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Christian symbolism

Christian symbolism

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Christian symbolism invests objects or actions with an inner meaning expressing Christian ideas. Christianity
Christianity
Christianity is a monotheistic religion based on the life and teachings of Jesus as presented in canonical gospels and other New Testament writings...

 has borrowed from the common stock of significant symbols known to most periods and to all regions of the world. Religious symbolism
Religious symbolism
Religious symbolism is the use of symbols, including archetypes, acts, artwork, events, or natural phenomena, by a religion. Religions view religious texts, rituals, and works of art as symbols of compelling ideas or ideals...

 is effective when it appeals to both the intellect and the emotions. The choice of suitable acts and objects for symbolism is narrow enough that it would not be easy to avoid the appearance of an imitation of other traditions, even if there had been a deliberate attempt to invent an entirely new ritual.

Elemental symbols


Elemental
Four elements
Four elements may refer to:* Classical elements, such as air, fire, earth and water* 4 Elements, an album by Chronic Future* Group 4 element, one of the chemical elements in Group 4 of the periodic table...

 symbols were widely used by the early Church. Water has specific symbolic significance for Christians. Outside of baptism, water may represent cleansing or purity. Fire, especially in the form of a candle flame, represents both the Holy Spirit
Holy Spirit
Holy Spirit is a term introduced in English translations of the Hebrew Bible, but understood differently in the main Abrahamic religions.While the general concept of a "Spirit" that permeates the cosmos has been used in various religions Holy Spirit is a term introduced in English translations of...

 and light. The sources of these symbols derive from the Bible
Bible
The Bible refers to any one of the collections of the primary religious texts of Judaism and Christianity. There is no common version of the Bible, as the individual books , their contents and their order vary among denominations...

; for example from the tongues of fire that symbolized the Holy Spirit at Pentecost
Pentecost
Pentecost is a prominent feast in the calendar of Ancient Israel celebrating the giving of the Law on Sinai, and also later in the Christian liturgical year commemorating the descent of the Holy Spirit upon the disciples of Christ after the Resurrection of Jesus...

, and from Jesus' description of his followers as the light of the world; or God is a consuming fire found in .

Ichthys



Among the symbols employed by the early Christians, that of the fish seems to have ranked first in importance. Indeed, from monumental sources such as tombs we know that the symbolic fish was familiar to Christians from the earliest times. It can be seen in such Roman monuments as the Capella Greca and the Sacrament Chapels of the catacomb of St Callistus. The fish was depicted as a Christian symbol in the first decades of the 2nd century. The symbol itself may have been suggested by the miraculous multiplication of the loaves and fishes or the repast of the seven Disciples, after the Resurrection, on the shore of the Sea of Galilee. Its popularity among Christians was due principally, it would seem, to the famous acrostic consisting of the initial letters of five Greek words forming the word for fish (Ichthys), which words briefly but clearly described the character of Christ and the claim to worship of believers: Iesous Christos Theou Yios Soter, meaning, Jesus Christ, Son of God, Saviour.

Tomb paintings


Christians from the very beginning adorned their catacombs
Catacombs
Catacombs, human-made subterranean passageways for religious practice. Any chamber used as a burial place can be described as a catacomb, although the word is most commonly associated with the Roman empire...

 with paintings of Christ, of the saints, of scenes from the Bible and allegorical groups. The catacombs are the cradle of all Christian art. Early Christians accepted the art of their time and used it, as well as a poor and persecuted community could, to express their religious ideas. From the second half of the 1st century to the time of Constantine the Great they buried their dead and celebrated their rites in these underground chambers. The Christian tombs were ornamented with indifferent or symbolic designs—palms, peacocks, with the chi-rho
Chrismon
A chrismon is one of number of Christian symbols intended to represent aspects of the Person, life or ministry of Jesus Christ and the life, ministry or history of the Church through a single image, emblem or monogram. The term "chrismon" comes from the Latin phrase "Christi Monogramma", meaning...

 monogram, with bas-reliefs of Christ as the Good Shepherd, or seated between figures of saints, and sometimes with elaborate scenes from the New Testament. Other Christian symbols include the dove
Dove
Pigeons and doves constitute the bird family Columbidae within the order Columbiformes, which include some 300 species of near passerines. In general terms "dove" and "pigeon" are used somewhat interchangeably...

 (symbolic of the Holy Spirit), the sacrificial lamb (symbolic of Christ's sacrifice), the vine
Vine
A vine in the narrowest sense is the grapevine , but more generally it can refer to any plant with a growth habit of trailing or scandent, that is to say climbing, stems or runners...

 (symbolising the necessary connectedness of the Christian with Christ) and many others. These all derive from the writings found in the New Testament. Other decorations that were common included garlands, ribands, stars landscapes, which had symbolic meanings, as well.

Cross and crucifix




The cross, which is today one of the most widely recognised symbols in the world, was used as a symbol from the earliest times. This is indicated in the anti-Christian arguments cited in the Octavius of Minucius Felix, chapters IX and XXIX, written at the end of that century or the beginning of the next, and by the fact that by the early 3rd century the cross had become so closely associated with Christ that Clement of Alexandria
Clement of Alexandria
Titus Flavius Clemens , known as Clement of Alexandria , was a Christian theologian and the head of the noted Catechetical School of Alexandria. Clement is best remembered as the teacher of Origen...

, who died between 211 and 216, could without fear of ambiguity use the phrase (the Lord's sign) to mean the cross, when he repeated the idea, current as early as the Epistle of Barnabas
Epistle of Barnabas
The Epistle of Barnabas is a Greek epistle containing twenty-one chapters, preserved complete in the 4th century Codex Sinaiticus where it appears at the end of the New Testament...

, that the number 318 (in Greek numerals
Greek numerals
Greek numerals are a system of representing numbers using letters of the Greek alphabet. They are also known by the names Ionian numerals, Milesian numerals , Alexandrian numerals, or alphabetic numerals...

, ΤΙΗ) in was a foreshadowing (a "type") of the cross (T, an upright with crossbar, standing for 300) and of Jesus (ΙΗ, the first two letters of his name ΙΗΣΟΥΣ, standing for 18), and his contemporary Tertullian
Tertullian
Quintus Septimius Florens Tertullianus, anglicised as Tertullian , was a prolific early Christian author from Carthage in the Roman province of Africa. He is the first Christian author to produce an extensive corpus of Latin Christian literature. He also was a notable early Christian apologist and...

 could designate the body of Christian believers as crucis religiosi, i.e. "devotees of the Cross". In his book De Corona, written in 204, Tertullian tells how it was already a tradition for Christians to trace repeatedly on their foreheads the sign of the cross.

The Jewish Encyclopedia states:
The cross as a Christian symbol or "seal" came into use at least as early as the second century (see "Apost. Const." iii. 17; Epistle of Barnabas, xi.-xii.; Justin, "Apologia," i. 55-60; "Dial. cum Tryph." 85-97); and the marking of a cross upon the forehead and the chest was regarded as a talisman against the powers of demons (Tertullian, "De Corona," iii.; Cyprian, "Testimonies," xi. 21-22; Lactantius, "Divinæ Institutiones," iv. 27, and elsewhere). Accordingly the Christian Fathers had to defend themselves, as early as the second century, against the charge of being worshipers of the cross, as may be learned from Tertullian, "Apologia," xii., xvii., and Minucius Felix, "Octavius," xxix. Christians used to swear by the power of the cross.


Although the cross was known to the early Christians, the crucifix
Crucifix
A crucifix is an independent image of Jesus on the cross with a representation of Jesus' body, referred to in English as the corpus , as distinct from a cross with no body....

 did not appear in use until the 5th century. French Medievalist scholar and historian of ideas M.-M. Davy has described in great details Romanesque Symbolism as it developed in the Middle Ages in Western Europe.

Lily crucifix



A lily crucifix is a rare symbol of Anglican churches in England. It depicts Christ crucified on a lily, or holding such a plant. The symbolism may be from the mediaeval belief that the Annunciation of Christ and his crucifixion occurred on the same day of the year, March 25.

There are few depictions of a lily crucifix in England. One of the most notable is a painting on a wall above the altar at All Saint's Church
All Saints' Church, Godshill
All Saints' Church, Godshill is a parish church in the Church of England located in Godshill, Isle of Wight.-History:According to legend, the original foundations for the church were laid in a flat, easily accessible site but every morning were found transferred to the hill where the church exists...

, Godshill
Godshill
Godshill is a village and civil parish on the Isle of Wight with a population of 1,465 according to the 2001 census. It is located between Newport and Ventnor in the southeast of the Island.-History:...

, Isle of Wight
Isle of Wight
The Isle of Wight is a county and the largest island of England, located in the English Channel, on average about 2–4 miles off the south coast of the county of Hampshire, separated from the mainland by a strait called the Solent...

. Other examples include:
  • An alabaster example on a tomb in St Mary's Church, Nottingham.
  • The Lady Chapel
    Lady chapel
    A Lady chapel, also called Mary chapel or Marian chapel, is a traditional English term for a chapel inside a cathedral, basilica, or large church dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary...

     of St Helen's, Abingdon, Oxfordshire
    Abingdon, Oxfordshire
    Abingdon or archaically Abingdon-on-Thames is a market town and civil parish in Oxfordshire, England. It is the seat of the Vale of White Horse district. Previously the county town of Berkshire, Abingdon is one of several places that claim to be Britain's oldest continuously occupied town, with...

    , has a wall painting.
  • Five examples are in glass as at Long Melford
    Long Melford
    Long Melford is a large village and civil parish in the county of Suffolk, England. It is on Suffolk's border with Essex, which is marked by the River Stour, approximately from Colchester and from Bury St. Edmunds...

     Holy Trinity church.
  • At All Saints, Great Glemham
    Great Glemham
    Great Glemham is a village and a civil parish in the Suffolk Coastal District, in the English county of Suffolk. It is a few miles away from the A12 road. Great Glemham has a pub and two places of worship. It is located between the towns of Framlingham and Saxmundham.- References :*...

    , Suffolk
    Suffolk
    Suffolk is a non-metropolitan county of historic origin in East Anglia, England. It has borders with Norfolk to the north, Cambridgeshire to the west and Essex to the south. The North Sea lies to the east...

    , the image is on the base of a font
    Baptismal font
    A baptismal font is an article of church furniture or a fixture used for the baptism of children and adults.-Aspersion and affusion fonts:...

    .
  • At St Mary, Binham
    Binham
    Binham is a coastal village and a civil parish in the English county of Norfolk.The village is north west of Norwich, west of Cromer and north north east of London. The village lies east south east of the town of Wells-next-the-Sea.The nearest railway station is at Sheringham for the Bittern...

    , Norfolk
    Norfolk
    Norfolk is a low-lying county in the East of England. It has borders with Lincolnshire to the west, Cambridgeshire to the west and southwest and Suffolk to the south. Its northern and eastern boundaries are the North Sea coast and to the north-west the county is bordered by The Wash. The county...

    , an image in a bench end may be a lily crucifix.
  • In Tong, Shropshire
    Tong, Shropshire
    Tong is a village in Shropshire in England. It is near junction 3 of the M54 motorway near Albrighton.The village is remarkable mainly for its church, St Bartholomews, outside of which is the supposed grave of Little Nell, a fictional character in Charles Dickens book, The Old Curiosity Shop...

    , St. Bartholomew's choir stall No. 8 depicts a lily crucifix.
  • The Church of St John the Baptist, Wellington
    Church of St John the Baptist, Wellington
    The Church of St John the Baptist in Wellington, Somerset, England dates from the 15th century and has been designated as a Grade I listed building.A church on the site was previously known as St. Mary the Virgin.The tower was built around 1510....

     includes a Lily crucifix in the carving of the centre mullion
    Mullion
    A mullion is a vertical structural element which divides adjacent window units. The primary purpose of the mullion is as a structural support to an arch or lintel above the window opening. Its secondary purpose may be as a rigid support to the glazing of the window...

     of the east window of the Lady chapel.

Peacock


Ancient people believed that the flesh of a peafowl did not decay after death, and it so became a symbol of immortality. This symbolism was adopted by early Christianity, and thus many early Christian paintings and mosaics show the peacock. The peacock is still used in the Easter season especially in the east.

Symbols of Christian Churches



Sacraments


Some of the oldest symbols in the Christian church are the sacraments, the number of which vary between denominations. Always included are Eucharist
Eucharist
The Eucharist , also called Holy Communion, the Sacrament of the Altar, the Blessed Sacrament, the Lord's Supper, and other names, is a Christian sacrament or ordinance...

 and baptism
Baptism
In Christianity, baptism is for the majority the rite of admission , almost invariably with the use of water, into the Christian Church generally and also membership of a particular church tradition...

. The others which may or may not be included are ordination
Ordination
In general religious use, ordination is the process by which individuals are consecrated, that is, set apart as clergy to perform various religious rites and ceremonies. The process and ceremonies of ordination itself varies by religion and denomination. One who is in preparation for, or who is...

, unction
Anointing of the Sick
Anointing of the Sick, known also by other names, is distinguished from other forms of religious anointing or "unction" in that it is intended, as its name indicates, for the benefit of a sick person...

, confirmation, penance
Penance
Penance is repentance of sins as well as the proper name of the Roman Catholic, Orthodox Christian, and Anglican Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation/Confession. It also plays a part in non-sacramental confession among Lutherans and other Protestants...

 and marriage
Christian views of marriage
Christian views on marriage typically regard it as instituted and ordained by God for the lifelong relationship between one man as husband and one woman as wife, and is to be "held in honour among all...."...

. They are together commonly described as an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace or, as in the Roman Catholic system, "outward signs and media of grace." At the very least, the rite is seen as a symbol of the spiritual change or event that takes place. In the Eucharist, the bread and wine are, at the least, symbolic of the broken body and shed blood of Jesus
Jesus
Jesus of Nazareth , commonly referred to as Jesus Christ or simply as Jesus or Christ, is the central figure of Christianity...

, and in Roman Catholicism, become the actual Body of Christ
Body of Christ
In Christian theology, the term Body of Christ has two separate connotations: it may refer to Jesus's statement about the Eucharist at the Last Supper that "This is my body" in , or the explicit usage of the term by the Apostle Paul in to refer to the Christian Church.Although in general usage the...

 and Blood of Christ
Blood of Christ
The Blood of Christ in Christian theology refers to the physical blood actually shed by Jesus Christ on the Cross, and the salvation which Christianity teaches was accomplished thereby; and the sacramental blood present in the Eucharist, which is considered by Catholic, Orthodox, Anglican, and...

 through Transubstantiation
Transubstantiation
In Roman Catholic theology, transubstantiation means the change, in the Eucharist, of the substance of wheat bread and grape wine into the substance of the Body and Blood, respectively, of Jesus, while all that is accessible to the senses remains as before.The Eastern Orthodox...

, which in turn represent salvation
Salvation
Within religion salvation is the phenomenon of being saved from the undesirable condition of bondage or suffering experienced by the psyche or soul that has arisen as a result of unskillful or immoral actions generically referred to as sins. Salvation may also be called "deliverance" or...

 brought to the recipient by the death of Jesus. The rite of baptism is, at the least, symbolic of the cleansing of the sinner by God, and, especially where baptism is by immersion, of the spiritual death and resurrection of the baptized person. Opinion differs as to the symbolic nature of the sacraments, with some Protestant denominations considering them entirely symbolic, and Roman Catholics, Orthodox, some Anglicans, and some Lutherans believing that the outward rites truly do, by the power of God, act as media of grace.

Icons


The tomb paintings of the early Christians led to the development of icon
Icon
An icon is a religious work of art, most commonly a painting, from Eastern Christianity and in certain Eastern Catholic churches...

s. An icon is an image, picture, or representation; it is likeness that has symbolic meaning for an object by signifying or representing it, or by analogy, as in semiotics
Semiotics
Semiotics, also called semiotic studies or semiology, is the study of signs and sign processes , indication, designation, likeness, analogy, metaphor, symbolism, signification, and communication...

. The use of icons, however, was never without opposition. It was recorded that, "there is no century between the fourth and the eighth in which there is not some evidence of opposition to images even within the Church. Nonetheless, popular favor for icons guaranteed their continued existence, while no systematic apologia for or against icons, or doctrinal authorization or condemnation of icons yet existed.
Though significant in the history of religious doctrine, the Byzantine controversy over images is not seen as of primary importance in Byzantine history. "Few historians still hold it to have been the greatest issue of the period..."

The Iconoclastic Period began when images were banned by Emperor Leo III the Isaurian
Leo III the Isaurian
Leo III the Isaurian or the Syrian , was Byzantine emperor from 717 until his death in 741...

 sometime between 726 and 730. Under his son Constantine V
Constantine V
Constantine V was Byzantine emperor from 741 to 775; ); .-Early life:...

, a council forbidding image veneration was held at Hieria near Constantinople in 754. Image veneration was later reinstated by the Empress Regent Irene
Irene (empress)
Irene Sarantapechaina , known as Irene of Athens or Irene the Athenian was a Byzantine empress regnant from 797 to 802, having previously been empress consort from 775 to 780, and empress dowager and regent from 780 to 797. It is often claimed she called herself "basileus" , 'emperor'...

, under whom another council was held reversing the decisions of the previous iconoclast council and taking its title as Seventh Ecumenical Council. The council anathemized all who hold to iconoclasm, i.e. those who held that veneration of images constitutes idolatry. Then the ban was enforced again by Leo V
Leo V the Armenian
Leo V the Armenian was emperor of the Byzantine Empire from 813 to 820. A senior general, he forced his predecessor, Michael I Rangabe, to abdicate and assumed the throne. He ended the decade-long war with the Bulgars, and initiated the second period of Byzantine Iconoclasm...

 in 815. And finally icon veneration was decisively restored by Empress Regent Theodora
Theodora (9th century)
Theodora was a Byzantine Empress as the spouse of the Byzantine emperor Theophilos, and regent of her son, Michael III, from Theophilos' death in 842 to 855...

.

Today icons are used particularly among Eastern Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox
Oriental Orthodoxy
Oriental Orthodoxy is the faith of those Eastern Christian Churches that recognize only three ecumenical councils — the First Council of Nicaea, the First Council of Constantinople and the First Council of Ephesus. They rejected the dogmatic definitions of the Council of Chalcedon...

, Coptic
Coptic Christianity
The Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria is the official name for the largest Christian church in Egypt and the Middle East. The Church belongs to the Oriental Orthodox family of churches, which has been a distinct church body since the Council of Chalcedon in AD 451, when it took a different...

 and Eastern Catholic Churches.

Examples of other symbols


  • Alpha and omega
    Alpha and Omega
    The term Alpha and Omega comes from the phrase "I am the alpha and the omega" , an appellation of Jesus in the Book of Revelation ....

  • Anchor
    Anchor
    An anchor is a device, normally made of metal, that is used to connect a vessel to the bed of a body of water to prevent the vessel from drifting due to wind or current. The word derives from Latin ancora, which itself comes from the Greek ἄγκυρα .Anchors can either be temporary or permanent...

  • Apple
    Apple
    The apple is the pomaceous fruit of the apple tree, species Malus domestica in the rose family . It is one of the most widely cultivated tree fruits, and the most widely known of the many members of genus Malus that are used by humans. Apple grow on small, deciduous trees that blossom in the spring...

  • Bestiaries
    Bestiary
    A bestiary, or Bestiarum vocabulum is a compendium of beasts. Bestiaries were made popular in the Middle Ages in illustrated volumes that described various animals, birds and even rocks. The natural history and illustration of each beast was usually accompanied by a moral lesson...

  • Borromean rings
    Borromean rings
    In mathematics, the Borromean rings consist of three topological circles which are linked and form a Brunnian link, i.e., removing any ring results in two unlinked rings.- Mathematical properties :...

  • Burning Bush
  • Candle
    Candle
    A candle is a solid block or cylinder of wax with an embedded wick, which is lit to provide light, and sometimes heat.Today, most candles are made from paraffin. Candles can also be made from beeswax, soy, other plant waxes, and tallow...

    s
  • Christian flag
    Christian Flag
    The Christian Flag is a flag designed in the early 20th century to represent all of Christianity and Christendom, and has been most popular among Christian churches in North America, Africa and Latin America. The flag has a white field, with a red Latin cross inside a blue canton. The shade of red...

  • Chi Rho
    Chi Rho
    The Chi Rho is one of the earliest forms of christogram, and is used by Christians. It is formed by superimposing the first two letters chi and rho of the Greek word "ΧΡΙΣΤΟΣ" =Christ in such a way to produce the monogram ☧...

     and Labarum
    Labarum
    The labarum was a vexillum that displayed the "Chi-Rho" symbol ☧, formed from the first two Greek letters of the word "Christ" — Chi and Rho . It was used by the Roman emperor Constantine I...

  • Cross and Crown
    Cross and Crown
    The Cross and Crown is a traditional Christian symbol , appearing in many churches , that has also been used in heraldry...

  • IHS (monogram)
    Christogram
    A Christogram is a monogram or combination of letters that forms an abbreviation for the name of Jesus Christ, traditionally used as a Christian symbol. Different types of Christograms are associated with the various traditions of Christianity, e.g...

  • Flaming sword
  • Ichthys
    Ichthys
    Ichthys, from Koine Greek: , is the Greek word for "fish"....

  • INRI
  • Lamb
    Lamb of God
    The title Lamb of God appears in the Gospel of John, with the exclamation of John the Baptist: "Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world" in John 1:29 when he sees Jesus....

  • Mitre
    Mitre
    The mitre , also spelled miter, is a type of headwear now known as the traditional, ceremonial head-dress of bishops and certain abbots in the Roman Catholic Church, as well as in the Anglican Communion, some Lutheran churches, and also bishops and certain other clergy in the Eastern Orthodox...

  • Pentagram
    Pentagram
    A pentagram is the shape of a five-pointed star drawn with five straight strokes...

  • Pelican
    Pelican
    A pelican, derived from the Greek word πελεκυς pelekys is a large water bird with a large throat pouch, belonging to the bird family Pelecanidae....

  • Rose Cross
  • Shield of the Trinity
    Shield of the Trinity
    The Shield of the Trinity or Scutum Fidei is a traditional Christian visual symbol which expresses many aspects of the doctrine of the Trinity, summarizing the first part of the Athanasian Creed in a compact diagram...

     (or Scutum Fidei)
  • Star of David
    Star of David
    The Star of David, known in Hebrew as the Shield of David or Magen David is a generally recognized symbol of Jewish identity and Judaism.Its shape is that of a hexagram, the compound of two equilateral triangles...

  • Trefoil
    Trefoil
    Trefoil is a graphic form composed of the outline of three overlapping rings used in architecture and Christian symbolism...

  • Triquetra
    Triquetra
    Triquetra originally meant "triangle" and was used to refer to various three-cornered shapes. Nowadays, it has come to refer exclusively to a particular more complicated shape formed of three vesicae piscis, sometimes with an added circle in or around it...

  • Vesica Piscis
    Vesica piscis
    The vesica piscis is a shape that is the intersection of two circles with the same radius, intersecting in such a way that the center of each circle lies on the circumference of the other. The name literally means the "bladder of a fish" in Latin...


See also

  • Christian art
    Christian art
    Christian art is sacred art produced in an attempt to illustrate, supplement and portray in tangible form the principles of Christianity, though other definitions are possible. Most Christian groups use or have used art to some extent, although some have had strong objections to some forms of...

  • Christian cross
    Christian cross
    The Christian cross, seen as a representation of the instrument of the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, is the best-known religious symbol of Christianity...

  • Holy Spirit in Christian art
    Holy Spirit in Christian art
    The Holy Spirit has been represented in Christian art both in the Eastern and Western Churches using a variety of depictions.The depictions have ranged from nearly identical figures that represent the three persons of the Holy Trinity to a dove to a flame.The Holy Spirit is often depicted as a...

  • Peace symbols
  • Saint symbology
    Saint symbology
    Christianity has used symbolism from its very beginnings. Each saint has a story and a reason why he or she led an exemplary life. Symbols have been used to tell these stories throughout the history of the Church. A number of Christian saints are traditionally represented by a symbol or iconic...

  • Symbols and symbolism in Christian demonology
  • The Wordless Book

External links