holy of Holies of the Jewish Temple) respectively represent the Church Militant, the Church Expectant and the Church Triumphant or Earth, Purgatory and Heaven.

The Colored Hangings on the Altar mark the Church's Seasons: white or gold signifying joy; red, martyrdom; purple, penitence; green, hope; black, death. Red is also used for the HOLY GHOST and Blue for the Blessed Virgin Mary... See also Vestments.

The Flowers are used in honor of Our Lord and symbolically show that He is "The Rose of Sharon and the Lily of the Valley." They are sometimes scattered before Processions.

The Fair Linen represents the Linen wound about Our LORD'S Body on the Day of the Passion...

Holy Water is blessed water, to be used with the Sign of the Cross, to symbolize a person's Baptism, and the need of purity.

Incense typifies the Merits of CHRIST and the Prayers of the Saints. It is of Divine Authority and has always been associated with the worship of both the Jewish and Christian Church. The Bible says, "In every place Incense shall be offered , unto My Name and a pure offering." [See also, Ps. 141:2 "Let my prayer be counted as incense before you, and the lifting up of my hands as an evening sacrifice." And Wis. 18:20-22. The ancient Jewish temple used incense as God commanded. There was a special incense altar and "Aaron shall offer fragrant incense on it; every morning when he dresses the lamps he shall offer it, and when Aaron sets up the lamps in the evening, he shall offer it, a regular incense offering before the LORD throughout your generations." Exod. 30:7-8.]

Oil symbolizes Grace and Blessing. Its use was large in ancient times. Now it is often confined to the Unction of the sick [i.e. the sacrament of the sick. In the Catholic church it is also used at baptism, confirmation, and the ordination of a priest.]

Palms signify praise, triumph and thanksgiving. GOD Himself ordered them to be carried. They were borne in honor of Our LORD and their homage accepted by Him on the first Palm Sunday.

A Procession signifies the Journey of the soul to GOD for "they will go from strength to strength and unto the GOD of gods appeareth every one of them in Sion." It is preceded by the Cross, as the symbol of the triumph of the Church and because we follow Jesus, who "went forth bearing His Cross." Lights are borne, for those who go with Christ "shall not walk in darkness." Banners are carried because God said, "Lift ye up a Banner". Incense is used to symbolize the Merits of Christ and Flowers are sometimes strewn [or flowers are present] to signify the beauty of holiness and the fragrance of devotion..." [One procession you can view is the Way of the Cross in Jerusalem. See also Polidoro da Caravaggio's, A Religious Procession, c. 1530, photos of an orthodox procession for the Exaltation of the Cross, and Religious Procession, Genoa.]

Rev. Archibald Campbell Knowles, The Practice of Religion (1911) p. 48-54.
[From the Anglican Tradition].
For more see the Papal Symbols and

the Symbols in Christian Art & Architecture.



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Catholic Teaching and Tradition on Religious Art.
Symbols of Christ - The Face of Christ - The Face of God

Art as a Source of Meditation
Awaken to Prayer
Index of all parish pages