ancient christian symbols

W. P. Bennett

The 7 Most Beautiful Ancient Christian Symbols and Their Meanings

From animals that were used to represent key doctrines to Greek letters, Christian symbols have been around since the beginning of Christianity.  The reasons for these acient Christian symbols are varied—sometimes symbols were used to secretly communicate because of Christian persecution, sometimes they were used simply to convey something in shorthand, and other times the religious symbol was an easier way to understand the doctrine itself.  But regardless of the reasons for the symbols, it can always help our faith to know what these ancient Christian designs mean; and once we know the symbols it is amazing how often we will see them show up in art, Christian buildings, and even in the liturgy.  Here are 7 symbols of Christianity that you may or may not know about, but which can still be seen today if you are looking for them.

Let’s begin with the symbols that are animal-based.  The following three symbols are very likely to be found in art and Christian sculptures, including altars. 

The Peacock

We all know the peacock, but many of us don’t know that it is a Christian symbol.  It was used as such because of ancient knowledge that we now know is incorrect.  Though the ancient Greeks were quite advanced in their study of science and discovered many truths, they were mistaken about the peacock.  They believed that peacocks did not decompose after death.  They believed the flesh of the dead peacock did not suffer the effects of death. That death is not the end is central to the Christian belief in the heaven and the resurrection of the body.  For this reason, the peacock became common in Christian artwork as a symbol of Christ and the Resurrection.

The Pelican

This symbol can often be found in altars around the world and even in some chalices.  The reason for this is the pelican was seen as a Eucharistic symbol, but again because of a mistake about the pelican itself.  Although now we know that pelicans do not do this, it used to be believed that if the mother pelican did not have enough food for her chicks she would pierce the side of her body with her own beak and feed her chicks with her own blood.  We now know that the pelican will regurgitate food for her chicks and this often has a red color, but the symbolism of the belief about the pelican is quite obvious.  The pierced side with life-giving blood flowing from it as nourishment is a powerful symbol for the salvation in Christ's Passion and Death. 

The Fish

This symbol, although an animal, is different from the other two animal symbols and comes from how the word fish is spelled in Greek.  The Greek word for fish is Ichthys.  Using the Greek alphabet to spell the word the letters are also the initials of each word for the Greek phrase “Iesous Christos Theou Huios Soter” which means “Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior”.  This central tenet of Christian belief about Jesus Christ was often used as a code in the form of the symbol of the fish, or even the word fish, for Christians to let each other know that they were fellow believers in times of persecution.  It also strenghtens the symbol that many of Jesus’ first followers were fishermen and that Jesus said that Peter would become a “Fisher of Men.”

There were also other symbols based in Greek and Roman letters in early Christian times.

The Alpha and Omega

This symbol doesn’t take much thinking about.  The first and last letters of the Greek alphabet come directly from the Book of Revelation in which Jesus Christ says of himself, “I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end.”  We often see these two Greek letters put together to symbolize the eternity of Jesus Christ and the symbol can be found on altars, priestly vestments, and particularly on the Pashcal Candle lit before the Easter vigil Mass.

The Chi-Rho

This symbol takes the first two letters of the Greek spelling of "Christ" (Χ and p) and puts them together.  This symbol can be found, again, in artwork from altars to priestly vestments.  The history of this symbol is a bit more interesting however.  When the future Roman emperor Constantine was marching with his army towards Rome in his attempt to conquer the empire he saw a vision in which he was told “Under this sign you will conquer”.  The symbol he saw was the Chi-Rho.  He then proceeded to have his soldiers paint this symbol on their shields and adopt the symbol as the symbol of their army.  Constantine and his army won a surprise decisive victory at the Battle of Milvian Bridge and Constantine became emperor.  He stopped the persecutions of Christians in the empire and was even baptized on his death bed.  This symbol of the Chi-Rho became a symbol of Christianity from this point forward.

IHS

These three letters are often used on altars and on priestly vestments and especially by members of the Jesuit order.  IHS is a Christogram, like the Chi-Rho, in other words, a way to represent Christ with letters.  The first three letters of Jesus in Greek written with Latin letters is IHS and thus the letters have come to mean the Holy Name of Jesus.  However, there has been added symbolism to these letters as others have come up with phrases that also begin with IHS.  Some of these include “In hoc signo” which is Latin for “In this sign” again referring to the story of Constantine from above.  In English it has also gained the meaning of “I Have Suffered” as a message from Jesus Christ to us.

The final symbol is so common to us, in every Church, that we often forget it even is a symbol. 

The Cross

We see the cross everywhere, from art to churches, from jewelry to car decals, and we forget that originally the cross was a symbol of brutal death.  Dying on the cross was the most humiliating way for the Romans to execute people and was used as a warning to others by its very brutality.  But that is the great mystery of Christianity—what the world would see as the final humiliation and final loss of Jesus Christ, his execution in a brutal public way—becomes his greatest victory.  It becomes the means by which he defeats death.  So, whenever we see this symbol we recall the victory over death won for us by Christ. 

 

What other Christian symbols do you know? Leave a comment!