|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:
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
||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
||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,
|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
|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. 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
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
|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
|"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
|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
|"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
- 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
- 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
|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
|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
|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,
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
|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
|the Undivided Oneness of God
|the two natures of Christ; both the Divine and the material
|the Three Persons of the Most Holy Trinity, the three Magi
and their gifts
|the Evangelists and their Gospels; the elements, humors and
material world; North, South, East, and West; the four seasons
|the Five Wounds; the senses
|the days of creation; creation fallen; imperfection
|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
|the visible world, made in seven days, with the invisible
kingdom of grace following; regeneration
|man's imperfection; the choirs of Angels
|the Commandments; the Plagues of Egypt
|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)
|the number of years of Jesus's human life
|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
|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."
|the number of the Beast. (Also 616 in some later manuscripts,
a number rejected by St. Irenaeas as a scribal error).
|the milennium -- the Church Age
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