Externals of the Catholic Church – Christian Symbols

When we enter a Catholic church and examine its architecture, we find that in many parts of it there are ornamental details of various kinds – representations of animals and plants, crosses, monograms, and many other things. All of these have a most instructive symbolism and an interesting history. They are emblematic of the great truths of Christianity, of our Saviour, of His Blessed Mother and the Saints, of our holy Church, and of the virtues which that Church teaches us.

The use of symbols in Christian art and architecture goes back to the very infancy of the Church. In the chapels of the Roman catacombs and in the subterranean churches of Saint Clement, Saint Praxedes, and other temples of early Christianity, crude mural paintings are still to be seen, containing ornaments and emblems typifying the faith of those who worshipped there. And in later centuries, when great cathedrals raised their domes and spires to heaven in every country of Europe, these mighty temples were enriched with a wealth of symbolic ornaments in sculpture, carving and painting. At the present day, in our own churches, many of these are still used in the details of architecture, in windows and interior decoration.

When you visit your own parish church, spare a few minutes from your prayer-book to look around at the symbolic ornaments which you will find there. This will not be a distraction; on the contrary, it will be a help to greater devotion.

They Teach Religion

This chapter will explain the meaning of some of these symbols, which Saint Augustine has well called “libri idiotarum” – “the books of the unlearned,” because they are admirably adapted to present the truths of religion to the faithful, many of whom in past centuries were unable to read a printed page.

First among them there is the most important of all Christian symbols – the Cross, the sign of salvation, the sacred emblem of our redemption; but this is treated at considerable length elsewhere in this book. We shall treat briefly of the others that are most common in our churches.

Animals as Symbols

The Lamb has been an emblem of our Saviour from the earliest period of Christian art. In the Jewish sacrifices it prefigured the coming Messias, and when Saint John the Baptist pointed Him out to the multitude he cried out: “Behold the Lamb of God.” The Lamb is sometimes represented standing, bearing a cross or banner inscribed with these words; or lying, as if slain, on a book closed with seven seals, as described in the Apocalypse. It is also a general symbol of modesty and innocence, and it is therefore used as an emblem of the martyr-virgin Saint Agnes, whose name signifies a lamb.

The Dove is the special symbol of the Holy Ghost. “And lo! the Holy Spirit descended from heaven upon Him in the form of a Dove,” at the baptism of Christ; and we see it also in pictures of the Annunciation, to signify the Incarnation of our Blessed Saviour by the power of the Holy Ghost.

The Pelican, which, according to legend, feeds its young with its own blood, is an emblem of our redemption through the sufferings of our Lord, and particularly of the Blessed Eucharist, in which He nourishes our souls with His Body and Blood.

The Lion typifies our Saviour, the “Lion of the fold of Judah.” As will be told further on, it is also a symbol of the Evangelist Saint Mark. It is emblematic of solitude, and is therefore sometimes shown in pictures of hermit-saints.

The Dragon always represents Satan and sin. It is shown as being conquered by the powers of good, as in the Scriptural account of Saint Michael the Archangel and in the medieval legend of Saint George. The Serpent, another emblem of sin, is sometimes placed beneath the feet of the Blessed Virgin, to symbolize that “the seed of the woman shall crush his head.” The Serpent, however, when twined around a cross, is emblematic of the brazen serpent raised up by Moses in the desert – a prophetic figure of our crucified Saviour.

Symbolic Plants

There are various plants and flowers that have a symbolic meaning. The Olive Branch is an emblem of peace, and is often shown in the hand of the Archangel Gabriel. The Palm is the special badge of martyrs. “I saw a great multitude which no man could number, of all nations and tribes and tongues, clothed with white robes, and palms in their hands.” Thus said Saint John describe the vast army of martyrs before the throne of God.

The Lily, wherever seen, has but one meaning – chastity. We find it in pictures of the Annunciation, of Saint Joseph (whose staff, according to an ancient legend, bloomed into lilies), and sometimes in representations of saints notable for their purity – for example, Saint Anthony of Padua and Saint Aloysius.

The Rose is an emblem of love and beauty, and is symbolical of the Blessed Virgin under her title of “Mystical Rose”; it is also used in pictures of Saint Elizabeth of Hungary (because of the well-known legend), and of other saints.

Other Emblems

A Crown, of course, denotes kingly power. We see it in pictures of Mary as Queen of Heaven, of our Blessed Lord when His kingship is to be emphasized, and of saints of royal blood. The crown of the Blessed Virgin is often shown with twelve stars, after the description in the Apocalypse; and from the same vision of Saint John we get the crescent moon shown beneath the feet of Mary: “A woman clothed with the sun, having the moon beneath her feet, and upon her head a crown of twelve stars.”

A Ship symbolizes the Church, the bark of Faith, Hope, Chanty Peter, buffeted by tempests but guided by God Himself. The Anchor was an emblem of hope long before the beginning of Christianity, because it is the chief reliance of mariners in time of danger. Hence it has been adopted by the Church as a symbol, and is often combined with two others to denote the three great theological virtues – the Cross for faith, the Anchor for hope, the Heart for charity.

Ears of wheat and bunches of grapes are often used as ornaments around the altar and on the sacred vestments. These are symbols of the Holy Eucharist, the true Body and Grapes and Wheat Blood of our Lord under the appearance of the bread which is made from wheat and the wine which we obtain from grapes. The Chalice, often surmounted by a Host, has the same signification.

A Banner is an emblem of victory. It belongs to the military saints, and is also borne by our Lord in pictures of His Resurrection. A Candlestick typifies Christ and His Church, the “light of the world.” It is sometimes represented with seven branches, symbolic of the seven gifts of the Holy Ghost or of the Sacraments. A Skull or a Scourge is emblematic of penance, and a Scallop-Shell, of pilgrimage.

The Sign of the Fish

A favorite emblem of early Christian times was a fish, generally resembling a dolphin. The Greek n word for fish is Ichthus, spelt in Greek with five letters only: I-ch-th-u-s. These form what is called an acrostic, being the initial letters of the words: “Iesous Christos, Theou Uios, Soter” – or, in English, “Jesus Christ, Son of God, Saviour”; and thus the fish was taken as a symbol of our Blessed Lord, and is so found in many ancient inscriptions m the catacombs and elsewhere. The fish, because it lives in water, is also an emblem of the Sacrament of Baptism; of the vocation of the Apostles, the “fishers of men”; and of Christians in general, typified by the miraculous draught of fishes mentioned in the Gospel of Saint John.

The sign of the crossed keys, with or without the papal tiara, is symbolic of the power of the Pope “to bind and to loose.” “I will give to thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven.”

Emblematic Monograms

Various letters and monograms, or intertwined characters, are virgin Mary also used as symbols and ornaments in the decoration of our churches – such as A. M., signifying Ave Maria (Hail, Mary); A. M. D. G. – Ad Majorem Dei Gloriam (to God’s greater glory – a favorite maxim of the Jesuit Order ); and I. H. S., which is generally taken to be the initial letters of “Iesus Hominum Salvator” (Jesus, Saviour of men), but which is more probably an abbreviation of the Greek form of the name of our Redeemer – Iesous – the capital long E in Greek being shaped like our letter H.

We also see frequently the letters Alpha and Omega, the first and last of the Greek alphabet, signifying God, the Beginning and End of all things; and also the “chrisma,” or monogram of the Greek letters Chi and Rho, shaped like our X and P, but equivalent to CH and R in Latin or English.

Symbols of the Saints

The pictures and Alpha and Omega images of saints in our churches are often ornamented with emblems illustrative of some virtue of the saint or some event in his career. Generally they are crowned with a halo or nimbus, symbolizing the light of grace and sanctity. In many representations of martyr-saints the instrument of their martyrdom is shown. Thus we have the sword or axe for many saints, the arrows of Saint Sebastian, the gridiron of Saint Lawrence, and the toothed wheel of Saint Catherine.

For saints who were not martyrs, emblems are used which typify the virtues which they practised, the wort which they did, or the rank which they held – a banner and cross for missionaries, a mitre and pastoral staff for bishops, a crucifix for preachers, a crown of thorns for those whose lives were full of mortification.

Symbols of the Evangelists

In some ecclesiastical decorations we may find four emblems, generally winged – the head of a man, a lion, an ox and an eagle. This is symbolism of a very ancient date, having its origin in Saint John’s Apocalypse. It represents the four writers of the holy Gospels. The human head indicates Saint Matthew – for he begins his Gospel with the human ancestry of our Blessed Lord. The lion, the dweller in the desert, is emblematic of Saint Mark, who opens his narrative with the mission of Saint John the Baptist, “the voice of one crying in the wilderness.” The sacrificial ox is the symbol of Saint Luke – for his Gospel begins with the account of the priest Zachary. And the eagle, soaring far into the heavens, is the emblem of the inspiration of Saint John, who carries us, in the opening words of his Gospel, to Heaven itself: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”