Christian Symbols

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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 surrounding 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) and of the Church. It is, then, a general symbol for Hope. Given its place in the story of St. Peter’s betrayal of Christ, the cock is also a symbol for both betrayal and vigilance. Pope St. Gregory the Great urged the use of the cock as a symbol for Christianity itself, and Pope St. Nicholas I decreed that the rooster should appear on church domes or steeples (which is what led to roosters appearing on weathervanes). 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.