Apologia: The Fullness of Christian Truth


``Where the Bishop is, there let the multitude of believers be;
even as where Jesus is, there is the Catholic Church'' Ignatius of Antioch, 1st c. A.D


Christian Symbols

See also these pages:
Mary Gardens for plant symbolism
Precious Stones of Sacred Scripture for gem symbolism
Liturgical Vestments for the symbolism of vestments
Liturgical Colors for the symbolism of the colors used in vestments and art
Symbols of the Saints in Art

The Legend of the Dogwood Tree
Devotion to the 5 Wounds : Passion Flower & The Legend of the Sand Dollar

Fish: the fish -- ever-watchful with its unblinking eyes -- was one of the most important symbols of Christ to the early Christians. In Greek, the phrase, "Jesus Christ, Son of God Savior," is "Iesous Christos Theou Yios Soter." The first letters of each of these Greek words, when put together, spell "ichthys," the Greek word for "fish" (ICQUS ). This symbol can be seen in the Sacraments Chapel of the Catacombs of St. Callistus. Because of the story of the miracle of the loaves and fishes, the fish symbolized, too, the Eucharist (see stylized fish symbol at right).

The earliest literary reference to the fish as Christian symbol was made by Clement of Alexandria, who advised Christians to use a dove or fish as their seal. Tertullian wrote (in "De Baptismo") "But we, being little fishes, as Jesus Christ is our great Fish, begin our life in the water, and only while we abide in the water are we safe and sound." Also used as a Christian symbol was the dolphin, most often as a symbol of the Christian himself rather than Christ, though the dolphin was also used as a representation of Christ -- most often in combination with the anchor symbol ("Christ on the Cross").

Lamb: symbol of Christ as the Paschal Lamb and also a symbol for Christians (as Christ is our Shepherd and Peter was told to feed His sheep). The lamb is also a symbol for St. Agnes (Feast Day 21 January), virgin martyr of the early Church.

Dove: symbol of the Holy Ghost and used especially in representations of our Lord's Baptism and the Pentecost. It also symbolizes the release of the soul in death, and is used to recall Noe's dove, a harbinger of hope.
    Peacock: As a symbol of immortality (even St. Augustine believed the peackock's flesh to have "antiseptic qualities" and that it didn't corrupt), the peacock became a symbol of Christ and the Resurrection. Its image embellished everything from the Catacombs to everyday objects, like lamps, especially in early Romanesque and Byzantine churches. (The peacock, for obvious reasons, was also used as a symbol for pride, too)
Pelican: The Pelican is a symbol of the atonement and the Redeemer and is often found in Christian murals, frescos, paintings and stained glass. The pelican was believed to wound itself in order to feed its young with its own blood. In the hymn "Adoro Te," St. Thomas Aquinas addresses the Savior with, "Pelican of Mercy, cleanse me in Thy Precious Blood." Allusion is even made to this belief in "Hamlet" (act iv): "To his good friend thus wide I'll ope my arms And, like the kind, life-rendering pelican, Repast them with my blood."
Phoenix: The Phoenix is a mythical creature said to build a nest when old, and set it on fire. It would then rise from the ashes in victory. Because of these myths (believed by the Egyptians, Greeks, and Orientals), the bird came to symbolize Christ.
Ship: As those outside of Noe's Ark were destroyed, the ship became a perfect early symbol of the Church with its associations with "the barque of Peter, the Fisherman." In the same vein, the main part of a church's interior, the place where the people worship, is called a "nave," from the Latin "navis" -- ship. The Ark is also a symbol of the Temple through its shape and purpose, both having three levels, etc. And as a symbol of the Temple and Church, it is a symbol of Mary, sealed off with pitch and closed up by God Himself.
Rainbow: Sign of the Covenant with Noe. Its 7 colors (from the top down: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, and violet) recall the 7 Sacraments (7 is the sign of Covenant and completion). In St. John's vision of Heaven, a rainbow makes an appearance -- over the head of the angel who gives John a book to eat (ch. 10), and surroudning the throne of God:
Apocalypse 4:2-3 2
And immediately I was in the spirit: and behold there was a throne set in heaven, and upon the throne one sitting. And he that sat, was to the sight like the jasper and the sardine stone; and there was a rainbow round about the throne, in sight like unto an emerald.

The Good Shepherd: Some of the earliest depictions of Christ show Him as the Good Shepherd. This type of representation is found in the Catacombs.

Click to see a picture of The Good Shepherd from the Priscilla Catacombs, and here to see a statue of the Good Shepherd, dated ca. A.D. 225 (will open in new browser windows).
Palm: victory and martyrdom. Palms are especially made use of on Palm Sunday. The ashes of palms used on Palm Sunday are later burned and used on the next year's Ash Wednesday to symbolize mortality and penance.
Scallop shell: the sea shell, especially the scallop shell, is the symbol of Baptism, and is found frequently on Baptismal fonts. The dish used by priests to pour water over the heads of catechumens in Baptism is often scallop-shaped. The scallop, too, is a symbol for the Apostle James the Greater.

Butterfly: The beautiful butterfly, with the power of flight, emerging from the apparently lifeless cocoon: what could be a more perfect symbol of the Resurrection?
  Unicorn: the unicorn -- mentioned in the Bible, by the way: see Psalm 21:22, 28:6 (Psalms 22 and 29 in the King James Bible), 92:11; and Isaias 34:7 -- is a symbol of chastity and of Christ Himself. Medieval legend had it that the unicorn, a feisty and fierce animal, could not be easily hunted, but if a virgin were to sit in the forest, the unicorn would find her and lay its head upon her lap. The hunter could then come by and take its horn, which was seen as having profound medical qualities (for ex., it was said to eliminate the harmful effects of a poisoned liquid). The picturing of a virgin and unicorn together, then, was common during the Age of Faith -- the former representing Our Lady, and the latter representing Christ, Who brought forth the "horn of salvation."
Ermine: the ermine was believed to have rather died than get its pure white coat dirty and, so, it came to symbolize innocence, moral purity, and the Christian's desire to die rather than commit a mortal sin. Its fur was used to adorn the clothes of clerics and royalty.
Elephant: the male and female elephant together represent Adam and Eve

Turtledove: because of their reputation for taking only one mate to whom they are faithful for life, turtledoves are a symbol of Christian fidelity. They are also known for their love of seclusion, a fact mentioned by St. Augustine (City of God, Book 16, chapter 24).

Rose: the Holy Faith, Our Lady, martyrdom, the secrecy of penance. Five roses grouped together symbolize the 5 Wounds of Christ.

Scarab: an ancient symbol of regeneration (the scarab was an especially prevalent symbol in Egypt), the scarab was adopted by Christians, too, as a symbol for the same and for the Resurrection, in particular, and for Christ Himself. Habacuc 2:11 was often translated as "For the stone shall cry out of the wall, and the beetle out of the timber shall answer it." Psalm 21:7's mention of "worm" ("But I am a worm, and no man: the reproach of men, and the outcast of the people") was often translated as "scarab," and St. Ambrose, Bishop of Milan (A.D. 340-397) referred to Christ as “The Good Scarabaeus” numerous times, with other Church Fathers, such as SS. Cyril of Alexandria, Augustine, etc.) following suit.

Owl: the owl has a double meaning: 1) the perfidious Jews who, preferring darkness to light, reject Jesus, and 2) (from the Aberdeen Bestiary), "In a mystic sense, the night-owl signifies Christ. Christ loves the darkness of night because he does not want sinners - who are represented by darkness - to die but to be converted and live... The night-owl lives in the cracks in walls, as Christ wished to be born one of the Jewish people, saying: 'I am not sent but unto the lost sheep of the house of Israel'. But Christ is crushed in the cracks of the walls, because he is killed by the Jews. Christ shuns the light in the sense that he detests and hates vainglory... The night-owl flies at night in search of food, as Christ converts sinners into the body of the Church by preaching. In a moral sense, moreover, the night-owl signifies to us not just any righteous man, but rather one who lives among other men yet hides from their view as much as possible. He flees from the light, in the sense that he does not look for the glory of human praise."

Cock: the cock is the harbinger of the dawn, and "Oriens" -- "Dawn" -- is one of the titles for Christ (used especially in the O Antiphons during Advent). It is, then, a general symbol for Hope. Further, it is ancient belief that the cock's crow breaks enchantments and evil spells. Prudentius (d. 861), Bishop of Troyes, wrote "They say that the night-wandering demons, who rejoice in dunnest shades, at the crowing of the cock tremble and scatter in sore affright."

The Aberdeen Bestiary (c. 1200) speaks of the cock thusly:
The crowing of the cock at night is a pleasant sound, and not only pleasant but useful; like a good partner, the cock wakes you when are asleep, encourages you if you are worried, comforts you if you are on the road, marking with its melodious call the progress of the night.

With the crowing of the cock, the robber calls off his ambush; the morning star itself is awakened, rises and lights up the sky; the anxious sailor sets aside his cares, and very often each tempest and storm whipped up by evening winds moderates. At cockcrow the devout of mind rise eagerly to pray, able once again to read the office. When the cock crowed assiduously for the last time, Peter himself, the rock of the Church, washed away his guilt, which he had incurred by denying Christ before cockcrow.

With the crowing of the cock, as with the words of Jesus, hope returns to everyone, the troubles of the sick are eased, the pain of wounds is lessened, the raging heat of fevers is moderated, faith is restored to those who have fallen. Jesus watches over those who falter, he corrects those who stray; in short, he looked at Peter and immediately his sin went away, his denial was put out of mind, his confession followed.

The Winter Hymn of Sunday's Lauds include this hymn from St. Ambrose (d. 397):

Light of our darksome journey here,
With days dividing night from night!
Loud crows the dawn's shrill harbinger,
And wakens up the sunbeams bright.

Forthwith at this, the darkness chill
Retreats before the star of morn;
And from their busy schemes of ill
The vagrant crews of night return.

Fresh hope, at this, the sailor cheers;
The waves their stormy strife allay;
The Church's Rock at this, in tears,
Hastens to wash his guilt away.

Arise ye, then, with one accord!
No longer wrapt in slumber lie;
The cock rebukes all who their Lord
By sloth neglect, by sin deny.

At his clear cry joy springs afresh;
Health courses through the sick man's veins;
The danger glides into its sheath;
The fallen soul her faith regains.

 

Trefoil: a stylized shamrock, such as St. Patrick used in evangelizing Ireland, the trefoil is a symbol of the Most Holy Trinity.

 

Quatrefoil: ubiquitous in Gothic architecture, the quatrefoil symbolizes the four evangelists, as do the Winged Man (Matthew), Lion (Mark), Ox (Luke), and Eagle (John) -- the four beasts of Ezeckiel and the Apocalypse.

3 Nails: 3 nails symbolize the Crucifixion. They are three in number because two nails were used to secure Christ's Hands, and a third was used to secure His Feet. The 3 nails are often combined with other symbols, such as they are in the Jesuit seal -- the letters IHS with the three nails underneath, all surmounted by a Cross.

Anchor: found in the first century cemetery of St. Domitilla, the second and third century epitaphs of the catacombs, and especially in the oldest parts of the cemeteries of Sts. Priscilla (about 70 examples in this cemetery alone), Domitilla, Calixtus, and the Coemetarium majus. See Hebrews 6:19.

Egg: the egg is a wonderful symbol of birth and rebirth, an apparently lifeless object out of which comes life. Because of this, it is a symbol of Christ's Resurrection and is seen most often at Easter. In 2006, a necropolis under the Vatican revealed an infant who'd been buried holding an egg to symbolize his parents' hope in his resurrection, because of Christ's Resurrection.

Legend has it that St. Mary Magdalen went to Rome and met with the Emperor Tiberius to tell him about the Resurrection of Jesus. She held out an egg to him as a symbol of this, and he scoffed, saying that a man could no more rise from the dead than that egg that she held could turn scarlet. The egg turned deep red in her hands, and this is the origin of Easter eggs, and the reason why Mary Magdalen is often portrayed holding a scarlet egg.

Another level of symbolism is that the egg represents the Creation, the elements, and the world itself, with the shell representing the firmament, the vault of the sky where the fiery stars lie; the thin membrane symbolizing air; the white symbolizing the waters; and the yolk representing earth.
Keys: The Keys are the symbol of the authority of the papacy and the Church's power to "bind and loose" (Matthew 16:19 and Isaiah 22).

 

"Chi-Rho" or "sigla": the letters "X" and "P," representing the first letters of the title "Christos," were eventually put together to form this symbol for Christ ("Chi" is pronounced "Kie"). It is this form of the Cross that Constantine saw in his vision along with the Greek words, TOUTO NIKA, which are rendered in Latin as "In hoc signo vinces" and which mean "in this sign thou shalt conquer.
Alpha-Omega: Alpha, the first letter of the Greek alphabet, and Omega, the last letter of the Greek alphabet, became a symbol for Christ due to His being called "the First and the Last." The roots of symbolizing these attributes of God go back further, all the way to the Old Testament where, in Exodus 34:6, God is said to be "full of Goodness and Truth." The Hebrew spelling of the word "Truth" consists of the 3 letters "Aleph," "Mem," and "Thaw" -- and because "Aleph" and "Thaw" are the first and last letters of the Hebrew alphabet, the ancients saw mystical relevance in God's being referred to as "Truth." At any rate, the Greek Alpha and Omega as a symbol for Christ has been found in the Catacombs, Christian signet rings, post-Constantine coins, and the frescoes and mosaics of ancient churches.

     

IHS: dating from the 8th c., this is an abbreviation for "IHESUS," the way Christ's Name was spelled in the Middle Ages (despite popular belief, the monogram stands neither for "Iesus Hominum Salvator" --"Jesus Saviour of Men" -- nor for "In His Service.") Popularized by St. Bernardine of Siena, the monogram was later used by St. Ignatius of Loyola as a symbol for the Jesuit Order.

"Crux commissa" or "thau" or "tau": the T-shaped cross is mentioned in the Old Testament and is seen as a foreshadowing of the Cross of Christ. Ezechiel 9:4:
And the Lord said to him: Go through the midst of the city, through the midst of Jerusalem: and mark Thau upon the foreheads of the men that sigh, and mourn for all the abominations that are committed in the midst thereof.

The Thau of Ezechiel was itself presaged by the image of Moses's brazen serpent that he held up on a pole in Numbers 21:

And the Lord said to him: Make brazen serpent, and set it up for a sign: whosoever being struck [by the "fiery serpents"] shall look on it, shall live. Moses therefore made a brazen serpent, and set it up for a sign: which when they that were bitten looked upon, they were healed.

Because of these verses, at least one of the ancients believed the Thau to be the form of the Cross of Jesus. Tertullian wrote, "The Greek letter and our Latin letter T are the true form of the cross, which, according to the Prophet, will be imprinted on our foreheads in the true Jerusalem." (Contra Marc., III, xxii)

If "Thau" was the true form of the Cross, the existence of the titulus crucis (the plaque that bore the inscription "Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews") would have made the Cross at least appear to be a "crux immissa" (see below), and there would have had to have been enough of the upright post over the arms on which to affix it. Nonetheless, whether the "immissa" or commissa" was the true form of the Cross, at the very least the Thau depicts the Cross of Christ symbolically, and St. Francis of Assisi took the Thau as the symbol of his Franciscan Order.

"Crux immissa" or "Latin Cross": the most common form of the Cross and believed to be of the style on which Jesus died.

Byzantine Cross: used mostly by the Eastern Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches. The second cross-bar at top is for the INRI inscription; the bottom cross-bar is His footrest.

Slavonic Cross: used most often by Eastern Catholics and Russian Orthodox, this Cross is the Byzantine Cross with the footrest at a diagonal. This slant is said to represent one of a few things:
  • the footrest wrenched loose from the Christ's writhing in intense physical suffering; lower side representing "down," the fate of sinners, while the elevated side represents Heaven;
  • the lower side represents the bad thief (known to us as Gestas through the apocryphal "Acts of Pilate" ("Gospel of Nicodemus") while the elevated side to Christ's right represents the thief who would be with Him in Paradise (St. Dismas);
  • the "X" shape of the slanted "footrest" against the post symbolizes the cross on which St. Andrew was crucified.

Greek Cross: a very common artistic representation of the Cross. Crosses such as this one and the Tau were also popular because they were easily disguised, an important feature for persecuted Christians.

Jerusalem Cross: also called the "Crusaders' Cross," it is made up of 5 Greek Crosses which are said to symbolize a) the 5 Wounds of Christ; and/or b) the 4 Gospels and the 4 corners of the earth (the 4 smaller crosses) and Christ Himself (the large Cross). This Cross was a common symbol used during the wars against Islamic aggression. (see less stylized version at right)

Maltese Cross: associated with the Knights of St. John (also known as the "Hospitallers of St. John of Jerusalem" or simply "Knights of Malta"), this Cross's 8 points are said to symbolize the 8 Beatitudes and the Beatitudes' associated obligations. The Order of St. John ran hostels and hospitals for Christian pilgrims to Jerusalem, but eventually had to fight during the wars of Islamic aggression. It is said that the Maltese Cross is a symbol within a symbol in that it is made of the initial letters of the Greek words for, "Jesus Christ, God, Son, Savior" ("Iesous Christos Theou Huios Soter"), which forms the acrostic for the word "fish" (see "fish" above). When these letters -- ICQUS -- (Iota, Chi, Theta, Upsilon, Sigma) are stacked on top of each other and their "ends" closed, they form a Maltese Cross.

Baptismal Cross: consisting of the Greek Cross with the Greek letter "X", the first initial of the title "Christ," this Cross is a symbol of regeneration, hence, its association with Baptism

 

Graded Cross: this Cross, also known as the "Calvary Cross," has 3 steps which represent  the three Theological Virtues: Faith, Hope and Charity.

 

Evangelist's Cross: the 4 steps at the bottom of the Cross stand for Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.

"Crux decussata" ("decussated cross") or "St. Andrew's Cross": called "decussated" because it looks like the Roman Numeral "10" (decussis), it is also called St. Andrew's Cross because St. Andrew was supposed to have been crucified on a cross of this shape.

 

Celtic Cross ("the Cross of Iona"): stone crosses in this form dot the landscapes of Ireland and Scotland and are associated with the evangelization of these lands.
St. Brigid's Cross: St. Brigid fashioned a Cross out of rushes as she sat near a dying chieftan's bed. He asked her about what she was doing and in explaining, she recounted the story of Christ, whereupon the chieftan converted. Catholics -- especially Irish Catholics -- fashion Crosses like these on the Feast of St. Brigid (1 February).

Peter's Cross: because when Peter was to be martyred he chose to be crucified upside-down out of respect for Christ, the upside-down Latin Cross has become his symbol and, thereby, a symbol of the papacy. Sadly, this cross has been co-opted by Satanists whose purpose of "inverting" Christianity (e.g. as in their Black 'Masses') is expressed by taking the Latin Cross of Christ and inverting it. At various anti-Catholic Protestant websites, I've seen pictures of the Holy Father standing in front of Peter's Cross with captions such as "The Pope worships Satan!!!!!!!" It'd be funny if it weren't so sad and ignorant.

Papal Cross: the three cross-bars represent the Latin Pope's triple role as Bishop of Rome, Patriarch of West, and successor of Peter, Chief of the Apostles

Lorraine Cross: used by archbishops and patriarchs. Also known as a "Caravaca Cross" because of a miracle, involving a Patriarch's Cross, that took place in Caravaca, Spain. See the page on Crucifixes for more information.

Pentagram (5-point Star):  the 5 Wounds of Christ, the Star of Bethlehem; the five senses, the five Books of the Pentateuch (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy).

Please note that this symbol inverted, such that a single point is at the bottom and two points are at the top, is now most commonly considered a Satanic symbol, with origins only in the 19th c., and indicates a goat's head, with two horns at the top to symbolize Baphomet. The pentagram enclosed in a circle is now most commonly associated with Wicca.

Torch of Truth: Symbol of the Dominican Order, often shown being carried in the mouth of a little black and white dog. It originates in a dream St. Dominic's mother had when she was pregnant with the Saint: she dreamed of her child as a little black and white dog illuminating the world by carrying a torch in his mouth. The Dominican Order St. Dominic founded is known as the "Order of Preachers," the colors of its habit are white and black.


The Symbology of Numbers

1

the Undivided Oneness of God

2

the two natures of Christ; both the Divine and the material

3

the Three Persons of the Most Holy Trinity, the three Magi and their gifts

4

the Evangelists and their Gospels; the elements, humors and material world; North, South, East, and West; the four seasons

5

the Five Wounds; the senses

6

the days of creation; creation fallen; imperfection

7

covenant, oath; perfection; the day God rested (the Sabbath being the sign of the Covenant with Adam); the seven colors the rainbow (a sign of the Covenant made with Noe); the seven Sacraments (the Covenant sign made with the Church); the Gifts of the Holy Ghost; the virtues and vices

8

the visible world, made in seven days, with the invisible kingdom of grace following; regeneration

9

man's imperfection; the choirs of Angels

10

the Commandments; the Plagues of Egypt

12

the tribes of Israel; the Apostles; the signs of the Zodiac; the hours of the day and the hours of the night; the penetration of matter with spirit (3 X 4)

13

betrayal; Judas

33

the number of years of Jesus's human life

40

testing and trial; the years of the Deluge; the years of wandering in the desert in Exodus; the days Moses spent on Mt. Sinai; Christ's days in the desert

72

the number of years Our Lady is said to have lived on earth, according to tradition. The belief that the Blessed Virgin lived for 72 years is not a matter of dogma or doctrine, but it is what is traditionally accepted as being the case and often has an effect in various devotions. Her age at death comes into play, for example, in the structure of "The Franciscan Crown," or "The Rosary of the Seven Joys of the Blessed Virgin Mary."

666

the number of the Beast. (Also 616 in some later manuscripts, a number rejected by St. Irenaeas as a scribal error).

1000

the milennium -- the Church Age

Back to Being Catholic
Index

Quantcast